Pastel self-portrait by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Pastel self-portrait by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

While I like to paint in oils, I find that pastel feels more comfortable and immediate for me. It is a challenging and rewarding medium that has gained popularity in the last couple of decades. Yet works in pastel are not always held in the same regard as oil paintings by galleries and the public. Pastel is seen as just a drawing medium, although pastel can be both a drawing or a painting medium. So can oil, if you do an oil “sketch” or under-drawing. The public at large – including galleries – need to be educated about this medium, which has been used by artists for over 250 years.

As far as most galleries are concerned, only oil paintings are truly fine art. That shows ignorance or disregard of art history’s famous pastelists like Edgar Degas, Eugene Delacroix, Vigee Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, etc. Also, galleries don’t want to deal with works that are under glass because they are more trouble to sell and ship. Often art dealers feel that they can’t sell a pastel work for as much money as an oil painting, although I am sure an original Degas pastel would fetch just as high a price as most oil paintings.

Pastel can not be applied to surfaces like paint, although you can make a pastel work have visually the same qualities as an oil painting. A “painting” literally means a surface with paint on it. Since pastel is not a “paint” but rather a pigment (same pigments as in oil paint) with a different binder, art supply manufacturers make the distinction of not calling pastel a painting medium. This is also necessary because of the chemicals involved with making and handling paints, which are regulated. Therefore, technically, pastel can not be classified as a “painting” medium.

My personal goal is to always make my pastel paintings of the same visual quality as an oil painting. Regardless of the quality of any pastel artist’s work, most galleries do not consider them to be “paintings” or fine art. I know watercolor artists often face the same prejudices. A well known master artist, Virgil Elliott, told me years ago that he had stopped working in pastels because the galleries would not show them so he turned to oils. Yet, Cuong Nguyen, who is an outstanding contemporary pastellist, shows and sells his pastel paintings and drawings at the Pence Gallery in San Francisco. So there is hope that attitudes are changing due to more exposure of this medium in art shows, museums and galleries.

Outside of switching to oils, if you can’t get into a gallery, the only alternative for us “pastelistas” is to sell online or sell prints (on paper or canvas) of our work. If a pastel artist wants to be in a gallery, they will need to shop around for one that is sophisticated enough to accept works in pastel.