Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present challenges many common assumptions surrounding the use of pastel as a medium. The exhibition attests to both how the medium was applied well beyond the usual sheet paper and how it adapted to ever-changing painting and drawing styles, from the smooth pictorial finishes of the 17th century to the gestural approach of the avant-gardes. Here’s a look at the supports (e.g., paper, parchment), materials, and techniques that have characterized pastel through the centuries.
Created using natural dyes, blue paper was popularized by Northern Italian draftsmen in the Renaissance and became a favored support for pastels in the 18th century due to its rugged texture that retains pigments. It was used as a middle ground from which artists could build up chromatic contrasts, highlights, and shadows, as Carlo Caliari (1570–1596), known as Carletto, attempts in his Portrait of a Bearded Man, ca. 1590, using natural black, red, brown, and white chalks. The photomicrograph below shows a flecked blue paper whose hue was likely achieved with indigo, a natural dye with fugitive qualities (meaning it can fade easily when exposed to light). Because of this, it is important to limit the artwork’s exposure to brightness.