The Exuberant Art of Crayon Painting

Bouquet of Flowers-Odilon Redon; courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrea here, musing about art today. I made a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City—one of my favorite places in the world!—to see a show on Literary Posters (more on that in a future blog.) But as usual, I took a stroll through a number of the other galleries just to enjoy the heady buzz of creative energy that always swirls through any venue showcasing art.

As I took in some of the marvelous works by the Impressionists, I was reminded that this past Christmas, I gave a set of pastels “crayons” to an art-minded friend—and also decided to gift myself with a set, too! I have very fond childhood memories of exuberantly scribbling away with the huge set of colorful sticks that my artist mother let me use in her studio. The colors are much richer than regular crayons, as they are actually fashioned with ground pigments, just like oil paints.

That got me to thinking about the art of pastels, and how it has an odd niche in the pantheon of artistic mediums.  It doesn’t get as much respect as one might think—perhaps because, like me, many children use pastels in school art classes because of the rich colors, and so it doesn’t have the same mystique as oil painting. So, history nerd that I am, I decided to do a little research into the subject . . .

Head of the Virgin-Leonardo da Vinci; courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Now, the Metropolitan Museum made that task very easy—they have a wonderful section on their website (that explains the colorful history of pastels. Here are a few of the highlights I discovered.

Drawing with sticks of simple pigment—like clay or charcoal—was one of the first ways that humans created “art” and the early cave paintings showcase our creativity is part of our DNA. It was during the 16th century that the Renaissance artists began expanding the range of hues from the basic earth-tones to more brighter tones. Pastels are fashioned from ground pigments which are bound in a medium, such as gum Arabic and then dried to form sticks. It’s a soft medium and can produce sharp lines, or be blended together with a finger or other implement to make subtle shades of color. According to the Met, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to play with an expanded palette.

King Louis-XV-Maurice Quentin de La Tour; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During the 17th century, artists began to do increasingly sophisticated pieces of art with pastels, and there began a debate about whether the genre was “painting” or “drawing.” (That’s actually a big deal because painters get more respect than mere scribblers.)

Princesse Radziwill-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun; courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the 1700s, pastels became very popular for portraits. I love the gorgeous painterly effects achieved on paper with the sticks of pigment! According to the Met, one of the allures was the brilliant, fresh feel of pastel colors. In both France and Britain, “crayon painting” became a very popular and many amateur artists engaged in using the medium.  An interesting note s that pastels fell out of favor in France after the revolution because it was identified with the frivolity of the Ancien Regime.

Sunset-Eugene-Delacroix, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, in the mid 19th century, artists like Delacroix returned to using pastels, and the medium became very popular with the Impressionists because of its spontaneity. Degas and Manet worked in pastels, as did Odilon Redon. (Don’t you love his quick, informal style, (see the first image at top) which suits his subject matter so well.)

In more modern times, the art of pastels once again faded into the background. Today there are a number of societies dedicated to aficionados of the medium, so people are still preserving the art of crayon painting. That makes me happy because I definitely think pastels deserve more respect! I haven’t yet had a chance to explore my new pastel set, but am looking forward to doing so. I love both the formal portraits of the 18th century and the quick, blurred Impressionist landscapes that capture a  fleeting moment of mist or sunshine. And though I have no illusion of greatness, it will be great fun to experiment.

Woman Combing her Hair-Edgar Degas; courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What about you? Have you ever created art with pastels? Did you enjoy it? (Granted, they are messy!) And do you like to look at pastel drawings?

16 thoughts on “The Exuberant Art of Crayon Painting”

  1. I’m always impressed by the detailed effects artists get with pastels because I can remember the mess I used to make with them in school.

    And I love that Rodin bouquet you have at the store of this. I had a print of it pinned to my wall back when I was in college!

    • Oh, how every fun that you had a print of that bouquet on your wall. It’s such a cheery piece of art that captures fragile beauty of the flowers. And the y feel so alive! t’s really qutie special.

      And I’m laughing at your comment about making a mess with pastels. That’s why kids love them—they make drawng a full-contact sport!

  2. I hope that you’ll soon start enjoying your set of pastels, Andrea! Thanks for your enjoyable post. I can’t say that I’d previously considered whether I like looking at art created with pastels; however, I certainly enjoyed seeing the pieces you shared.

    • Glad you enjoyed the images. I find pastel portraits remarkable in their detail and ability to capture nuances of expression just as well as oil paintings. They are far more unforgiving than paint, which dries and allows overpainting.

    • I have a set of pastels, but I haven’t had them out in a long time. Many years ago I took an art class where we used charcoals and pastels. You have encouraged me to get them back out.

    • Ha, ha, Annette.

      I expect to feel exactly the same way after trying to futz around with the pastels and seeing my results! But it will still be fun to try!

    • For me, the colors are what make pastel so wonderful. There’s a vibrancy that you really can’t get in any other drawing medium. When you look at them up closep, they just look so fresh and brilliant.

      I wish I had the talent to use them well!

  3. Beautiful examples, Andrea, especially the portraits! I engaged briefly with pastels in art school and found that I had zero talent in this medium, and I made a mess though no longer a child! But beautiful work can be done for sure. Thanks for telling us the history,

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Mary Jo. Your comment on “mess” made me laugh. When I finally get around to trying my pastels , I am fully prepared to look like Pigpen in “Peanuts!”

  4. Lovely post, Andrea. I never considered crayons and pastels to be something adults would use, and your post has opened my eyes to the possibilities. And I would never have guessed that some of the images you shared were made by pastels. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Anne! I was recently at the Met and after looking at a display of pastel portraits there, I did some more research and was really amazing about how sophisticated the medium can be when in the right hands. I really do want to fool with pastels again, but have no illusion that I’ll create anything resembling “art!” But it will be fun to experiments to the subtleties that obviously can be done. And the colors are so gorgeous. I just love looking at the sticks all lined up in their box!


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