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It’s time to rethink pastels

PastelsI have to admit I have an aversion to pastels, or at least until I met Tom Walker I did. I certainly didn’t use them in my own drawing. Tom said he’d try to convert me and he succeeded. Here is someone who can work magic with pastel, I asked him about his love of the medium.
What first inspired you to use pastels and how long have they been your preferred medium?
My first encounter with pastels was at around 5 years old in my uncle’s studio. He was a gifted portraitist and had drawers full of pastels, which he encouraged me to play with. In my last year at school, a wonderful teacher at Brighton Art College introduced me to pastel work, especially on black paper. I explored all the 2D media but always favoured pastel. However, it did not become the medium until I used it for a long project between 1986-1990, then I became intimately acquainted with its properties and possibilities.
You say that pastels give you everything you want from a medium, what is that?
Versatility, flexibility, rapidity, the ability to alter, change, transform continually and the freedom of movement, expression and technical diversity all these properties provide.
I think pastel work is often unimaginative what do you think?
That depends on what you mean by ‘unimaginative’. I was fortunate to have more than one teacher whose emphasis was always on imaginative work alongside the observational. It is also about what can be done with pastel (or any medium) that makes it a vehicle into more adventurous and exploratory image making. But you’ve got to want that – perhaps teaching can light that spark.
Who are good exponents of pastel?
Chardin – self portraits and that of his wife.
Odilon Redon – French Symbolist – anything in colour.
Julien Levy-Dhurmer – French Symbolist.
David Blackburn – English landscape artist in the Visionary tradition.
Here are two very different examples of what pastel can do.

Odilon Redon, Portrait of Paule Gobillard (1900)


David Blackburn, Sunlit Landscape (1990)
People often ask about fixing pastel, what’s your advice?
Don’t fix it. Fixatives can seriously damage work especially colour. Frame under glass instead with an inner frame to keep the glass off the pastel surface, or keep interleaved with clean newsprint or tissue paper in a portfolio or plan chest.
Black and white work like charcoal, can be fixed with less risk but, ideally, don’t fix.
Tell me about one of your most successful pieces …..
This is a large diptych (8’x4′) entitled ‘Transitions 1’ (2010) which I created to celebrate my 60th birthday. It embodies pretty much everything I consider essential in a picture. It is a free improvisation that took about 3 weeks to complete. It is about opposite elements uniting: light/dark; hard/soft; wet/dry etc. etc. etc… It is probably the only piece of work I feel really pleased and satisfied with to the point that I’m not sure I could do better…(but I hope I can)! The image/s that emerged from this exploration of merging counterparts is open to the observer’s interpretation.
One piece of advice for someone who wants to get more out of pastel?
Be an explorer! Make up your own techniques and keep asking: What happens if I do this …?
You can see Tom’s work here, including his Snooker In The Frame series, many of which have featured in the UK and World Championship coverage on BBC 2
Angela Rogers March 2014

Posted by author: Angela Rogers
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8 thoughts on “It’s time to rethink pastels

  • An interesting interview and I wondered what Tom’s thoughts were on pastel painting and also about new technology and pastels- with companies like Derwent blurring the distinction between pastel, charcoal and graphite with their tinted charcoals/graphites in their XL series.
    I woud have added Degas to the list of great pastel exponents and mentioned the experimentation with tooth and surfaces (initially carried out by Seurat).

  • starrybird, yes, Blackburn does wonderful dislocations with space and distance, at the same time as keeping a strong sense of a believable physical landscape.
    Richard, thank you for adding more examples. I’ll pass your questions on to Tom.

  • Not fixing pastel is something new to me. I will stop advising people to fix! Paula Rego does fascinating pastel paintings. They are huge and look like oil paintings until you get really close up.

    • Agree with Olivia, not fixing is a surprising concept. I am sure this might be the best policy for finished paintings but what about pastel work in sketchbooks when trying to capture immediacy. I have returned from sketchbook walks with visual notes taken in pastel, sans fixative, with muddied images. I assume there is always a time and place….?

  • A response to Richard from Tom Walker
    You could say that pastel painting is what I do, a kind of dry painting but its drawing too, tonal rather than predominantly linear, but I also feel its not necessarily helpful to define these processes too tightly. I prefer mark-making, its all-embracing!
    Does Richard mean combining pastel with paint, perhaps, as a number of artists do, the Impressionists among them, working over a dried watercolour with pastel for example? But you can, of course, mix pastel with water or some other medium and make it into paint. I prefer the unadulterated dry dust myself. I’ve used all the paints but still find pastels the most flexible of all the media. I’ve used tinted charcoal too in combination with ‘normal’ pastel. I’m no purist; so long as its dry and has the right feel, and I can play with it, I’m happy!
    There are so many great artists who used pastel. I chose my few because I admire their works rather than just the fact that they use my favourite medium. In a way, I suppose I would have liked to have done what they did with it because their medium, Blackburn’s in particular, nourished and enabled their vision. I could certainly have added Degas and Seurat, the latter in particular for his wonderful ‘shadow play’, hard to call them drawings. Experimentation is the key isn’t it? I often tell my students that they have to go too far to discover how far they can go..!

  • No I meant water. I literally soak my pastels and coloured pigments in water using the ‘Shuimo’ method but with pastels and charcoal rather than ink. I was fascinated by the Chinese approach to using water as a vehicle for drawing – used by exponents such as Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) -so I am completely the opposite to Tom and I like to keep my drawings and pastel pigments wet.
    See my 5’x5′ water pastel drawing on this link: http://www.richardlileyart.co.uk/index.aspx

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