Talk like an Art Head: The Pastel

Margaret Evans & Fiona Haldane

It wasn’t long after moving to Scotland that I started working at Eduardo Alessandro Studios, the contemporary art gallery in Broughty Ferry. One of the first things I noticed about the gallery was the number of landscape paintings it features. The Scots, I assumed, like their landscapes. Fair enough, I’m all for a nice sunset too.

Then one day something happened. The Scottish rain clouds parted, revealing the most stunning sunset I have ever seen, and I realised then that these Scottish landscape painters were painting from real life.
What, I thought they’d made it up? Well… yes. And I’m not the only one.

When my mom visited from the states, she came to the gallery and commented that the colours in the landscape paintings were “a bit much,” a bit “exaggerated” to be specific. When we stepped outside and the clouds parted, revealing those very same flamboyant colours, she was gobsmacked. Indeed, mother, indeed.

But it’s not just the orange-peach tinted sunsets that caught me out. Recently I took a road trip around Scotland and up to the Highlands. As we drove through the mountains and over hilltops, I felt a sense of Déjà vu. What was this place, I wondered, marvelling at the rising hills, brown green knolls with gentle blue babbling brooks. I had been here before, I knew this place – or somewhere very much like it.

Then it hit me. The gallery. I had seen these places in the works of Margaret Evans and Fiona Haldane. These were their mountains, their colours.

When I returned to the gallery, I studied their works closely, marvelling at the magic of pastel to capture not just the likeness but the atmosphere of the Scottish highlands. What was this medium that had such subtle and yet vibrant texture?

I remembered pastels as a fun by messy lesson in art class where I managed to paint my fingers, hands and face rather than depict anything remotely recognisable on the page. So the visual arts had never been my forte, but I could certainly appreciate such masterful work. And now, of course, I needed to know all there was to know about the pastel.

Get this: pastels trace their origins all the way back to the dawn of man! The caveman with his cave paintings used charcoal and coloured pigments to record what mattered most to him (and her). Despite this early start, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that we started to refine this basic tool into something a little more sophisticated. By rolling pure pigments into sticks and holding them together with a binder, man created the pastel. A Frenchman, to be specific – Jean Fouquet.

From France pastels began to spread when the likes of Leonardo da Vinci caught word of this new medium. In a surviving note-to-self, da Vinci wrote: “Get from Jean de Paris” – a Parisian artist Leo must have admired – “the method of dry colouring . . . his box of colours; learn the tempera of flesh tones, learn to dissolve gum lake.”

(Yes, the great da Vinci wasn’t born painting masterpieces, he had teachers too! As a side note, I’m not sure what ‘dissolve gum lake’ means, unless it refers to making a gum binder, but it sounds so poetic that I decided to include it for your reading pleasure! Now back to the main thread…)

At first pastels were mainly used by painters to create preparatory sketches. Then a steady line of artists began taking the medium seriously, culminating in Edgar Degas who championed pastels as a fine art with new and innovating techniques. Despite being a gifted painter and sculptor, Degas adopted pastel as his primary medium.

And what of the medium itself? Well, would you believe it but being a pastel artist requires some serious skill. Listen to this: Unlike paint, pastel colours cannot be tested on a palette first. Instead, they are mixed and blended directly onto the canvas or workspace. This means that if you make a mistake you can’t just cover it up – you have to be ready for the finale!

Pastels are also surprisingly permanent. Even though they are made from dry powder, once fixed under glass they will withstand the test of time, continuing to look just as vibrant as when first painted (provided, like oils, you keep them protected from direct sunlight).

As I am researching and writing this I am becoming ever more enamoured with pastel. What an amazing medium from its roots in prehistory as the oldest medium to Da Vinci and Degas to Margaret Evans’ and Fiona Haldane’s breath-taking portrayals of the Scottish highlands.

There’s something about the dry medium that captures the texture of the Highlands perfectly. Perhaps I will get out my old forgotten box of childhood pastels and try again now that I understand the compulsion to capture the colours and terrain. And while I may not personally do justice in depicting this lovely corner of the world, I can direct you to the medium and artists who do!