FAQ - Pastel painting and artistic creation
What makes a painting balanced or "harmonious"?

A painting might be said to be "harmonious" when all of its various elements are pleasing to our sensibilities; and this is usually achieved by a certain order and equilibrium being manifested and recognized as pleasing to the eye. It is as if all the elements of the work -the colors, the forms, the lines- all come together to create a single, unified whole.

Achieving this effect can be better achieved if one doesn't bother with superfluous details. This is because superfluous details can distract attention from the essential elements of a painting and thus disturb that element of equilibrium which is so pleasing to the eyes.

However, the Quest for Harmony shouldn't necessarily totally dominate one's work. After all, the world itself is not entirely harmonious!

One should not be overly concerned with intellectual questions, when painting. Rather, one should try to access one's subconscious, spontaneous nature, and avoid rational judgments. One can never go wrong following one's intuition.

After all, the ultimate goal of painting is not to be subservient to exterior rules, but to get in touch with one's own inner self, to paint according to one's own inner voice, not by the application of theories.

Is an Off-Center and Asymmetrical composition better than one which is Centered and Symmetrical?

While centered compositions sometimes appear awkward in photographs, more freedom is possible in paintings.

For instance, a very centered composition might, by its symmetry, convey a sense of power, or hieratic quality, or naivety. In a sense, a very centered composition is posing questions.

Moreover, in a painting, other elements may be added to that of the composition in order to enhance the impact of the work, such as the nature or the texture of the medium, the "touch", the "magnetic" quality of the colors, the very presence of the sensibility of the artist.

Can we succeed in successfully painting with pastels even if we have never been to art school or perfected drawing techniques?

Yes, even beginners can express themselves using pastels.

Pastels get straight to the very essence as it is a direct and spontaneous medium. There is no foreign or intermediary element to come between the artist's hand, firmly at one with the pastel stick, and the support. Not like a brush, a palette or other form of medium for example, which might act as a kind of distraction or burden the creative mind.

It's more like modelling clay, where the artist almost breathes life into the clay itself through the tension created with every move of his fingers.

We can use pastels even if we haven't perfectly mastered drawing techniques. Pastels are beneficial for both graphic artists and colourists.

More generally speaking, we don't have any specific techniques before we start to paint; we paint and we succeed in mastering a technique, in the same way that a blacksmith becomes a blacksmith by forging!

Having gained certain artistic techniques is not always necessary for expressing emotion, over and above the fact that if we already have something, we no longer keep looking for it; but art is a permanent quest, an adventure into the unknown, and the mistakes we make along the way are exactly the things that allow us to reveal who we really are.

Keep rediscovering ourselves until we become a mature artist, who in order to express himself, forces himself to go beyond just technique which is not an end in itself, as his art, if reduced to virtuosity, would lose all its meaning. "I was less audacious, I wanted to show that I knew how to paint" regrets the abstract painter Olivier Debré when speaking about his early career.

"To know how to draw is not to draw well" Gauguin used to say. Indeed, drawing according to certain academic techniques is very restrictive. You should try and draw honestly, in your own way, sincerely.

Pastel pigment laid onto a medium is always charged with intimate resonances of sensitivity, regardless of the form given, drawn with lines or using flat areas of colour, or moreover both at the same time.

Below are 2 examples of some artistic approaches:

  • Chagall, whose "deficiencies" in drawing were an advantage. His drawings can be seen as fragile icons, tenderly naive, lost in the luxuriousness of precious colours. Take a look at his pastel work
  • Degas, who wanted us to remember him for "his love of drawing", created towards the end of his life the most sumptuous pastels, their scholarly lines deconstructed in favour of the clustering and interlacing of bright colours. See his nudes, and in particular those from the period 1890-1910

Art history abounds with examples of artists who knew how to find their own way of transcribing "the imaginary contours of invisible objects" (Roger de Piles):

  • Van Gogh: lines drawn in thick dashes
  • Gauguin: simplified and powerful lines
  • Seurat: elusive lines under a scattering of dots
  • Matisse: lines reduced down to the essence of the arabesque
  • Picasso: sharp dominating lines
  • Alechinsky: sinuous trembling lines, etc.

I believe that artistic expression is a constant battle against oneself. We fight because we either know too much or too little! But we continue to fight and it is the energy resulting from this perpetual questioning that we must cultivate in order to move forward.

As a self-taught artist, what is the best way to develop my Craft ?

Everything is founded on observation.

And, as far as observation is concerned, everything is potentially "grist for your mill" and can be used to your advantage.

For instance:

  1. "Go beyond" yourself as much as you can: take in exhibitions, visit museums, read art journals, meet artists, if at all possible in their own studios. Don't limit yourself to a specific medium, but try to take in all kinds of workshops or shows. All artistic media are interesting in that they all stimulate our artistic view: sculpture, engraving, mosaic, painting, metal casting, etc.
  2. Carry a sketchbook with you when you travel or walk about, so that you can record in it whatever you see, as if it were a kind of visual diary. Try to observe and record everything around you as much as you can, and do it actively whenever possible: for example, if your walk through the countryside, draw the trees you see, or whatever.

It is very good to start from a model, regardless of whether it is a reproduction or a live one. This works like a support that helps a tree grow.

Combining the use of both a reproduction and a live model can only be advantageous, given the multiplicity of the points of view provided. Everything is potentially useful when "collecting nectar" to make your honey!

Is it possible to create a work of art with just pastel crayons?

You can make a work of art with any medium! It's the way in which the artist communicates with the medium, like a writer with words, that actually creates the work!

The simpler the medium is or appears inappropriate or contraindicated, the greater the potential for creating an inventive work faced with such a challenge! An over-refined medium might, in the worst case scenario, inhibit the artist, for example an excellent quality oil paint.

The technical limits of using pastel crayons are: flat texture, weak contrasts and dull colours. And so in this respect, these crayons evoke a rather muted discourse, calm, discretion and enough to create a whole world and more!

Just like any other pencil, pastel crayons are more efficient for graphics and drawing lines rather than flat areas of colour. Superimposing flat areas of colour quickly creates a cloudy effect as the opacity of the medium and its immiscible colours, reduce the tonalities.

On the other hand, two light superimpositions harmonise perfectly with soft and warm tonalities. Pinks and greys subtly superimposed one over the other, for example, can result in a grainy tweed-like effect due to the porous nature of the pastel crayon which brings out the brightness of the support through the layers of colour.

When working in monochrome or duotone, pastel crayons reveal the extent of their versatility; lines, superimposition of lines or areas of flat colour or shading, resulting in a soft and fleecy texture.

When working with large formats, pastel crayon requires a meticulous hand to cover the surface in little dots, so to speak! A task that may reveal the determination of the artist and make them realise the full potential of their temperament, perhaps more thoughtful than spontaneous, more interested in drawing than painting, colour or tonal values.

Works done in pastel crayon also benefit from being mixed with other media.

Using mixed techniques enriches pastel crayon in terms of contrasts. Conté charcoal, sepia and sanguine crayons produce warm resonances, Conté "pierre noire" crayons (made from schist and carbon) vary and deepen the shades.

Don't forget either, the "carrés Conté" range of square-shaped sticks whose colours are more intense and have a thicker texture than the crayons. They allow greater precision and the flat edges can be used, as the sticks are not sheathed in paper.

Don't forget just how much a graphite pencil can contribute to a work. Laid over pastel crayon, it structures, with a silvery stroke going from light grey to very dark grey, the sometimes dull aspect of pastel crayon whilst at the same time adhering well to its surface. Graphite is a very stable medium due to its somewhat waxy texture.

Should you start a pastel with the background and if so should you fix it, or start with the foreground?

The tradition in most painting techniques, including pastel, recommends beginning with the background. It's just like life, what already exists induces and reinforces what comes after; the foundations support the house!

Work on the background first - don't fix it - this process brings substance which will improve the definition of the subject or the foreground. This method is a thought process that allows the subject to come into being in an accompanied way, rather like a birth. It's an exploration into the reflective mirror of pastel pigments.

If you start by painting the "foreground" (or the subject) and then work "around the background", this is more an act of juxtaposition and colouring than pictorial immersion. But why should we exclude this form of spontaneous expression? Aren't works made by children some of the most touching?

We could equally concentrate just on the subject or on the contrary, just on the background; Clearly, we can imagine doing anything we want!

Anything is possible with painting, and there are as many forms of expression as there are artists. Art is a world of imagination and thus of complete freedom. There aren't any architectural rules for building a castle in the sky. (G.K. Chesterton)

Below, a few examples of work in pastel:

  • Degas fixed successive layers of pastels one on top of the other, sometimes numerous layers! Once fixed, pastel can lose its tonal values, can take on a translucent appearance like parchment paper, and its surface become slightly rough.

    Treated in this way, the superimpositions resonate with the matter accumulated from the previous layers, making the work shimmer and giving it depth. The last layer of pastel is not fixed in order to keep its "powdery aspect".

  • Blend in, with the lightest of touches, the powdered pastel on a paper support which hasn't been worked yet, in a fine layer and in a way in which the pastel deposited from above can stick onto the paper without slipping! The fleeting luminosity thus obtained will diffuse onto the subject. For example a mountain drawn on an ethereal sky will appear to float on the horizon.
  • Leave some areas on coloured or white paper, blank and without pastel. At the end of the working process, if these untreated gaps have been covered with pastels they will appear in the form of pure light and become effortlessly essential to the foreground.
  • Any work on paper which proves unsatisfactory, drawing, pastel, watercolour ... is a background which can incite the creation of a new work. These surfaces really stimulate the imagination because we are not afraid of messing them up, thus liberating our gestures. Degas created coloured pastels streaming with light from black and white monotypes.

The second we begin to paint is often the crucial moment when, charged with the immanence of something powerful in the creating, we are overtaken by intuition, and we forget all knowledge; it then is less a question of the work's composition itself than the orchestration of transcending oneself!

Whatever medium you use to create it, a work is above all an "in-depth" interrogation ... of the self!

I was told not to use a stump with pastels. What is your point of view on the subject?

To start with, it might be helpful to look at the history of the use of this technique in pastel over the centuries.

In the sixteenth century, the pastel sticks were mostly used to enhance drawings, in much the same way as pencils were. Leonardo de Vinci, for example, used this technique.
In the eighteenth century, pastel paintings competed with oil paintings in prestige and acceptance, and the stump-shading technique made it possible to meticulously reflect the refinement, the preciousness, the pageantry of the scenery and costumes, the delicate complexion of portraits, and the ephemeral aspect of this ephemeral century.

Pierre Chardin was an innovator and broke with the artificiality of much eighteenth century painting, creating form and relief simultaneously, using both parallel hatchings and pure colors. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, Jean-François Millet also used sharp hatchings and, by doing so, foreshadowed Edgar Degas.
In the late nineteenth century, the Symbolists especially valued and appreciated stumped drawings for the blurring of the forms and their "mysterious" effects.

Yes & no
Degas, in his earlier pastels, shaded off (or "stumped") the first layer of his pastels, so that it is not altered by the additions of pastel paste and of other colored strokes from the stick. Later, his technique evolved to a superposition of striations of hatchings with contrasting colors.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Impressionists drew the lighting effects directly with pastels.
In the twentieth century, pastel colors have been more fully exploited by abstract painters, in their preference to juxtapose bands of pure color.

Just to explain this curious term a bit, the word "stump" comes from the French "estompe", and a "stump" is a tool which looks rather like a crayon, but is made of rather coarse gray paper, tightly rolled in alternately diagonal patterns. This tool is used to "stump" the work, i.e., to "tease" its contours and shades and to blend together the various tones of the pastel on whatever medium is used. Personally, I never use a stump, but rather prefer to blend and/or blur the colors with my finger.

Since "stumping", either with the finger or with the stump itself (which is not recommended), entails a blending of the colors together in order to achieve attractive soft, vaporous or opaque effects, it can be an easy way to blend tonalities and get an attractive "artistic fuzziness".

As a result, the beginner sometimes feels the need to use it in order to hide imperfections.

However, I think that stumping destroys the radiance of the pastel pigment, which is one of its most desirable qualities. After all, the pastel stick is almost pure pigment -which is a rather rare thing in painting. In pastel, the "raw" pigment is laid down without artifice on the paper and works like an explosion of light.

Below are the advantages and disadvantages which I would associate with the use of the "stumping" technique:

Pastel with stump drawing
  • a waxy aspect and certain lifelessness
  • a fading of the colors
  • the texture is weak
  • moulds may appear on the medium in the long run
Pastel without stump drawing
  • the drawing breathes and has a lively quality
  • the colors retain their original luminous quality
  • the vigorous texture of the pastel is retained
  • preserves the integrity of the pigment

You can test these considerations by drawing two identical paintings, then stumping the one and not using this technique on the other. Then carefully note the differences between the two. You can also try both techniques within the same painting.

Remember that pastel painting offers a nearly infinite variety of textures: the individual strokes themselves can be thin or thick, straight, curved, sinuous, or short, long, zigzagged, striped, in dotted lines, or hatched ones, moistened, or stained, in flat tints, etc.. There is really no limit!

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