Dry Pastel

Answers by Ursula Reese, SCA — For more information contact Ursula @ ursula@societyofcanadianartists.com

Q. How safe is it to work with dry pastels?

A. All fine art media are made from pigment which contain some toxic substances. When pigment is ingested into the human body it could become a health problem. Keep pastels (and any other media) out of reach of children and don't let it come in contact with food.

Working with pastel can be quite safe, if the following precautions are observed:

  • Avoid inhaling pastel dust. When working indoors, turn on an electronic air purifier with ionizer. An ionizer produces negative ions which neutralize positive charged ions like pastel dust. As negatives the dust will fall down to the floor or is drawn into the air purifier.
  • Do not blow on your pastel painting. Loosely tap the painting at the back and let the dust fall down.
  • Do not smoke when working with pastel.
  • If you are extremely sensitive to dust (e.g. if you have asthma), wear a mask.
  • Work outdoors. Do corrections, i.e. removing pastel from the surface with a brush, outdoors.

Q. Should I wear gloves?

A. Wash your hands frequently, or cover your hands with a barrier cream or wear gloves. A word of caution about latex gloves. When hands are hot, the pores open and a protein from the latex gloves can enter and weaken the immune system.

Q. Do you recommend to use fixative?

A. No! Only if absolutely necessary, if you have overworked your surface. Never use fixative indoors. The effect of inhaling fixative can be very serious.

Fixative darkens all your colours, especially the light values.

Q. I am a beginner, what type of pastels should I buy?

A. There are many brands of dry pastels on the market, from extra hard to extra soft.

Hard pastels are usually shaped square and the softer brands are round. A good pastel is heavily pigmented and has very little filler. If a pastel stick weighs heavy in your hand, it is of good quality. If it is light, it is of inferior quality. Don't buy a box of pastels pre-selected by the manufacturer. They do not contain enough extra dark and extra light values. It is better to buy individual sticks of the colours you like. Buy one extra dark, one mid-tone and one extra light of the same colour. As a beginner, buy a brand which is neither too hard nor too soft.

Q. What kind of paper is best to work on?

A. Using paper will require using fixative. I recommend a sanded surface. It takes many layers of pastel. The pastel does not flake off and you do not need to use fixative.

Q. How do I frame a pastel painting?

A. Always frame a pastel under glass. The mat should be set back by a small spacer from the painted surface enabling little specks of dust to fall in between the painting and the mat.

Q. Some exhibitions classify pastels as drawings?

A. Both exist. Pastel drawings are drawn on paper, usually tinted, and a large percentage of the paper is exposed. This was the only way pastel was used in the past. Nowadays, many more materials have come on the market, both as supports for pastel paintings and colours and quality of pastels. At the request of today's artists, manufacturers are producing pastel boards or sanded surfaces which can be covered with many layers of pastel. When 100 % of the surface is covered with pastel, it is a pastel painting.

Q. How toxic are pastels?

A. Read the manufacturer's chart. Good quality pastels and reputable manufacturers have a chart with the chemical breakdown of each colour. Toxic substances have been removed from most colours, however, you can still find some colours which contain toxins. Be careful, if you have been given a set of very old pastels. Some of the most toxic substances are cobalt (because they attract every dust and toxin in the vicinity), chromium and cadmium. Today, Manufacturers have often retained these words in the name of the colour, however, the toxic substances have been removed. Check the charts.

Note Safety concerns are very much en vogue, and they should be, but in some cases they tend to be exaggerated. My dog has actually eaten a pastel stick, and is still alive and happy. An allergist who participated in the panel discussion on toxicity at the IAPS Convention claimed that the pastel particles are too small to do any serious damage to our lungs when inhaled. There are many more toxic substances in our households and environment than pastel.

Q. I have tried many different water-based black acrylic sprays to create a surface for pastel painting, but the pastels come off and change colour?

A. Pastel will not stick to a smooth surface. I suggest that you apply 'Acrylic Ground for Pastels'. If you cannot find it in an art supply store, you can make it yourself. It is a mixture of pumice, gesso and water. You have to experiment with the proportions until you achieve the desired thickness. It is best applied with a knife. You can mix your black acrylic in right away, or wait until it dries and apply the acrylic paint later, but only a thin layer, because you do not want to loose the rough surface.

Q. Do pastels melt in water?

A. There are some pastels which will mix with water, these are extra soft pastels, like 'Schmincke' made in Germany or Artworks made in the States. Harder pastels will not dilute with water because they contain too much binder, but you can dilute them with turpentine or methyl hydrate (denatured alcohol).

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