Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Pastel Colors

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_250



In painting the term pastel comes from the French pastille (Delamare, 1999, p.117), meaning small loaf or lozenge, in relation to the characteristics of the stick used as a coloring medium. The noun “pastel” also denotes the artwork produced with pastel crayons. As an adjective, “pastel tones” refer to light, pale, clean colors, as those produced with pastel crayons.

The Pastel Crayon

A pastel crayon is a compact stick used as a dry coloring medium, which combines a pure powdered pigment and a neutral binding for cohesion and plasticity. A calcium carbonate component, such as chalk, gypsum, or pumice, is used in the preparation of the stick, resulting in various degrees of hardness and in gradations from the purest to the highly luminous. Hard pastels contain a higher proportion of binder, are sharper, and work for drawings and sketches. Soft pastels usually come wrapped in paper, for they are drier and more fragile.

Pastel impressions served as the first measurement standards in colorimetry (Delamare, 1999, p.117) for their purity and similarity in color to those of the natural pigments.

The Pastel Technique

The pastel technique consists of transferring small granules of color from the crayon to the support, usually textured or abrasive for good adherence. A fixative is required for protection after its application. In pastel paintings surfaces result extremely opaque as high concentrations of pigment allow no refraction, but the effects of pastels may also be delicate and vaporous, as in sketches and drawings.

The Origin of the Pastel

It is said that pastels originated in France. Leonardo da Vinci refers to them in his Codice Atlantico (1495) as “a new dry substance” (Geddo C., 2008, pp. 63–87). The Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera and the French Quentin de La Tour represent the development of the technique, mainly used for portraits during the eighteenth century, with fast realistic effects. The immediate results of the pastel, appropriate for movement and landscape paintings, were the preferred art form of the impressionist Maurice Degas. The American Marie Cassat, influenced by Degas, created many of her most important works in this medium. Later, pastel tones became popular in Modern Art for their bright and luminous colors.

Pastel Colors, the Pastel Palette, and Its Application

Pastel colors refer to pale clean luminous nuances. The colors in a pastel  palette, different from the colors in a pastel crayon set, have whiteness as a common denominator. This particularity results from low chromaticness and a minimum or no content of black. In substractive mixing pastel tones would be obtained by adding white to a base color.

The pastel  palette evokes spring, summer, and Easter and has been traditionally used in infant decoration for its softness and gaiety. Pastel tones are also associated to the soft and velvety textures of pastel paintings, as in wool and cotton, sugar icing, and powdered eye makeup. During the 1980s pastel tones became a trend in architecture, interior design, and product design, ranging from men’s ties to motorcycles.


  1. 1.
    Delamare F. and B. Guineau. 1999. Les Materiaux de la Couleur. France. GallimardGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Geddo C. 2008–9. Il “pastello” ritrovato: un nuovo ritratto di Leonardo? Italian in Artes, no. 14. http://www.lumiere-technology.com/Artes14.pdf. Accessed: August 24, 2015
  3. 3.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastel. Accessed: August 24, 2015

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Architecture, Landscape and Color DesignArquitectura Paisajismo ColorLimaPeru