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When you think of great artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso, chances are their works on canvas come to mind. However, most master painters in art history have dabbled in more than just oils and acrylics. In fact, many had a penchant for pastel.

Whether used for sketching preliminary studies or creating elaborate masterpieces, pastel has played a large part in the practice of many painters. Here we examine how some of the world’s most famous artists have used the medium throughout art history and how they have helped shape the practice as we know it today.

Some of the most prolific painters in art history also worked in pastel. Scroll down to check out this other section of their portfolio.

Eugène Delacroix

Delacroix Pastels

Eugène Delacroix, “Sketch for the Death of Sardanapale”, (circa 1827) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons public domain)

romantic artist Eugène Delacroix is renowned for his larger-than-life paintings brimming with drama. Before applying paint to canvas, however, he often made pastel drawings in order to map out his compositions, test out different tones, and perfect his figures.

Craft studies – like his sketch for The Death of Sardanapalus, one of his most famous works, helped Delacroix in his art. He notes, however, that turning a simple drawing into a painting full of detail was not without its challenges.

“The original idea, the sketch, which is so to speak the egg or the embryo of the idea, is generally far from complete; it contains everything, which is only a mixture of all the parts. What makes this sketch precisely the essential expression of the idea is not the suppression of the details, but their complete subordination to the outline, which must above all make the impression. The greatest difficulty is therefore to return in the painting to this erasing of the details which nevertheless make up the composition, the frame and the frame of the painting. ()

Jean-Francois Millet

Pastel Millet

Jean-François Millet, “Dandelions”, ca. 1867-1868 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons public domain)

As a key figure in the realist movement, Jean-Francois Millet prefers to depict working class people in his paintings. After all, he noted, “Peasant subjects suit my nature better, for I must confess. . . that the human side is what touches me the most in art.

Like Delacroix, Millet often employed pastel to sketch out ideas for his “peasant paintings”. However, he would also use the medium to create delicate drawings of nature, including sunny landscapes, calm seascapes and enchanting studies of flora, such as his whimsical dandelions.

“Millet excelled in the field of pastels,” explains the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, “and his skill as a draftsman and colorist is shown here in the rich variety of greens that set off the flowers and in the airy delicacy of the dandelions. , which are shown in all phases from bud to seed.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir Pastels

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Couple of Boaters”, ca. 1881 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons public domain)

Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir was drawn to pastels – and for good reason. In his oil paintings, Renoir applied a soft touch that resulted in blurred lines and blended colors, making the medium a perfect choice for the French artist.

Renoir first explored the medium in the mid-1870s. While he regularly exhibited his works in pastel (with six paintings he included a pastel in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874), he generally reserved this medium for personal representations of friends and family, as it allows him to create authentic portraits of those he cared about most.

François Daulte, Swiss art critic, explains: “If he frequently used this medium to represent his loved ones, it was because pastel, which associates color with line, gave him the possibility of working quickly to capture in all their liveliness. the quick flash of intelligence and the fleeting spectacle of emotion.

Edgar Degas

Degas Pastel

Edgar Degas, “The Star”, ca. 1876-1878 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons public domain)

Having created more than 700 pastel drawings, impressionist Edgar Degas is one of the most prolific pastel artists. While he first turned to the medium out of necessity (there had always been a market for his small drawings), he ended up preferring pastels for the experimental capabilities of their colors.

“Aware that some pastel dyes fade when exposed to light, Degas exposed his pastels to the sun to bleach the fugitive dyes before using them,” explains the Phillips Collection. “He often used pastel moistened with water and mixed with an adhesive such as casein, creating a kind of pastel paste that gave the appearance of paint applied with a brush. He even selectively moistened passages of pastel with steam or a jet of boiling water, then spread the dissolved pastel with a brush into a translucent layer of color or pastel paste.

These color tests resulted in the one-of-a-kind palettes evident in some of his best-known pastels, including his voyeuristic views of bathers and scenes of ballet dancers on stage.

Marie Cassat

Marie Cassatt Pastel

Mary Cassatt, “At the Window”, 1889 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Like Degas, fellow impressionist Marie Cassat pushed pastel drawing to its limits. In fact, Degas’ experimental drawings are what first attracted Cassatt to the medium, as she explained: “I used to go and stick my nose up against that window and absorb everything that I could of her [Degas’] art. It changed my life. I then saw art as I wanted to see it.

Although initially inspired by Degas, Cassatt eventually developed a distinctive style entirely her own. With mothers and children as iconic subjects, Cassatt produced portraits that paradoxically explored quiet moments through vivid palettes and energetic strokes, qualities inherent in the pastel medium.

“For Cassatt, the modernist appeal of the medium rested on several aesthetic factors closely related to its material properties,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Among these properties were the speed of execution, a wide range of ready-to-use colors and an easy adaptability to the manipulation of draftsmen and painters.”

Henri from Toulouse-Lautrec

Pastel of Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “The Salon in the Rue des Moulins”, 1894 (Photo: Wiki Art Public Domain)

Post-Impressionist Henri from Toulouse-Lautrec was another artist deeply marked by the pastels of Degas. Namely, he was inspired by his approach to depicting women: “without their frills” and seen as if the artist was “seeing through the keyhole”.

This influence is particularly evident in Toulouse-Lautrec’s scenes set in brothels. A far cry from his polished posters celebrating Paris’ star-studded nightlife, these intimate drawings offer viewers an unflinching glimpse of the capital’s most vulnerable. In some cartoons, women line up for very public check-ups; in others, they are seen lounging in the common areas of brothels.

In any case, Toulouse-Lautrec sought to capture an authentic glimpse of life behind closed doors. “I don’t comment,” he said. “I’m recording.”

Pablo Picasso

Picasso pastels

Pablo Picasso, “Head of a Woman”, 1921 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

modernist master Pablo Picasso wore many artistic hats. If he is mainly known for his stylistic paintings, his avant-garde sculptures and even collage workhe also dabbled in professional-grade oil pastels, a tool he himself helped develop.

While oil pastels had been on the market since 1925, they were generally of low quality and aimed at young artists and students. In 1949, Picasso – looking for a high-quality version that could be used on a variety of surfaces – approached his friend and fellow painter Henri Goetz with a request: to ask art supply manufacturer Henri Sennelier to create a new improved oil pastel.

The Sommelier boutique created and began selling its famous oil pastels shortly after this encounter, and the rest is history.

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