The Truth about Soft Pastels: 5 Myths and Misconceptions Debunked

By Niki Hilsabeck in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Many artists and collectors are drawn to the bright colors and unique textures of pastels, even before they know much about the medium. Naturally, as a pastel artist, I’ve found that many of my interactions with people interested in my art involve answering questions about the pastels themselves.

Over time, I’ve learned to be ready with answers to some of the most common questions and misconceptions. Whether you are also working with (or interested in using) pastel, or if you’re looking to buy pastel pieces for your own collection, here are a few explanations to counter some of the most common myths regarding soft pastel paintings.

1. “Pastel is such a difficult medium!”

When people say pastel is difficult, I think what they’d like to say is “messy” (which may be a turn off for some artists). Pastels can also be a little unpredictable, and require a certain amount of knowledge to use correctly.

That said, pastel can be a great medium for beginning artists to use. They are especially helpful for an artist learning to master basic artistic concepts, such as defining value or incorporating hard and soft edges into a painting. It may take time to truly master the techniques to create the effects you want with pastel, but isn’t this true of any medium?

Calm – Pastel on paper, 9×12 inches

If you’re interested in working with pastel but afraid of the mess, or have tried pastel on your own and failed, I highly recommend trying a beginner’s pastel class. Chances are, you’ll learn a lot and have a great time!

NOTE: As far as the mess goes, I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot easier to get pastel out of clothes than acrylic or oil. Plus, there’s no turpentine involved in the cleaning process when you’re done painting.

2. “A pastel is a drawing, not a painting, right? Isn’t it just chalk?”

A common misconception about soft pastel is that it’s only used for sketches and drawing. (Even Etsy puts soft pastels in its “drawing” category!) Pastel is wonderful for those uses, but most of us who work primarily in pastel consider our finished works to be paintings. They may be dry, with no brush or water involved, but they’re still paintings.

Next time you visit an art show that includes a variety of mediums, take a close look at some of the pastel works. You’ll see everything from vivid landscapes to realistic portraits to loose sketches, and I’m sure you’ll notice that a completed pastel painting offers just as much variety in texture and color as oil, acrylic, or watercolor.

So if the finished product is high-quality, where does this misconception come from?

In my experience, it’s from people hearing “soft pastel” and thinking of low quality “chalk” suitable for novelty work such as street painting.

Of course, like any other medium, there are low-quality and high-quality choices for pastel. There is even a brand of pastel that comes in small jars and can be applied with brushes. Try a painting session with a few high-end ultra-soft pastels on some textured paper, and you’ll see the difference immediately.

You might even find yourself hooked! :)

3. “It’s beautiful, but pastels don’t last very long, do they? I want a piece that won’t fade or get ruined easily.”

This is probably the number one question I get from potential buyers who aren’t familiar with pastel paintings.

While it’s true that pastels are made to smear and smudge while the artist is working, their pigments are still made to adhere to surfaces. I regularly place my finished pieces face down onto a scanner, work on them and photograph them in windy conditions, and even switch them in and out of frames as needed for shows.

There may be a bit of dust that flakes off, but I’ve yet to “ruin” a pastel while handling it—I just use extra care, as I would with any art on paper.

Almond Blossoms – Pastel on paper, 9×12 inches

I also regularly use pastels to create demo pieces at events, and have no problem propping a finished piece on an easel in all its unframed glory for people to examine. In the event that I do inadvertently smudge an area, a little touch-up session with my pastels can easily correct whatever area may have gotten smudged—and again, this has only happened to me due to my own occasional slip of carelessness.

The biggest concern I hear from art buyers who haven’t purchased pastels before: how long will a pastel painting last? For some reason, pastel paintings have a reputation for being delicate little flowers that wither away with time.

It’s been proven, however, that because the pastels are created with a simple combination of pigment and binder, their colors remain brilliant and last long after oil paintings begin to crack and fade. I just wish I could set a 200 year old oil painting next to a 200 year old pastel painting, and let the buyer SEE that pastels do indeed retain their color longer than oil paintings.

To keep your pastel painting in good condition, you will need to frame it under glass (just like any other art on paper), and you probably don’t want to stick it in a place with a lot of moisture or hang it in direct sunlight. But these are common preventative measures you would take with most of your art anyway.

If you’re looking for a reason to purchase a pastel painting over oil and acrylic paintings, consider this:

Oil and acrylic both gather dust over time and need to be cleaned. Since a pastel painting is under glass, you’ll never have to clean the painting itself, just the glass on top of it!

Of course, if you’ve painted or purchased a pastel painting that isn’t in a frame, and you plan on storing it for a while, there is a special type of paper (glassine) that you will want to get to protect your painting. If I ever sell an unframed piece, I make sure it’s complete with glassine paper cover so that the buyer feels comfortable that the painting will be “safe” until it’s ready to go into a frame.

4. “Aren’t oil and acrylic paintings worth more than pastel paintings?”

I’ve heard it passed along (by teachers, no less) that pastels are difficult to sell because buyers think they are worth less than mediums such as oil or acrylics.

The truth is not so clear-cut, however.

A savvy buyer is going to recognize an artist’s skill level and uniqueness, regardless of the medium that artist chooses to use. If you’ve got a person who is interested in your pastel work but concerned about its monetary value, just share a few key reasons that pastels hold their value among buyers.

Koi – Pastel on paper, 5.5×7.5 inches

For example, there are plenty of works by Degas, Cassatt, and Loutrec done in pastel, and those pieces are certainly sought after. There are also plenty of master pastel artists selling work today, and you can easily find their prices online to make your buyer happy. I’d also recommend saving a few programs from recent local art shows, and pointing out the pastel works that take top awards.

Whatever you do, stand by the value of your work. Doing so will give both you and your buyer the confidence to complete the sale.

5. “I just don’t know how I’d frame a pastel painting. They’re so messy.”

Many new collectors are reluctant to purchase a pastel painting because they fear that it will be difficult to frame. I can tell you from years of experience that while framing a pastel has its unique challenges (dust! And more dust!) any experienced framer with a careful touch can probably handle the job.

Pastels need to be framed under glass (not plexiglass), they need to have adequate spacing between the painting surface and the glass (a quality mat and spacers will do the trick), and as mentioned above, they should not hang where they are exposed to excessive heat, humidity, or sunlight.

Also, you may want to remind your framer not to spray fixative on your painting, as it will change the colors and darken the piece.

Whether you’re just starting your own artistic journey with pastels or you’re interested in purchasing a pastel piece for your own collection, I hope this information helps! Just don’t be afraid to take the plunge—I know you’ll love them!


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