Painting with dust

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Car nous voulons la Nuance encore
Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance!
Because we want the shade again
Not the Colour, just the shade

(Paul Verlaine)

On a line from drawing to painting, if such a line ever existed, pastel is closer to the former, although our perception of colour wants to compare it with the latter. Like in drawing, the artist moves the pencil directly across the paper without the need for brushes, palette knives, tubes, or thinners, enabling the spontaneity of conveying emotion seldom found in other mediums. Originally used to create preliminary sketches, the pastel became a medium of artistic expression in its own right, in parallel with the increase in the range of colours – now more than 1650 shades – commercially available.

From still life to landscape, from portraits to nudes – pastel proved to be a versatile and responsive medium. At once line and colour, particularly matt and velvety in appearance, the subtlety of nuances was appreciated by 17th and 18th century painters, especially the portraitists, but also 19th century impressionists with their interest in capturing the atmosphere and changes in light.

The precursors

The sanguine (a red chalk) and sepia were the forerunners of the pastel, used extensively by painters for preliminary studies, mainly for nudes and portraits.

Verrochio, his pupil Leonardo da Vinci, Boticelli, Rafael, Titian, Jan Van Eyck probably used more colours than the reds, browns, and whites in the examples that survived to us today. It is possible that Leonardo was referring to pastel when he wrote about ‘the art of dry colours’.

Like today, they used charcoal for contours and dark shadows, white for light and red for intermediary values. One of the works that opened the way to the technique was Raphael’s Venus and Psyche in sanguine.

When overwhelmed with commissions, Rubens would make preparatory drawings using the Trois Crayons technique. The speed of drawing allowed for a high level of expressivity (and productivity) while offering strong chromatic suggestions for the apprentices in his studio, who would finish the picture.

The golden age

The 18th century saw the technique of pastel reach a degree of success and sophistication previously unequalled. Allegorical figures and portraits, especially of women, were the subjects of masterpieces.

Rosalba Carriera, a refined portraitist, was more successful in Paris (she was accepted at the Royal Academy in 1720) than in her native Venice, where pastel was not in fashion. Her portraits are remarkable for their rich colouring, the attention to detail and lightness of texture. Her fame extended throughout Europe; it is said that the king of Poland ordered over 100 works from Carriera.

At a time when the most important aspect of a portrait was its resemblance to the subject, the precise details of Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s pastels rivalled many contemporary oil paintings – and at a lower price. The introduction of a glint in the eye, a smile, differentiates his portraits by creating a warm interaction between subject and viewer.

Jean-Etienne Liotard distinguished himself by the exotic settings of his pastels. Nicknamed ‘the Turkish painter of Geneva’ he travelled extensively – Istanbul, Vienna, Paris, London – along the way painting the portraits of some eminent contemporaries, including the Princess of Wales (1753) and Marie Antoinette (1770).

He adopted the Oriental costume even after his return to Europe, and painted many scenes of everyday life set in typical Middle Eastern interiors. One of his most celebrated works, The Chocolate Girl is a tall pastel featuring a young maid bringing a tray with a chocolate cup supported by a silver trembleuse, and a glass of water. The light comes from a window reflected in the glass, and the detail on the Meissen porcelain cup and the lace on the maid’s bonnet are exquisite. Fellow pastellist Rosalba Carriera described it simply as ‘the most beautiful pastel ever seen’.

Romantics and realists

An ideal medium for capturing mood and movement, the romantics used pastel to convey the pulse of life; the emphasis was no longer on imitating oil painting but on reproducing the colours of real life, the emotion of a fleeting moment. The flexibility and immediacy of pastel enabled the artist to capture aspects of a world experiencing perpetual change: everyday activities, customs and costumes of everyday people.

The landscape, which featured in earlier paintings mainly as background to mythological scenes or portraits of noble characters, became, in the 19th century, an artistic genre in itself. In this age of daring art, the pastel survived but was no longer fashionable; it was considered too close to portrait paintings and to the past. Enter the impressionists—the fortunes of pastel changed again.

The impressionists were explorers, and they rejected the hierarchy of genres and techniques. They were more interested in capturing the fleeting moments, the light, the movement. A technique that combined the spontaneity of sketching – ideal for working en plain air—with the rich colours of painting enabled them to achieve this aim.

Edgar Degas, a painter of human figures, nudes, dancers and cabarets, often favoured pastel over more traditional oil painting. Alongside Manet, Monet, Berthe Morissot in France, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Russell in England, he contributed greatly to the development of the pastel as an important medium of artistic expression.

The great 20th century

The continued popularity of the pastel is in part due to the ease with which it has adapted to artistic thinking and the style of each artistic movement. The intense colours and strong lines of the expressionists, the post-impressionism compositions based on pure colours, the subtle shades and soft textures of symbolism—artists following different ideologies found expression in pastel. Flexible and portable, suited to plain air sketches as well as more elaborate work in the studio, pastel was embraced by many great painters of the 20th century: Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Beckmann and Kupka were first-class pastellistes.

The soft, matte finish of chalk pastel and the vibrancy of colour remain favourites with contemporary artists, whether abstract, figurative, or photorealist.

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