Done and Dusted! – Part 1

Heard enough about oil paintings? How about we talk about something different for a change? Let me tell you about my long lost love for dry media, specifically soft pastels and pencil colors.

But Hey! Hang on! When I say soft pastels, I don’t mean the adjective “pastel”, which means a pale color. I am talking about the beautifully vibrant and portable medium called Pastels, which has been used for centuries by artists to create colorful art without the aid of water, solvent, brushes or palettes. In general, Pastels is a wider term used to include different types of dry media like Oil pastel, Charcoal, Pencils, Conté, Sanguine etc.

So, let’s begin with Soft Pastels. It is essentially a dry medium that requires neither a liquid to facilitate its application nor any specific tools like brushes (unless you are doing “under-painting”, but that’s a topic for another post on another day!) That’s why I fell in love with it! So put away your palettes, brushes and paints and let’s talk pastel art!!

Before I dish out my “dry media art” as I like to call it, let me give you a little background as to what got me hooked to this wonderful medium. My first tryst with soft pastels was during the regular art lessons I took in school. It was like love at first sight. Since then, their vibrancy and fluidity have always fascinated me. (Don’t get me wrong when I use the word fluidity. I use it merely as a metaphor for their portable nature and ease of application and blending).

However, as I kept exploring different mediums, I came to love oils and began to dabble in them more and more. Eventually, oils took over as my favorite medium and my first love got lost in their glistening shine.

So, how did my fervor for soft pastels get revived? Being an Indian, the commencement of the colorful festive season in my country is not only joyous, but also extremely inspiring for me. The vivid and vibrant imagery of the Indian deities motivated me so much that I was dying to etch them in posterity. That’s when I recalled my passion for soft pastels. It was the perfect medium to capture the richness of all those beautiful colors!! So I rummaged through my art closet, dished out my box of pastels and we were all set to court our ideal muse!

One such muse that inspired me was Lord Ganesha, the “Elephant” headed God. And the timing was just right too, what with the festival of “Ganesh Chaturthi” around the corner. Ganesh Chaturthi is a ten-day Hindu festival in honour of Ganesha’s birthday. It is celebrated on a grand scale in most parts of India, marked by the setting up of colorful “pandals” (temporary shrines), where devotees worship the Lord’s idols for ten days and pray for wisdom, prosperity and good fortune. The festival finally concludes with the “visarjan” (immersion) of the idols into a local river or water body.

The idols, the rituals and the festivities are all brimming with bright and dazzling hues, which are what I have attempted to translate into my artwork titled “Ekdanta” (another name for Ganesha, literally meaning the one-toothed or one-tusked God). I felt soft pastels were THE medium I needed to bring out this rich brilliance of colors associated with the festival and hence Lord Ganesha. I have the used the conventional technique of layering and smudging with my fingers to create this colorful rendition of Ganesha. In order to enhance the brightness of the colors even more, I chose a black paper, which is regular craft paper (or chart paper, as we call it in my country).

My rendition of Ganesha in soft pastels.

 Now, I am pretty sure there’s enough on the net about what soft pastels are, so I am not going to bore you all with the nitty gritties. I am also not going to indulge in the technicalities of the medium as I am sure you will find innumerable lessons and tutorials on how to apply soft pastels.

 One interesting fact that I would like to point out though is that an artwork made using pastels is also called a pastel (although some people may like to call it a pastel drawing or pastel painting as well). How cool is that?!

Besides their wide range of colors and blending ability, the other pros that led me to make soft pastels the medium of choice for this artwork are:

  1.  They can create solid, broad strokes as well as accurate lines and marks.
  2. Pastels aren’t mixed like oils, watercolors or acrylic paints. One has to be precise with specific color values or skillfully layer them to blend evenly so as to give an illusion of being merged. This requires a wide assortment of pastel shades which is not a problem with this medium.
  3.  A pastel painting requires little set up, there is no need for solvents, and there are no brushes to clean. Hence, it is the perfect medium to employ when time is of essence.
  4. Pastels make artists connect on a more intimate level with their artwork as they use their fingers to paint instead of brushes. This also gives them the power to understand and control their strokes better than they would with a brush.
  5. Owing to their portable nature, they provide a greater allowance for spontaneity.
  6. No mixing medium/solvent or palette is needed for mixing the colors. 
  7. There is a limitless spectrum of pastel colors from the very lightest to the very darkest in as many brands, textures and categories by different manufacturers. 
  8. Because of the lack of additives (such as oil in oil paint) pastel paintings do not yellow or crack and can last a very long time.
  9. Soft pastel does not need to dry like other paints. They can be used to draw as well as paint, hence they are ideal for busy people who can’t afford to wait for a paint layer to dry. Also, they don’t require any prepping up like priming a canvas or setting up a palette.
  10. Last but not the least, they can be combined with other mediums like oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc.

While soft pastels have several pros, just like any other medium, they have their cons too:

  1. Pastels are dusty and crumbly and the particular dust constantly falls off the painting.  
  2.  Although most of the trusted pastel brands claim that they do not use metals, lead, or cadmiums, but breathing in lots of dust is never a good idea as too much of it can turn out to be toxic.
  3. Pastels do not work as well on smooth paper as they do on toothed sheets. Tooth is a slight texture in the paper which will holds the pastel in place, since they are loose pigments. Smooth paper lacks texture or has minimal texture, hence does not hold soft pastels well and is not recommended for pastel painting.
  4. Pastels are a very predictable medium in terms of color mixing and the final outcome. Once laid down on the paper there’s isn’t much scope for change.
  5. Since the artist uses his or her fingers to smudge and blend the pastels, it can cause them to become rough and dry.
  6. In order to prevent the painting form smudging, a fixative is required which darkens the color values besides fixing the colors. This may alter the final look of the artwork.

Despite these disadvantages, soft pastels continue to be my favorite dry medium as these drawbacks can easily be taken care of with the help of the following precautions:

  • Wear a mask to prevent breathing in the dust particles and moisturize your hands with a cream after using soft pastels to protect them from dryness.
  • Avoid blowing the dust with your mouth so as to not inhale what floats in the air.
  • Use an easel or an inclined table when working with pastels so that the dust can slide down to the bottom.
  • A moist towel at the bottom of the easel or table can absorb the falling dust.
  • It is not compulsory to use a fixative at the end of the painting. One can use it sparingly between layers in order to ensure that the colors adhere better and also to intensify them further.
  •  Always frame a pastel painting behind glass, with a space between the art work and glass to avoid smudging due to any residual particles left over even after using the fixative.
  • If you want to preserve your pastel painting in an unframed form, keep it flat, with a sheet of glassine paper or butter paper over it to prevent smudging. Tape the glassine paper to the edges of the painting to make sure it does not move and smudge the pastel. Then store this painting in a sturdy folder or keep it flat in a drawer.

But don’t get bogged down by all these precautions. The trick to creating a successful pastel artwork is to put your hair down and let your pastels do the talking. So turn up the music and just go with the flow – until it’s done and dusted!!

2 thoughts on “Done and Dusted! – Part 1

  1. Every time, I check this site, I grt to learn something new and understand what creativity and love for Art is all about.
    As a person who is not an artist but appreciates art and artists I am more and more convinced that art is not only a talent but a beautiful blend of talent, heart, mind and one’s persona.
    What I appreciate most about Neha’s art is her readiness to share her learnings and knowledge, leave alone her style of writing and expressions.


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