Saturday, November 6, 2010

ESSAY: Some Thoughts on Pastel Painting

By Theodore Hoppe

I am the first to admit I know far too little about pastels. I always viewed pastel as a difficult medium to work in, perhaps without cause, since pastels are one of the most versatile media in the artworld.

Pastels are made of pure pigment that is ground into a paste with a small amount of a gum binder. It is the most permanent of all media when applied and properly framed, since there is no oil to cause darkening or cracking. Many sing the praises of pastels because of their directness, brilliance, and their ability to capture delicate lighting and nuances of color.

Pastels have been around for centuries. Their invention is attributed to the German artist, Johaim Thiele. Reserved mostly for portraits until the 1800's, they were discovered by the Impressionists, such as Vuillard, Manet, Bonnard, Renoir, and most notably Edgar Degas -- who championed them. Degas' protégée, Mary Cassatt, is credited with bringing them over to America.

My recent admiration for pastel paintings (which is the accepted terminology for this type of work) is due in large part to Mallory Rich, a Southern Vermont artist whose work was recently featured at the Skinny Pancake in Montpelier. Mallory Rich studied pastels and oils with artists such as Albert Handell and Gil Perry. Over the years she has had residencies at Great Spruce Head Island (the home of Fairfield Porter in Maine) and she has been in residence four times at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.

The pastels in her recent exhibit in Montpelier focused on Vermont landscapes. There were scenes for every season in a representational style. Two Trees by the Marsh is a scene of strong summer lighting and shadow on the bows of two leaning trees against a field of tall
dried grass. Storm Coming is a beautiful perceptive rendering of the land and the sky, and dark clouds that act as the agent of change. The River in Winter was the largest work, and perhaps the most pleasing. It captures a meandering stream winding along the roadside, with the reflection of the orange light of a late day sun slipping over the neighboring hills. The scene evokes a strong sense of the Vermont landscape in winter.

"Pastels are where I started about 10 years ago. I've only been working in oils about 2 years, so it's too soon to know which will become my favorite. I am trying to transfer the mood, atmosphere, spirit of a particular place (of being in the moment) to the viewer, and pastels seem to carry mood and emotion within the medium, somehow. Or perhaps it's the fact that with the many layers of pastel you can apply, you can more easily convey that spirit through the depth and layers of color. A very light swipe of a particular stick of Diane Townsend's hand-rolled pastels, for example, can convey that momentary kiss of sunlight on a distant field."

Hay in the Barn looks to some viewers as if it's drawn wrong," says the artist. "I was visiting a farm that had been in the same family for more than 100 years -- a working, active farm. The original barn was still serving well, as a storage place for this year's crop of hay. The window I was seeing had obviously been replaced, but so many years ago that now it was loose, but in an entirely different way from the sagging original window frame. The whole scene said time and hard work and usefulness to me." There are other such earnest scenes observed by the artist; Farm Shed shows a well-used farm tractor parked beside some outer-building, a familiar image that harbors a bit of a nostalgic feel.

Mallory Rich has been honored for her artistic efforts by being included in many juried shows in Southern Vermont and elsewhere, She has participated in the National Fall Exhibit at the Southern Vermont Arts Center (SVAC) in Manchester, Vermont, as well the Vermont Pastel Society Invitational at SVAC. Let's all hope she returns to exhibit in the Central Vermont area again soon.

You can find her work on line at:

Images, top to bottom:
The River in Winter, 24 x 30", pastel on paper
Farm Shed

Hay in the Barn, 24 x 30", pastel on paper