Pastel: Masters

Pastel: Masters

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Artists looking to work with pastel can learn valuable techniques and tips by studying artists who first explored the medium and discovered the possibilities the medium offers.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Although the work of oil painters and draftsmen is well known and thoroughly documented, the history of pastel has not been as well recorded. “Not until recently are we seeing pastel accepted as a worthy medium in and of itself.” Although pastels are not as popular as oil paintings, the nature of the medium makes it an excellent choice for those who favor portability. Pastel painting requires little set up, there is no need for solvents, and there are no brushes to clean. For this reason, many plein air painters work in pastel, and many portraitists of the 19th century worked in pastel to facilitate a speedy execution.

Six Friends at Dieppe
by Edgar Degas, 1885, pastel, 45¼ x 28. Collection the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.
La Toilette (Woman Combing Her Hair)
by Edgar Degas, ca. 1886, pastel on cardboard, 21 x 20½. Collection the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russsia.

Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French painter, sculptor, printmaker and draftsman associated with the Impressionist movement. Although he is regarded as one of the movement’s founders, he rejected the label and preferred to be thought of as a realist. Unlike Impressionist painters, he was not as interested in the play of light across forms, and did not favor the Impressionist tendency for painting en plein air. However, his subject matter was distinctly Impressionist, and his friendship with notable Impressionists such as Mary Cassatt and Edouard Manet closely linked him to the movement.

The pure hues of pastel, along with its direct application, made it the perfect medium for Impressionists artists who sought to work quickly and capture the essence of their subjects. Degas is considered the artist most responsible for the transformation of pastel into a major medium. When he began working in pastel they were primarily used for portraits, and often as precursors to complete oil paintings. Degas, however, created a large body of finished pastel paintings from which many artists have learned. “The Old Master pastelist that immediately comes to mind is Edgar Degas,” says artist Liz Haywood-Sullivan, who was deeply influenced by his work as a student. “His mark-making conveys a sense of motion and intentionality, but what fascinates me most about his work are his dynamic compositions and unusual viewing angles. One of my favorites is Six Friends at Dieppe. The painting is essentially a group portrait, but the dynamics of the composition create a tension and intrigue that makes the viewer wonder what is truly going on. The poses aren’t static, and the visible strokes of pastel almost set the painting into motion.”

Degas worked in pastel throughout his career and in 1880 it became his primary medium. The artist often combined pastel with other media such as watercolor, oil, and monotype, creating rich surfaces with a variety of paint qualities applied in complex layers. “Studying the various ways he applied pastels is especially educational,” says artist Alan Flattmann, who was inducted into Pastel Society of America Hall of Fame in 2006. “He sometimes blended to achieve delicate effects, but mostly he applied pastels in pure strokes of broken color by hatching and overlapping broad painterly stokes. He used fixatives extensively to build up layers of pastels and was also not afraid to experiment with combining pastel with other media to create unique effects.”

Mother and Child Against a Green Background (Maternity)
by Mary Cassatt, 1897, pastel on beige paper mounted on canvas, 22 x 18. Collection Musée dOrsay, Paris, France.
Sleepy Baby
by Mary Cassat, ca. 1910, pastel, 25½ x 20½. Collection Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) is known as one of the most influential artists of 20th-century American art. A prolific painter and printmaker, Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh and began her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. In 1865 she settled in Paris, where she took up private studies with such artists as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Thomas Couture and became part of the Impressionist movement. She became close friends with Edgar Degas, who inspired her to begin working in pastels. Cassatt adopted many of his techniques and soon began to produce a high volume of work in the medium.

Cassatt earned her living as a figure painter and portraitist, and painting portraits in pastel provided her with a source of steady income while living in Paris. For many artists at this time, pastel was the preferred choice for portrait work–especially for portraits of children–because they could be manipulated with greater speed and ease, had no odor, and allowed for frequent interruptions. In the 1880s, she began to take family life as her primary subject and created a series of pastels of children with their caretakers. In addition to evoking emotion and sharing her own views on mother-child relationships, in these pastel paintings Cassatt displayed an innovative technique that present-day artists can learn from. “I think that Mary Cassatt is a great artist to study for her magnificent use of pastel strokes,” says Flattmann. “It is especially interesting to see how she could weave bold linear pastel strokes throughout her figures and portraits and still create solid, convincing, and sensitive forms.” This can be seen in Mother and Child Against a Green Background (Maternity), in which the strokes give the scene a sense of vitality and motion, as well as connect the background with the mother and child.

by William Merritt Chase, ca. 1884, pastel, 17¼ x 13½. Collection the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
End of the Season
by William Merritt Chase, 1885, pastel, 13¼ x 17¾. Collection Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachussetts.

William Merritt Chase

American painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) worked in a variety of media, including oil, pastel, watercolor, and etching. However, it is his oil portraits for which he is best known. His sitters ranged from members of his own family to the most important men and women of his day. Trained at the National Academy of Design, in New York City, and at Munichs Royal Academy, in Germany, Chase began working in pastel in the late 1870s, just as the Munich style in which he was trained began to fall out of favor. The artist’s work in pastel was likely prompted by his exploration of plein air painting as he toured various parts of Europe. The portability of pastel, as well as the richness of the color and speed with which colors could be applied, made it perfect for working outdoors and capturing the light that Impressionist artists enjoyed so much.

In 1882 he founded the Society of American Painters in Pastel, which included such artists as John Henry Twachtman, Childe Hassam, and Robert Reid. The Society only lasted eight years and held four exhibitions, but it drew attention to pastel and helped it gain respect as a medium. Flattmann notes in his book The Art of Pastel Painting (Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana) that Chase was one of the most influential American pastelists. “He used pastel with a freshness and vitality rivaling that of any European master,” Flattmann says. “Some of his pastels were very large, up to six feet high, and done on canvas. Like Degas, he often wet his pastel and worked over his pieces with brushes.” Pastel artists can learn much from Chase, who combined draftsmanly and painterly qualities to varying degrees in his pastel paintings. In some pieces, his hand as a draftsman is emphasized, with visible strokes that call the viewer’s attention. This can be seen in his Self-Portrait, where the highlights in his face are not subtly blended; instead, each stroke is brought to the fore. Chase’s work evolved over time, and he experimented with the medium, working with a limited palette, and employing various techniques. An analysis of Chase’s pastel paintings shows all the possibilities the medium offered not only in the 19th century but also today.

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779)

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779) was a master oil painter who worked in the traditional realist manner and took still lifes as his predominant subject matter. Largely self-taught, he was strongly influenced by 17th-century Low Country masters, and like them he devoted himself to simple subjects and common themes. Chardins work had little in common with the Rococo painting that dominated French art in the 18th century, and the artist’s reputation enjoyed greater success after his death. At a time when history painting was considered the highest of public art, Chardins simple paintings of common household items, along with his uncanny ability to portray childrens innocence in an unsentimental manner still garnered the artist an appreciative audience in his time, and account for his timeless appeal.

Toward the end of his career, Chardin began working in pastels, exploring subject matter beyond the still life. The artist took up the medium as his eyesight was beginning to fail, which may account for his application of color in visible strokes as opposed to blending them. He used blocky, simple forms perfectly organized in space, and his palette consisted primarily of earth tones. He was a master of textures, shapes, and the soft diffusion of light. In Self -Portrait With Spectacles, his use of pinks and blues on the head and jacket demonstrate his willingness to play with color and use it to create an intriguing mood. The use of broad strokes, which shows the artists hand at work, marks an end to the smooth blending favored by traditional pastelists, and showed later artists what directions they could go in with the medium.

Jean François Millet

Watering Horses, Sunset
by Jean-François Millet, 1866, pastel and black Conte crayon on wove paper, 15 x 19. Collection the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
Shepherdess and Her Flock
by Jean-François Millet, 1862, black chalk and pastel, 14 5/16 x 18 11/16. Collection J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Born to a family of farmers, French painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was most interested in painting the daily life of the peasantry. His early work consisted of portraits and pastoral scenes, but it is the painting The Gleaners for which he is best known. The painting depicts two women picking leftovers of the harvest, stooping low to collect so little. Picking up what was left of the harvest was regarded as one of the lowest jobs in society, yet Millet offered these women as the heroic focus of the picture; light illuminates the womens shoulders as they carry out their work. While he was criticized for presenting socialist leanings in his work, his paintings appeared in the Paris Salon year after year.

As his popularity grew in the 1860s Millet steadily received commissions, and in 1865 a patron began commissioning pastels. From 1865-1869 he painted almost exclusively in pastel for a collection that would eventually include 90 works. With this collection Millett explored the possibilities and limits of the medium. “He was one of the first to really draw with the medium and use broken strokes of color, rather than blending the colors extensively the way many early pastelists did,” says Flattmann. Many of his later pictures are landscapes, with the human figure entirely absent. As he grew older, the artist preferred simpler, more direct processes such as using graphite or pastel, over painting. Instead of the heavy, dark coloring of many of his paintings of peasant life, Millet often let the tinted paper show through and used his color sparingly in his pastels, bringing his draftsmanship to the fore.

The artist’s subject matter can inspire artists today who may be drawn to subjects that are deemed controversial or uninteresting. The use of pastel as a drawing tool, and the strokes of color evident in much of his pastel work not only brings greater attention to his subject matter but also shows that an artist has many options when working in pastel.

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.

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