The Possibilities of Pastels | Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold | Scene4 Magazine | June 2022 | www.scene4.com

The Possibilities of Pastels

Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold

Artists have used pastels and created works on paper since the Renaissance, but when we think of the medium, we generally visualize Renoirs or gentle landscapes and still lifes of 19th century vintage. 
A new exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum, Powdered Pigments, succinctly illustrates that not only do pastels as a medium have a far greater technical range but they have a wide expressive one as well.  The small, but well-chosen, display of thirty works gives an appealing sense of the use of the medium over time from the 18th-20th centuries.

As a medium, pastels consist of powdered pigment held together by a neutral-colored binder of low saturation.  The hues are closer to the natural dry pigments than in oils or other media. Often, pastels are used in combination with other media such as watercolor, ink, or gouache (opaque pigments ground in water and bound with a glue-like substance) to amplify or diversify the effect. The exhibit explores the many visual combinations and possibilities of using powdered pigment. The viewer discovers that while softness may characterize some of the most beloved works, boldness and even brash abstraction thrive in pastel as well.


Beginning with several striking 18th century portraits, we see the subtleties possible in layering the pastels on paper for a supremely realistic look.  John Singleton Copely Portrait of Elisabeth Bowdoin is one of a collection of some fifty-five pastels drawings the artist made for prominent New World families. The overall feeling is warmer and more animated than that of the artist's oils, which have a somewhat hard-edged quality to them.  The draughtsmanship and skill at rendering the sitter are the same, but the skin breathes with a gently brushed texture and the atmosphere around the sitter has a dynamic feel to it.  Similarly alive is Deschamps de la Talave's 1767 Portrait of a Bi-Racial Woman which depicts a beautiful young woman whose lips turn up ever so slightly in a Mona Lisa smile with warm brown skin in an exotic headdress.  The artist's skill is evident in suggesting the fabric of her dress with its gossamer touches.

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The 19th century is also represented by pastel portraiture. Notable among these is Elihu Vedder's 1893 Pre-Raphaleite  Head of a Woman with its strong sculptural feeling and subtle neutral hues delineated by economic linear outlines.  In this, as in many of the works on paper, the paper itself plays a major supporting role to the pigment, using the cream tones of the page as underpinnings for the flesh.  Another riveting portrait is Anne Elizabeth Klumpke's 1898 portrait of the painter Rosa Bonheur. This is a far less stylized work than the Vedder.  Bonheur is depicted as an elegant, somewhat masculine-looking, elderly woman with wispy white hair, wearing a medal of honor around her neck.  Her eyes are soft blue and incredibly engaging, and her smile is serene.  The entire image is done in neutral shades of grays and beiges, and the artist's use of light is exquisite.  Bonheur is lit from the left side and her hair shimmers in the glow, her features gently limned.  But there is also a sense of inner light from her face and eyes that makes the sitter come alive and leap off the page.


Among the other 19th century works  are two pastels in the Impressionist mode by Americans: Mary Cassatt's Barefoot Child and John Appleton Brown's Old-Fashioned Garden. Like so many of Cassatt's other works, the artist presents the viewer with an intimate look at her subjects.  An auburn -headed, rosy-cheeked young mother bounces a plump baby on her lap. The mother smiles with pride, while the baby is the picture of health and contentment.  Cassatt's handling of the pastels is bolder than the earlier artists, and her palette is brighter- orange background, teal and yellow dress for the mother contrasted with the white of the baby's garment.  The flesh of both is infused with warm pinks, corals, and dashes of white.  Cassatt's pastel strokes are cross-hatched, especially for the clothing and background with only the faces smoothed into subtlety.  The figures are outlined slightly to give a strong linear feel to the piece and the overall sensation projected is energetic and lively.


Appleton's Old Fashioned Garden is a much more serene work showing a path through a wooded area dotted with wildflowers. There is a softness and blending of tones in a palette that uses the pinks, whites, and yellows of the blossoms as occasional punctuation in the sea of soft and varied greens.  Clearly, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and company are the inspirations here.


In vivid contrast to these delightful, yet highly conventional late 19thcentury works, there is  Maurice Prendergast's Maine Coastal Village, a gouache and pastel drawing from 1916, which uses the opacity of the gouache very much like oil or tempera. Prendergast's depiction of two cottages in their beach gardens perched above a blue Maine sea makes use of the energetic brushwork for which the artist is known. In the Post -Impressionist tradition, Prendergast combines geometric form with dancing linear motion and bright color influenced by the Fauves.  The Bowdoin work is beautifully displayed in  a double glass frame that allows the viewer to appreciate the opacity of the artist's pigments.


Three other works demonstrate the versatility of the pastel medium as artists move into 20th century abstraction.  Untitled by Abraham Walkowitz (1916) is a Cubist inspired study in pure abstract form. Using pastel and charcoal with watercolor to smooth the textures, this composition in beige neutrals is a study in movement and momentum with each of the three media assigned a different rhythmic role.


Norman Bluhm's 1984 Tryptych #6 is as brash as Untitled is quiet. Red, cobalt blue, and viridian green forms suggest tropical foliage from which emerge a mask-like face and a series of shadowy other forms that might suggest an eagle head and elephants.  The pastels are applied with a wild, dancing abandon, and, as with the Post Expressionists, the emphasis is on color and jolting energy.


The final  striking image is once again a 1979 self-portrait by San Francisco artist Robert Carston Arneson entitled Up Against It.   Using pastel, watercolor and graphite, Arneson allows the head to fill the page. Wild, wiry gray hair and beard frame a strong-featured face with full lips and prominent nose.  The subject's eyes are closed and his wide-flared nostrils suggests he may be breathing in or exhaling deeply.  There is a sense of his being in a separate space, on another plane at the same time that there is an unapologetic openness about the presentation of self.  The title suggests inner and outer conflict but the subject resonates strength and endurance.

If we compare this last portrait in the collection to the formal ones with which this mini-exhibit begins, and we comprehend the expressive range of the pastel medium as well as its technical adaptability to the changing styles throughout art history.  If there is an added appeal, it is the feeling of immediacy that these pigments, applied so quickly and directly to the paper, have for the viewer. Traditionally working in powdered pigments suggests a quicker execution - but also one which permits fewer revisions . And thus, there is a sense of spontaneity about these thirty works that makes them leap off the page, defying time and belying technique, and establishing their credibility in an art world often dominated by oil painting.


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Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2022 Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold
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