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It is probably the most durable painting/drawing medium in existence. Paintings created with it require no restoration and many works created as far back as the 16th century still exhibit their original brilliant intensity. Pastel is derived from the french word pastiche, which translates as 'imitate', possibly because pastels were first designed as an alternative to oil. It is primarily composed of pigment ground into a paste mixed with a binder, gum tragacanth, and a minimum amount of clay or kaolin. Unlike oil, none of these compounds cause the pigment to darken, and pastels will not fade with time like watercolors.

Modern pastel painting was popularized in France, invented by a German, Johan Thiele, and first consistently used by an Italian, Prosalba Carriera. Arguably the most famous early pastel artist is Edgar Degas, who is popular for his paintings of dancers which capture a strong sense of motion and light. Pastel use first arose in response to the difficulty of working with oils but quickly found its own unique niche as a medium for artistic expression. It is quick and easy to work with, allowing broad emotive strokes, and requires no drying time.

Sources:
http://www.pastelsandpens.com/aboutpas.htm
http://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa071.shtml
http://www.tfaoi.com/newsm1/n1m136.htm

These days you are most likely to hear pastel used to describe a color, rather than a medium. Just as pastel paints are lighter than oil-based paints, pastel colors are lighter colors. In the language of color theory pastels would be called tints, a mixture of a given color with white. In everyday language, a pastel is simply any color that is noticeably pale, but still easily identifiable as that color. Colors that are significantly washed out might be referred to as creams rather than pastels.

Pastel is still a somewhat informal term, and these colors are best defined in a "I know it when I see it" spirit. Pastel colors include traditional pink (but not hot pink!), lavender, baby blue, peach, and primrose yellow, although most of these also come in darker or brighter shades. If you wish to describe a pastel, it is usually best to use a modifier such as 'pale' or 'pastel' to avoid confusion. Pastels are currently strongly associated in Western culture with Easter and babies.

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Pas"tel (?), n. [F.; cf. It. pastello. Cf. Pastil.]

1.

A crayon made of a paste composed of a color ground with gum water.

[Sometimes incorrectly written pastil.] "Charming heads in pastel."

W. Black.

2. Bot.

A plant affording a blue dye; the woad (Isatis tinctoria); also, the dye itself.

<--3. a drawing using pastel, or of a pastel shade. 4. the art or process of drawing with pastels. 5. any of various light or pale colors. 6. a light literary work, as a sketch. -->

 

© Webster 1913.

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