The Case for Pastels

Mary Liz Ingram —  February 6, 2013 — 3 Comments

Ahem, ahem…let me clear my throat before I begin on this apparently sensitive subject.

I myself have been known to get quite feisty over the matter, cheeks flushing and all. I have most recently been in a bit of an irritable mood over the query, and I just can’t shake it. So, it must be addressed. Allow me to present the case:

“Order in the court! Will the defendant please rise. Pastel picture, you are now on trial. Please answer the following question:

Are you a painting, or a drawing?”

“Well, now that depends…it’s very vague, you know, these categories. Does it really matter?”

“Just answer the question!”

“I’m afraid I cannot. There is much debate in the world of art, and I just can’t take sides.”

“Let us present our first piece of evidence to determine this dreadful matter: a stick of soft pastel. Is this a drawing medium, or a painting medium?”

Evidence: a pastel stick

“Well, it is a dry medium, and you do draw with it. But couldn’t you say you create something painterly with it? That you use color and strokes, and in effect ‘paint?’ Finished pieces are often called pastel paintings, after all.”

“If it is dry, and you draw with it, would not the finished product be called a drawing?  It has been said that the amount of paper left showing on the final work of art can solve this conundrum. May I present the second piece of evidence: pastel paper.”

Evidence: pastel paper

“Well, now, let’s see… Some do say that if it looks like a sketch with paper showing, it is a drawing, and if it looks like a painting without much surface showing, it is a painting. This leaves the decision up to the appearance of the art.”

“So then, are art categories determined by appearance, or execution? This seems like we’re entering some pretty gray areas. How much pastel must be applied to transition from drawing to painting? How much drawing equals a painting? Is there a percentage?”

“But this is art! And art should not operate under defined categories! I object!”

“Ah, true. Yes, so sorry. BUT categories DO matter when it comes to shows and judging. So often, the artist must choose a category upon entry: painting, drawing, photography, etc. What do you say to that?”

“(sigh) Different art shows categorize pastels in different ways. Most often I find pastels grouped under the ‘drawing’ category.”

“Aha! so pastels are drawings!”

“Well, hold on there…sometimes they’re classified as paintings, and many, many artists prefer them to be called and categorized as paintings.”

“But are these categories based on final appearance, or on execution; whether they appear to be a painting or drawing, or whether they were ‘technically’ painted or drawn?”

“It seems to be up to the preference of the categorizer. We could go on about the definitions of drawing versus painting, that drawings consist of lines, and painting of blocks of color, but then we get into all sorts of muddy waters. So again, I say, does it matter?”

“Yes, for the jury would like to come to a decision, and, as we have earlier established, the definition matters for the entry of art shows. We find it irritating that pastel pieces can be called either, or and both, and we would like to settle this issue once and for all!”

“I am afraid I cannot do that for you here, today. The world of art is a complex place full of beauty and freedom, and there are not always concrete answers. You have the freedom to call it a pastel painting because it looks like a painting, while at the same time believing that you drew it with a drawing medium. I think that is the wonder of pastels: a drawing medium that can yield painterly results. It doesn’t have to technically be a painting, and one is not better than the other.”

“To summarize, if I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that you can be called a ‘pastel painting’ because you look like one, but that the artist drew you with a dry medium, which many would say equals a drawing medium. So, in conclusion, you are a drawing and a painting? Or a drawing that looks like a painting? Is anyone else in this courtroom confused?”

So we turn to you, the jury: what is your verdict? Is a finished pastel a painting or a drawing?

The case for pastels 


Mary Liz Ingram


3 responses to The Case for Pastels

  1. I think the term “pastel painting” is perfect because it acknowledges both the fact that it looks like a painting and the fact that it was drawn with pastels… however that doesn’t help the problem of which category to enter in art competitions, does it?

  2. Angie Strickland Simpson February 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I’ve wondered this myself. To me, a drawing or sketch is done with a pencil, pen or charcoal. Or even colored pencils. Pastels blend like liquid paints, so they seem like paint in a stick. I have some watercolor pencils which can be used to draw, then you take a wet paintbrush and go over it to liquify the colors.

    Trying to classify art is a real problem, including music and dance. Is figure skating on ice a sport, or an art? Would we judge the ballet on a scale of 1 to 10?

    I remember Del Buttrill in McDonough talking about his pastel art, and saying it was the perfect painting medium for busy people because the paint is always ready to go and need not be sealed up when the artist needs to take a break.

    • It is a tricky business, classifying art. I think for the most part classification doesn’t matter: pastels can be pastels, whether drawings or paintings. They can just created art without question, without the need for a category.

      The only time categories seem to matter is for entering art shows. Since the line is so blurry between painting and drawing, and jurors make a choice on the category, we pastel artists will just have to follow individual show guidelines. I have always entered pieces as drawings, with the exception of one show which included pastels in the painting category. It’s no insult to me if they’re classified as drawings, but they sure do look like paintings! I really lean toward “drawing” because I definitely feel that I draw them, the same way as I do with charcoal but with more colors and heavier application, but it all rests on personal opinion!

      Angie, I really agree with Del Buttrill: pastels ARE PERFECT for the way I live! I can draw (or paint!) for an hour, then wash my hands, leave everything as is, and feed my kids lunch without any problem!

      Thanks for the comments friends…feedback is always appreciated! 🙂

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