Pastel Still Life

Coffee pot and gourd

Coffee pot and gourd still life, pastel on paper, view from my easel, after two weeks

I just started taking a pastel class at the local art center. I have played with pastels on my own, but this is the first class I have taken devoted entirely to this medium. After an introduction to materials, we started with a still life. I have been using an ancient set of my mother’s Grumbacher pastels for years, but recently bought new pastels that are safer to use and of better quality. Here are some points I learned in the materials instruction to my class. It turns out that pastels can be rather toxic from the dust and/or from the actual pigments. The chrome yellow colors and cadmiums (heavy metals anyone?) in my old set should be avoided, if not thrown out. The dust created by the pastels should not be inhaled. Students tip the easel forward to catch the dust and carefully clean the easel with damp towels when finished. We have been instructed never to blow on the drawing to clear it. To do so creates a fuzzy mess and an easily inhaled cloud of pigment particles. We wear disposable gloves to avoid the mess to our hands although my fingernails get covered in color through the gloves by the end of each studio session despite this precaution. I’m not sure if wearing gloves is a safety measure or an aesthetic one or both. It’s like wearing gardening gloves though, the dirt seeps through and weeding (or drawing) is harder than using bare hands. How do health care workers stand wearing gloves all the time? Maybe I need to upgrade my disposable gloves?

The health and safety aspect towards all art materials has evolved over recent years, I knew that, but tended to ignore or not know the specifics. I am taking it more seriously now. The safety aspect is only one tricky thing about this medium, I am learning. The beauty of  pastels is the brilliant color of almost pure pigment when applied directly to paper. But the big problem is that the pigment just floats away on air so easily. It is not fixed in place like watercolors or oils or acrylics or other drawing media from pencils to pen and ink. If you use fixative to keep the pastels in place, the fixative darkens the beautiful colors and only works moderately well to make the pastels stay put on the paper. Our teacher says it’s okay to use workable fixative, which I have not yet tried, but final fixative is not recommended. If you do use fixative, take  it outside, wear a mask or have a good ventilation system. All this free-floating particle problem means that once a pastel painting is finished, what can you do with it? Take a picture and then store if very carefully with a sheet of glassine over it or pay a fortune to have it expertly framed with a thick mat to keep the painting away from the glass (not plexiglass because of static) and bumpers to keep the pastel away from the mat so that the pastels will shed down and not on the outer mat. In a former lifetime, it seems, I matted and framed at an art museum and never matted a pastel. But I do know that the extra steps involved would have driven me nuts. I probably will  just photograph my works and then store my pastel drawings out of reach somewhere. Back in that same former lifetime, I used to use brown grocery store bags, ironed flat, as pastel paper and I used hairspray as fixative. I’m not recommending that, but it did save money on art supplies. The sanded paper I use for the landscape I painted after this still life cost over ten dollars for ONE sheet of paper. Cost of art supplies is a whole other blog post though.

For more information on artists materials and safety, consult a reference book like ‘The Artist’s Handbook’ by Ray Smith or a reputable website. Princeton University has a nice website devoted to art material safety. Here is the link to the page about pastels. Be sure to note that if you blow your nose and it comes out in wild colors, you need to improve ventilation in  your studio – Painting and Drawing Safety Concerns 

Below you can see my first attempt at a still life in pastels. Next week, we move on to landscapes. I am using a Rembrandt starter set of pastels and Canson tinted pastel paper.

Still life first sketch

This is my still life after one 2 1/2 hour studio class. The basic drawing is done, values and colors established. Layers of pastel marks will eventually build up to the finished work