Experimenting with pastels as an eco alternative.
In my previous blogs I have outlined why I am exploring different methods and materials that produce less excess which ends up washed down the sink. So, here I explore pastel as an eco alternative to painting.
I used Talens Rembrandt pastels I bought from Cass Arts (reduced from £100 to £20- that was a good day!). They have very high colouring powder due to high concentration of pigment and they release beautifully on the paper. They are free of pigments based on the metals lead, cadmium and cobalt therefore better for both the artist and the environment.
According to Sophie Ploeg (a blog a recommend for artists) Talens Rembrandt is one of the few brands that clearly states it uses kaolin (a type of fine clay. Sounds eco but I wonder where is is from and how it is extracted?) as a filler, most brands keep their ingredients a secret.
Pastels are not simply coloured chalk, intact true pastels don’t have chalk in them at all. The stick is mostly pure pigment, the filler is only added to hold the pigment together. Compared to oil paint or acrylic with all their toxic ingredients, it is one of the purest art materials you can use.
Although pastels are messy, I didn’t have to worry about staining anything as it can be wiped away with a damp cloth, the less dust in the air the better.
I would always describe my practice as drawing no matter what materials I am using. I find mixing colours very difficult in paint and have a twiddly, soft hairs on the end of a stick frustrates me! I love being able to have closer contact with the paper with pastels. You can see the colour immediately and layer quickly.
In ‘negatives’ I discuss fixatives, but you don’t necessarily have to use them. Framing them immediately under glass will preserve them.
Expensive! The pastels I used are medium hard, but the soft pastels I have used before I very expensive and soft and crumbly… deliciously soft but frustrating. Unison an especially deliciously soft pastel will set you back about £30 for eight. You have to generally have back up pastels incase they run out too fast. Harder pastels won’t crumble as badly.
Made me sneeze a lot. Essentially you’re breathing in multicoloured dust. Mask is recommended. I bought two from B&Q which came wrapped in plastic. I suppose I could have used a piece of cotton instead. I may invest in a more durable mask. For the same reason you should use a damp cloth to wipe up surfaces.
Also, when the drawing became too dusty my instinct was to blow it off. But what I realised is that immediately after you blow, you breathe in all the dust which is now swarming around your face! So I started to use a vacuum cleaner to suck away the dust. This works very well, although it is using electricity which is problematic as I am trying to make my practice more eco friendly. I looked up advice and people said to ‘lightly tap’ the paper from the back. I tried this and yes it worked at the beginning but as more layers of pastel were caked on, it became harder. Also, it means the dust then falls to lower parts of the paper. So in future, I will use the tapping method for the first part of the drawing and later used a vacuum for the last parts.
Because pastel drawings are so fragile, they must be kept under glass. You can store them on shelves with sheets of glassine but you have to be careful what is placed on top. Best way to prevent them from smudging is to frame them under glass (with a mount so that the glass doesn’t touch the drawing).
A lot of people use fixative so that the pigment binds together. This doesn’t protect it completely though and it can still be smudged. It also dramatically darkens the image. So you can add brighter highlights after. Jackson’s have an excellent blog detailing fixatives
Obviously fixative itself is full of harsh chemicals that are flammable. Do you really need it?
As a summary, I would say that pastels are an excellent way of ensuring your practice is an eco friendly alternative. Especially if you should to go without fixative (although this means you have to frame quickly).
What inspired me to experiment with pastels?
A couple of months ago I went to see the Paula Rego show ‘Obedience and Defiance’ in Milton Keynes (5 star Guardian review). I was first faced with her challenging work at 16 and found her pastel drawings compelling because as I looked closely at the layered details I could almost ‘feel’ her hand viscerally working, both gliding and scratching across the paper. I go to a lot of exhibitions, and this experience is rare and special. Yes I have many reproductions of Rego’s work in books but nothing compares to being in their presence. Moving around the gallery looking at her Abortion series, up close and at a distance, the raw application of pastels match her challenging subject matter (she has covered illegal back street abortions, female genital mutalation and dark fairytales). I highly recommend looking her work up and going to see some if you can.