Since I work primarily in oil and pastel, people often ask me which I like best. They also wonder what determines which media I use. Although I warn people not to get me started, here I go.
Oil is, of course, a traditional medium that can produce very realistic and luminous paintings. The very properties of oil paint allow a wide variety of effects and expression, as well as certain limitations. Solving the challenges of mixing the right colors and applying paint appropriately to a surface to get the intended result is what most artists find the most satisfying. The characteristics of oil painting are especially desirable when doing portraits and figurative work.
Pastel or “soft pastel” is also a painting medium, despite the perception that the end result is more of a drawing. The word pastel comes from the French word “pastiche” meaning paste since pigments are mixed with water and binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The name of the medium has suffered from the misconception that it only produces soft light tones or “pastel colors”. Yes, you can produce faint and light colors, but you can also produce dark thick applications that would be hard to distinguish from an oil painting. Some pastel paintings begin with an under painting done in acrylics, oil or watercolor. But the highest percentage of a piece is usually done with layers of soft pastel (soft pastel refers to the hardness of the pastel stick not softness in color).
Pastel sticks or pencils are made up of pure pigment – the same that is used in oil or other paints – held together with a binder, usually gum tragacanth. So when you apply pastel to a surface, you are in effect painting. Because of the properties and ease of using pastel, it is often used as a drawing medium. Indeed, one of the things I like most about pastel is that directness that allows me to manually move the pigment and exploit its properties to obtain the desired effect, whether it be a drawing or a more finished painting.
It is unfortunate that the public and some art dealers have the perception that pastels are somehow not as good, valuable, or permanent as oil. This is clearly not the case, since pastel can be just as colorfast and permanent as oils. You have only to look at the still vivid (and valuable) paintings of Degas or Mary Cassatt. Yet, many more recent oil paintings have deteriorated due to the artist’s choice of application or materials.
So what determines which medium I use? Naturally, if a client is commissioning a work in pastel or oil, that is what I use. When doing my own work, I let the subject matter tell me how it would best be executed. In my mind, I visualize the completed painting or drawing, which dictates what medium I should use to achieve it.