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Making Professional Pastels

Making Professional Pastels: Paul deMarrais discusses how to make your own soft pastels and the materials you'll need. A little know-how can lead to a lot of satisfaction.

"Cedar Reflections"
Pastel by Paul de Marrais

I've been using pastels exclusively for more than 25 years, and with each passing year the beauty of the medium increases its grip on me.

Along the way, I've also endeavored to learn all I can about all technical aspects of pastel. When I first became interested in pastel making, there wasn't much information available, so I began a long process of trial and error that continues today. Fortunately, I've made some breakthroughs and my homemade pastels have become a joy to use. My landscape palette of around eighty colors consists entirely of my own pastels.

With my method, professional quality pastels are within the reach of any pastel artist who is willing to invest a little time now in order to gain a great deal down the road. Pastel making is fun, as well. Which brings me to the question I'm always asked first when I talk to artists: "Why bother to make your own pastels when there are so many commercial brands out there?" There are numerous reasons.

Why make your own?
The strength of pastel as a painting medium is its rich, unsurpassed color. For a pastellist, color is as critical as grapes are to a winemaker. When I received a gift set of 150 pastels in art school, I quickly set to work. Within a year, a pattern became noticeable as I burned through my pastels. About a third of the pastels I used very heavily, and they were beginning to disappear. Another third received much less use, and the remaining third I had never used! In speaking to other pastel artists, I found this pattern was common.

Pastellists attack this problem with several strategies. They either buy many sets to build up an impressive and expensive array of colors, or they mix and match different brands, taking advantage of strengths in each manufacturer's palette.

I went in another direction. Why not design my own palette where every stick was a color I would use and enjoy, and the pastels themselves had the qualities I wanted to best express my style of painting?

Early attempts were disappointing, and I only began to see progress when I discovered the dry pigments offered by Daniel Smith. These pigments were bright and consistent, and Daniel Smith carried an exciting array of newer permanent pigments, such as the Quinacridone pigments. With the quality pigment problem solved, I tackled other tricky problems in pastel making.

Adding Inert Pigments
These pigments are added to improve the working qualities of pastel sticks. In the process, they increase the bulk of pigment so more sticks can be made. If these fillers or extenders are overused, the result is weal color and unpleasantly hard pastels. Since pastel manufacturers consider their formulations proprietary information, and each pigments requires a different formula, the fledgling pastel maker must experiment to gain the necessary experience and achieve the proper proportions.

Choosing binders
Pastels require a weak binder to hold the dry pigment together in the familiar stick form. Many chemicals and substances are mentioned as possible binders for pastels. Some, like Gum Tragacanth, are exotic and expensive while others are as ordinary as gelatin, honey, and oatmeal. Available information on pastel making tends to be confusing and overly complex. I discovered that most of the dry pigments require no binders other than distilled water.

What is a good pastel?
Each pastel artist has a slightly different answer to this question. I want a pastel to be large and soft, with creamy texture that allows the buildup of painterly strokes. I want the color to be rich, bright and permanent. Gradually, I discovered a reliable way to achieve the working qualities I was after by using inert pigments that would both bind the sticks together and create a soft, luscious pastel.

Secret formula revealed - Americans love secret formulas. And companies love to withhold them after they have tantalized a customer with how mysterious and special their product is. This mystification is just plain hype... and, now, I will reveal my secret formula to making a terrific pastel: 2/3 Calcium Carbonate and 1/3 Talc! (Secrets often tend to be a little disappointing.)

Here's how to make my stabilizing/binding mixture - In a separate container, mix together 2/3 Calcium Carbonate and 1/3 Talc. To simplify this, I pour two one-pound packages of Calcium Carbonate and one pound of Talc into an empty one-gallon paint can, and stir thoroughly. (Remember to put on your dusk mask!) I add small quantities of this dry mix to drink up excess water as I mix the dry pigment into a dry paste. These inert pigments do not have much tinting power, and do not alter the color much. They do help make a soft, creamy pastels.

Getting started - the Basic Process

  • Pour dry pigments onto the mixing palette and, as when adding butter to mashed potatoes, make a "lake" in the middle of the pigment mound.
  • Add a small amount of distilled water and mix it into the pigment with a mixing knife. Experience will tell you how much water to add. Very little is needed.
  • Add the stabilizing/binding mixture to drink up excess water and re-mix until a stiff paste is achieved.
  • Hand roll the paste to a desired size on a piece of watercolor paper or matboard. With thumb and index finger, pinch the ends of the pastel to make a nice, neat stick. Handmade sticks don't have to look misshapen and odd-sized.
  • Place the stick on a fruit dehydrator tray and dry it overnight.

Designing a pastel set... tips on color mixing
Manufactured sets are often based on the addition of black and white to basic pigment colors, resulting in dull grays and chalky off-white tints. If oil and watercolor painters used this simplified strategy, there would be millions of drab paintings. Luckily, they don't limit their palettes, and instead create lively mixtures of different pigments to achieve their color goals.

Pastellists need to make sure their palettes are equally exciting in all color values. There is no reason to store or lug around boring pastels that you never use. Making your own pastels is an opportunity to purge and refresh your palette, and add a new element to your paintings.

Here are some tips for creating an exciting pastels palette:

Createx Liquid Pigments... super time-saver
Createx Liquid Pigments are highly-concentrated artist pigments in a water-based suspension. When I want to slightly alter a mixture of color, it is annoying to have to mix a tiny separate batch of dry pigment -- and such a mixture is difficult to control. Createx Liquid Pigments solve many problems and give a pastel maker a great deal more control in subtle color manipulations.

By adding easily controlled drops of Createx color, I can bend my color mixtures in any direction. For example, if I want to make a delicate pink very close to white, I add a drop of Quinacridone Magenta liquid pigment to Titanium White dry pigment. An extra drop of Ultramarine Blue grays the colors. My discovery of Createx immediately pushed my pastels to a higher level.

A useful tip - Createx works best to make small changes in color, as it possesses binding qualities of its own. To make major alterations in a color, it is easier to mix an appropriate dry pigment. Too much Createx makes pastels hard and unpleasant to use.

Cutting back on black
Blacks are reliable permanent pigments that are inexpensive and make nice pastels. Having said that, I advise you to rarely use them if you desire clean, bright-colored pastels. I only use Ivory Black if I want to produce a very deep-colored pastel. Without the black, these very dark values are difficult to achieve. If my aim is to produce intentionally grayed neutral tones, I also use a bit of black. My palette reflects my style of using color. Only a fraction of the pastels in my landscape set are grayed neutrals made with black pigment; neutral grays made by mixing complementary colors are far more varied and interesting. Cutting out black immediately perks up your palette and boost the color in your paintings.

Pigment characteristics
Each dry pigment is different. Some are very easy to use and make great pastels. Others require more effort, but are worth experimenting with. Here are some of my favorites, and others you might want to avoid.

Easy pigments - All earth colors, such as Burnt and Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber, have innate binding qualities and are a good place for the beginner to start. The Cadmium pigments make fine pastels, though some artists might want to replace them due to the toxic nature of Cadmium. (Daniel Smith Low-Soluble Cadmiums have the lowest possible toxicity.) Titanium White makes super pastels, and always improves the working qualities of other pigments. Cerulean Blue makes a nice pastel, as does Chromium Green Oxide. All the black pigments work well.

More Challenging Pigments - Phthalo pigments are a disaster waiting to happen. They are so light that particles disperse and get everywhere -- like your ears, hair and clothes. If you are careless, you will be covered with intense pigment colors that stain like crazy, and you will carry the pigments into your living quarters. These pigments are a dog to mix and end up hard. Luckily, you can still enjoy the Phthalo colors by using the Createx Liquid Pigments which are already in suspension and easy to use. Hansa Yellow cannot be effectively mixed by hand without bits of dry, crunchy pigments marring the pastels, which are difficult to bind as well. Diarylide is a much easier yellow. Alizarin is almost as bad as the Phthalo pigments, and always ends up hard. I replace it with Quinacridone Magenta in Createx Liquid Pigment form. Prussian Blue stains like Phthalo Blue and makes hard, glassy sticks. I replace it with Createx Thalo Purple Shade. Others I have struggled with are Viridian, Carbazole Violet and Cobalt Violet. I have learned to do without them.

Toxic pigments - Artists have become more concerned with avoiding chemicals that over time could cause harm to their health. The dry pigments that are toxic include the Cadmiums and Cobalt pigments and lead-based Naples Yellow. All of these pigments can be substituted with other nontoxic pigments. Cadmium Red can be replaced by Napthol and Permanent Red. Cadmium Yellow can be replaced by Diarylide Yellow. Cobalt Blue can be replaced with Cerulean and French Ultramarine Blue. Naples Yellow is rarely used in pastels, and its weak color can easily be matched using other yellows.

All knowledge requires effort - Trail and error cannot be avoided and eliminated. Guidance and some good tips, however, can shave off much of the wasted effort and help us get successful results.

With Daniel Smith quality dry pigments, Createx Liquid Pigments and my "secret formula," any pastel artist can make fine professional-quality pastels. These soft, buttery pastels can help you get the most from the beautiful medium of pastel, and enhance your knowledge of color. Your work will be more distinctive, and you can even save money in the process. Good luck!

Paul de Marrais

About the Author
Paul de Marrias finds pastels the perfect fit for his temperment and artistic interests. "Color has always been the focus of my paintings," he says, "and pastel has the most beautiful color of any painting medium." Committed to painting en plein air, Paul finds most of his subjects near his farm in Greene County, Tennessee. "The fast-moving light demands speedy, intuitive decisions, and pastel is the ideal medium for this way of working." In addition to painting, Paul also hybridizes daylilies and raises butterflies. He is represented by LizBeth & Co. Fine Art Gallery in Knoxville, TN, Blowing Rock Frameworks and Gallery, Blowing Rock, NC, and Acorns and Ivy, Jonesborough, TN.