Making Pastels By Hand
Making Pastels By Hand
From the book Asphalt Renaissance, available on Amazon.
During my first years in Rome, as winter approached and work outdoors on the pavement became too chilling, I would retreat into my small studio in Piazza Chiara behind the drum of the Pantheon. I enjoyed holing up, researching old texts, visiting museums, daydreaming, and seeking answers to artistic questions that called to me. It was also a perfect time for making pastels by hand.
I never liked using commercial chalks for permanent or pavement art applications due to their dusty nature and the limited color palette. Each year, as the New Year rolled around, I’d begin thinking about making another batch of my handmade pastels to have on hand for the coming year. Since a single large street painting could consume nearly a hundred expensive commercial pastels, the cost took a large bite out of my profits. When it comes to art, I always use the best-quality materials I can find. The commercial pastel color palette is very restrictive and it’s impossible to achieve the dark, rich tones of master paintings, or find a white that truly covers the surface of the pavement. Furthermore, I need materials that can stand up to the challenges of sun, wind, dirt, rain, grease, and irregular surfaces. Commercial pastels are designed for use on paper in a protected environment, not the street.
When it comes to art, I always aim to use the best quality materials I can find. The commercial pastel color palette is very restrictive, and it’s impossible to achieve the dark, rich tones of master paintings, or find a white that adequately covers the pavement surface. Furthermore, my materials need to stand up to sun, wind, dirt, rain, grease, and irregular surfaces. Commercial pastels are designed solely for use on paper, and to be displayed under glass (not on the street).
Historically, madonnari worked solely with black (charcoal) and white (chalk), and perhaps a bit of red derived from a scrap of brick or roof tile. Over time, they began to use more color. The first bit of color began by making stone-shaped chalks and pastels from powdered pigments. This tradition began to disappear once bright and colorful (although flat-toned) chalks appeared on the market. In Orwell’s account in Down and Out in Paris and London, the pavement artist Bozo said, “I’m what they call a serious screever. I don’t draw in blackboard chalks like these others, I use proper colors the same as what painters use; bloody expensive they are, especially the reds.”
21,000 Handmade Pastels
By rummaging in old libraries, I uncovered several ancient recipes for pastels. The authors most certainly had uses in mind other than street painting, but they served as a starting point. These were personal formulas based on the experiences and intuitions of the artists who wrote them down. They called for mixing natural pigments with a range of comestible binders, such as sugar, milk, fig’s milk, beer, ale, and honey. Orwell reports that pavement artists bought their colors in the form of powder and worked them into cakes using condensed milk as the binder. The old recipes simply consisted of ingredient lists, without mixing proportions, apart from the occasional spoonful or cupful of an ingredient (although there was no standardization for the size of a spoon or cup).
After much experimentation, I devised a recipe that accounted for the peculiarities of each pigment, which enabled me to make pastels with the color and texture I wanted. I often got together with other pavement artists interested in making pastels. By joining forces, we could make more pastels as a group than individually. Our largest production was in Naples when, with seven friends from six countries, we made 21,000 pastels in a single week. Of course, the studio was a mess, and it took us another week to clean everything.
Ingredients for Pastels
The commercial cost of pastels reflects the inconvenience of manufacturing and marketing them, rather than the value of their ingredients. Making pastels provides significant savings along with superior materials and the flexibility of a personalized color palette.
Below are ingredients common to commercially produced chalks, dry pastels, pastel crayons, and French pastels.
Chalk and Fillers
Chalk is a soft, fine-grained, white calcium carbonate composed of ground-up diatom skeletons. It can be made from slaked and dried lime (sometimes called precipitated limestone) and can be purchased from construction-supply sources. Hydrated magnesium silicate (talc) is often an ingredient in French pastels. Silicon dioxide (silica) is a similar but more refined filler than calcium carbonate and has even less tincture strength. It’s also available in numerous particle sizes. Fillers are not necessary for pastels, although they can provide smoother blends that artists enjoy.
Pigments give color to pastels and are typically made from oxidized metals. This means the metal has “decomposed” from contact with air, water, or chemicals that cause it to break down. For example, rust is a pigment made from red iron oxide. Decomposing metals with very strong chemicals creates synthetic pigments. Prussian blue (copper phthalocyanine) is made from copper broken down by cyanine. Below is a selection of pigments that have historically been used for artists’ materials.
- White: Titanium Dioxide White, Zinc White
- Black: American Carbon Black, Mars Black
- Red: Ferrous Oxide Reds (Red Ochre, Mars Reds, Burnt Sienna, etc.). Synthetic red pigments include Cadmium Red (light, medium, and dark), Chrome Red and the organic pigments Alizarin Crimson Quinacridone Red*.
- Orange: Orange pigments include Ferrous Oxide Oranges (Dark Yellow Ochre, Mars Orange, etc.). Synthetic orange pigments include Cadmium Orange (light, medium, and dark), and the organic pigment Quinacridone Orange*.
- Yellow: Ferrous Oxide Yellow (light, medium, and dark). Synthetic yellow pigments include Cadmium yellow (light, medium, and dark) and Chrome Yellow, and the organic pigment Quinacridone Yellow*.
- Blue and Green: There are no natural or ferrous oxide blues except for Ultramarine, which is problematic for pastels and must be used in a mixture with other pigments. A good ferrous oxide green exists, which has different names depending on the source. Synthetic blues and greens include the organic Phthalocyanine colors, which are all extremely useful, as is Cobalt Blue, although it’s expensive.
- Violet: Violet comes as Mars Violet, a ferrous oxide, and as a tint of Phthalocyanine. Cobalt Violet is costly and hard to use in pastels.
- Brown and earth tones are available as ferrous oxides or earth pigments. Earth tones such as Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber are chemically similar to oxides but occur naturally. They are excavated, then ground into a powder and burnt in a kiln. The “raw” versions of these pigments have not been fired. Raw Sienna and Raw
- Umber is problematic for pastels because they tend to be cementitious, making pastels too hard.
*Quinacridones are not as good for pastels as cadmium, but can be used in combination with other pigments. Alizarin Crimson is a bit difficult to use, and quality varies between manufacturers.
Binders hold pastels together and include gums, glues, waxes, and oils. Gum Tragacanth is a natural gum obtained from the dried sap of Middle Eastern legumes. Gum Arabic, also known as acacia gum, is a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree. Of the two, Gum Tragacanth is a more suitable binder. Glues are less suitable, but wheat paste, wallpaper paste (methylcellulose), and even white glue are all used. Binders for pastels must have very little strength, or the pastel will become too hard and will not leave a mark on the drawing surface. Beeswax imparts flexibility to pastels, reduces dust, and aids the color sticking to the drawing surface.
Inert ingredients include marble dust, powdered quartz, and silica (glass powder). Inert pigments have low tinting strength, and as little as 3% to 5% pigment may be sufficient to obtain color. Commercial pastel chalks or dry pastels generally contain 15% to 35% pigment; manufacturing varies widely. When these pastels are sprayed with a fixative, the colors darken. The effect is called sinking-in. This is because chalk and talc become transparent when varnished. Fixing pastels is, in any case, not a good idea and is especially damaging when the portraits contain chalk or talc. Pastels are permanent when used correctly and displayed under glass. In this case, they need no fixative, which harms them over time.
My personal handmade pastel recipe uses no chalk or talc, only permanent artist’s pigments, and natural binders. Although they are a dry medium, their intensity and opacity give them the appearance of oil pastels. A minimal amount of material is sufficient to create rich, full coloration. They are resistant to rain, and although some of the pigment will wash away, a significant after-image will remain, facilitating recovery of the drawing.
Apart from hardness or softness, the primary distinguishing feature of pastels is whether it has a dry or waxy quality. Some pastels are chalky and dusty, whereas others have a waxy, crayon-like consistency. Some pigments such as titanium dioxide produce a naturally smooth texture, while others such as burnt umber or ultramarine tend to make dry, chalky pastels. A wax or oil emulsion allows artists to balance different pigment properties to produce a consistent set. Wax soap contains oils, fat, and alkali in trace amounts. Artists concerned about the permanence of their work should use pigments and painting grounds that are insensitive to these materials. (All pigments listed are insensitive except alizarin crimson and phthalocyanine blue).
Emulsification is the process of suspending a wax or oil into a water solution. The process is complicated and there are videos on YouTube that might help.
The best quality glue for pastels is gum tragacanth. It’s available on the Internet in powdered form.
Different combinations of the emulsion and glue mixtures can make almost any pigment usable. The organic pigments that weigh less generally need more emulsion to make pastels that match the consistency of the heavier mineral colors such as titanium and cadmium. Some pigments have natural cementing properties that result in brick-hard pastels even when they are formed using only water. Other pigments are so fluffy that they produce crumbly and powdery pastels even with a very strong glue mixture. These pastels tend not to rub off and attach well to the drawing surface, but remain a dusty powder. When making pastels by hand, an inert material or a pastel conditioner can sometimes be used for these pigments, or they can work in mixtures. Better yet, avoid these pigments altogether and use a friendly one. Pastels do not require fancy and exotic pigments. It is more important that the final product is enjoyable to use.
Forming the Pastels
Carefully mixing the ingredients and forming the pastels will result in the best possible product. The more the pastel paste is mixed together, the better the pastels will be. When making pastels by hand, work carefully with the materials to limit the mess they tend to create.
Latex surgical gloves, dust mask, and goggles are standard precautions when working with dry pigments. The area should be well ventilated, but not windy as it will disperse the pigment as a fine powder over everything.
Sifting the Pigment
Sift together the powdered pigment colors to custom blend your own tints. Mound the dry pigment on a disposable plate. Use a spoon to hollow out the center and pour the desired mixture of emulsion and gum (previously mixed) into the pigment. Making pastels by hand is much like making Italian pasta by hand.
Using the spoon, begin to gently stir the binder mix into the pigment. While making pastels by hand, do not try and mix everything together at once, but slowly incorporate more and more pigment into the liquid until it becomes a paste and starts to become clay-like. Eventually, it will not be possible to work the mixture any longer with the spoon, at which point it can be mixed further with gloved hands. Once the mixture is dry enough, it can be rolled and folded in the hands like clay without sticking.
Forming a Dough
Continue by kneading and rolling the dough-like mixture until it is flexible. This will take at least five minutes of consistent work. If needed, the dough can be worked on a marble slab by scraping a spatula over it. In this way, it is possible to see if the dough is smooth or contains small lumps of dry pigment. Making pastels by hand will be a more successful process when the dough is worked thoroughly.
Rolling a Pastel
Once the dough is elastic, it can be rolled into a ¾” diameter log and cut crossways into ¼” segments. Each segment is then made into a pastel.
Pastels are best formed between three fingers to their appropriate shape and size. They should only be rolled back and forth once or twice to make them smooth and round. Rolling the pastels too much will result in a hard exterior shell when they dry.
Allow the pastels to dry at room temperature away from direct sun. They will be ready to use within three days or sooner, depending on the pigment and humidity conditions.
To read further, continue to: Classical Drawing for Pavement Art.