Sunday, 5 August 2012

Elephant No. 308: Pastel Pencils

While looking for ink cartridges a couple of days ago, I came across a set of pastel pencils. I've clearly used them before, but I actually had no idea I owned them, let alone that I'd used them. So I guess this will be a somewhat novel experience.

The name "pastel" comes from the Medieval Latin word pastellum, which originally referred to a paste made of woad, a type of blue-grey mud. The word pastellum was in turn derived from the Late Latin word pastellus meaning "paste".

Leonardo da Vinci was the first to mention the use of pastels in 1495, although the French word pastel would not appear until 1662. As early as 1703, artists such as Maurice Quentin de La Tour were using pastels to create masterpieces, and during the eighteenth century, pastels became a fashionable medium for portraits, occasionally mixed with gouache.

Pastel portrait of Louis XV, 1748.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788)
Collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris

Over the ensuing centuries, pastels fell in and out of favour. During most of this time, they were used primarily in portraiture. Today, however, artists have come to favour pastels for the richness of the pigments and the range of colours available.

Pastels, like Conté crayons, consist of pure powdered pigment and a binder. The pigments in good-quality pastels are the same as those used in oil paints and watercolours, and the binder is generally neutral in hue. Interestingly, the colours in pastels are closer to those of the raw pigments than any other art medium.

Untitled pastel drawing by American artist Joseph Broghammer.

Dry pastels come in a wide range of formulations. Generally, however, they consist of a raw pigment, chalk or gypsum, and a binder such as gum arabic, gum tragacanth or methyl cellulose. Dry pastels also come in varying degrees of hardness, with softer versions often wrapped in paper.

Today, there are several types of dry pastel:

Soft pastels are the most common form of dry pastel. They have a high proportion of pigment and less binder, offering brighter colours. Sometimes white chalk is added to produce lighter, brighter hues. Soft pastels can be readily blended and smudged, but can be quite messy.

Set of soft pastels by Caran d'Arche.

Pan pastels are a relatively recent invention, and come in flat cakes like a woman's compact. They have very little binder, and are applied with special sponge tools. They can be used to create an entire painting, or in combination with other dry pastels.

Pan pastels and application tools.

Hard pastels have a higher proportion of binder and less pigment, resulting in a hard drawing material that is good for fine details. Because of the higher proportion of binder, the colours are less bright. Although similar to Conté crayons, hard pastels use gum or methyl cellulose as a binder, where Conté crayons are made with clay or wax. This makes Conté crayons harder, providing sharper lines and less blendability.

Set of Conté hard pastels.

Pastel pencils are pencils containing a lead made of soft pastel material, and can be blended while also producing relatively sharp lines.

To make both soft and hard pastels, pure pigments are blended into a paste with a gum binder and water. They are then rolled or pressed into sticks. Most manufacturers produce a range of colours with the same pigments. The darkest hue will contain the most pigment, with lighter and lighter colours produced by adding greater proportions of chalk.

To create a work of pastel art, paper with a bit of tooth is required. When a piece is fully covered with pastels, it is called a pastel painting. When only partially covered, it is considered a pastel sketch or pastel drawing. Because pastel paintings are made with the medium that contains more pigment than any other, they reflect light well, resulting in highly saturated colours.

For today's elephant, I had this set of pastel pencils, along with three extra colours purchased separately. I don't remember buying those, either.

For paper, I decided to use a medium-range watercolour paper, because it has a bit of tooth, and isn't as cheap and thin as the sketchpad paper I have.

I also pulled out a couple of blending stumps to use, just in case.

Although I expected to use colours not readily seen in elephants, I thought it would be a good idea to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

Asian elephant at the Melbourne Zoo, Australia.

I started by lightly sketching a light outline using a purple pastel pencil.

The proportions seemed a bit off, but I figured I could fix that later. I added blue and green next, mostly following the same outlines. I put in a bit of shading as well, and did a little bit of blending.

I liked these pencils a lot. They blend readily with either fingers or a blending stump, but because they come in pencil form, it's also easy to make reasonably sharp lines. While a lot of that is also possible with a square Conté crayon, the pencils allow for a bit more precision and blendability. I was also happy not to have chalky fingers.

I added yellow next, then red.

I had done a lot of blending at this point, but found the whole look a little soft-focus and in need of a bit more modelling, so I decided to add some more green.

I didn't think I was going to be able to do much more without making it more bold than I was in the mood to do, so I finished up by adding some faint lines and details using a sharpened purple pastel pencil.

I really liked playing with these pencils, and actually wished I'd had enough time to make another drawing today. The pencil format allows for a wide range of effects, the pencils blend nicely with one another, and the pigments are very similar to good paints.

Next time I try pastel pencils, I'll probably go bolder, but for now I'm pretty happy with this.

Elephant Lore of the Day
At five tonnes or more, an adult elephant can pretty much sleep where it likes. And at England's West Midlands safari park, Five the elephant did just that. Trouble was, he plunked himself down in the middle of the only road through the park.

Head keeper Andy Plumb thought Five, a 20-year-old African elephant, might have gotten too much sun, so simply decided to take a siesta. Plumb also noted that Five is a bit of a character, so he may have chosen the road on purpose.

During Five's nap, traffic backed up for a considerable distance along the road, which is lined with rocks to keep people from leaving the track. When Five eventually woke up, he simply looked around, then got up and wandered off to find another place to snooze.

Five the elephant taking a nap on the only road through
West Midlands safari park, 2011.
Photo: Andy Plumb/© Caters

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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