Pastel artists typically paint with pastel bars and/or pastel pencils, and there is also a variance of pastel presentation offered by the trade name Pan Pastels, in which the pastel is compacted (similar to make-up powder) to be applied on paper with small sponges.
My personal preference is the pastel stick or bar, and there are many different shapes and sizes out there, depending on the manufacturer. Pastel pencils are often used for fine details.
A dry pastels stick comes from a pulverized color pigment mixed with water and some binder (i.e. gum arabic or similar, in netural colors so that the color of the pigment is not affected). This mix forms a paste which is shaped into a stick, and it maintains what shape when it dries.
Depending on how much binder is used, the pastel stick will be more or less porous. A lower amount of binder will produce more porosity and the outcome will be a softer pastel stick. Therefore, the harder sticks will be those with more binder in them, that is, those with less porosity. Harder pastels allow for more precise/fine lines. Soft pastels accomplish a more painterly effect. But in general with both types of pastels one can accomplish many different effects, it’s all in the technique.
Some manufacturers add pumice or marble dust to the pastel mix to give the pastel stick a more abrasive texture, so that it adheres better to the paper. These pastels will feel more “sandy” when used. Others will feel more velvety to the touch.
The composition of pastels give painting with pastels some special characteristics:
-Immediacy: The pastel stick is applied directly on paper. No need to prepare the color in any way. What you see is what you get. The color of the pastel stick is the color on paper.
-Time savings: Pastels are a dry medium, therefore you paint in dry mode. No need to wait for the paint to dry when you finish. A second after the painting is done, you can begin to frame it.
-Easy blending: Pastel colors do not “blend” as you would blend a liquid medium. But they can be blended directly on paper with interesting effects.
-Dilutable in water or alcohol: Pastels are dry, but most professional-grade pastels dilute very well with water or alcohol applied with a brush over the pastel strokes made on paper. This is done for different purposes. I do it to produce an underpainting before I start applying color with the sticks, as I don’t like to paint directly over the raw color of the UART paper which is beige. I never use water, only alcohol because it dries faster.
-Layers: You can work in lawyers with pastels. The more “tooth” in the paper you use, and depending on the type of pastel you have, the more layers it can take.
-Spontaneity: Direct application of the pastel stick on the paper allows the pastel artist to paint faster and to be more spontaneous.
-Variety of colors: In the present time many pastel manufacturers offer a large variety of pastel colors to choose from, and many will offer them in “open stock”, that is, for individual purchases (and not by pre-selected box assortments).
-Highly luminous: Seen under the microscope, a stroke of pastel dust on paper looks like a mountain with many peaks and valleys (it’s not a flat surface). This quality makes light reflect in all directions and this gives pastel paintings a very special luminous quality.
All these characteristics makes pastels a very versatile and interesting medium to paint with.