Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Book Review: The Pastel Book

Title: The Pastel Book
Author: (Publisher): Bill Creevy (Watson Guptill)
Synopsis: An introduction to pastels which is methodical in its approach and comprehensive in its scope. It provides very high quality advice about materials and stimulating demonstrations of what can be achieved in terms of basic techniques, the use of colour and mixing pastels with other media. The explanations and images are excellent and the instruction is stimulating.
Suitable for: Beginners, intermediate and advanced artists using pastels who want to understand the medium better and to explore what's possible when using pastels. Likely to appeal to those who prefer a painterly approach to realism.
  • comprehensive section on materials, papers and tools with authoritative explanations about how different media and materials work
  • excellent and inspiring explanations and demonstrations of basic techniques and more advanced methods of combining pastels with other media
  • pitches explanations at people who want to learn rather than to be spoon fed
  • excellent production values and images
Think Again?
  • This book is dated insofar as it's not completely up to date on all available brands. However much of what it covers is readily available and relevant.
  • May well not appeal to those who like their realism photorealistic
  • Not suitable for those people who like very basic explanations and beginner level demonstrations.
Summary: A book that has made a lasting impression on me and opened my eyes to what is possible using soft pastels. This book is a "standard" in art instruction which attracts positive comments from a variety of sources. So far as I'm aware its not yet been beaten in terms of the comprehensive nature of its coverage of different brands of pastels and the range of ways you can use pastels to make art.

The Pastel Book was the very first book I ever bought about pastels any my hardback edition is dated 1991 and I bought shortly after it became available in the UK for £22.95! It was excellent value for money then and it's excellent value for money now.

The most recent edition is a paperback dated 1999. I've checked on Amazon and it's still selling well - both new and used!

I don't think I could have started with a better book. Bill Creevy is a Master Pastellist member of the Pastel Society of America and is listed in Who's Who in American Art. I very much appreciate books where the author is experienced and authoritative in their use of the media in question.

The book is very methodical in its approach and comprehensive in its scope. In particular it covers oil pastels and well as soft pastels. This will of course be heresy to some but the title of the book is The Pastel Book! It's also particularly suitable for people who want to work with an abrasive surface.

One characteristic of the book is the excellent production values in terms of a well made book with good quality paper and excellent graphics and images.

Materials and tools

As with all of the Watson Guptill Books which seek to explain a particular media, the book is extraordinarily thorough. There are 30 pages just devoted to explaining about:
  • the different makes of pastels (soft pastels, handmade pastels, oil pastels and oil sticks),
  • different types of papers and other supports and their various merits
  • mediums and fixatives which can be used with pastels - a topic which is frequently omitted from a number of other books introducing people to pastels
  • tools - in terms of erasers and spreaders and mark makers of all kinds
The analysis of the history and behaviour of different brands is the best I've ever read anywhere. What's also good to see is a commentary which pays attention to the legislation on issues. Having dealt with how the pastels came into being and manufacture, Creevy then goes on to describe in detail what each pastel feels like to use and their relative size and hardness/softness. He spells out which are good for which sort of techniques or what sort of support.

The giant Sennelier pastels are soft and smooth to work with but not fragile or brittle

Rembrandts are extremely easy to work with

Quentin de la Tour has a unique consistency somewhere between soft and hard: very firm but still soft

That's something you don't readily appreciate when you're starting out. Looking back now I can see how well-informed his commentaries are. This of course is where having an author who is a master at using the media really pays off! It also helps hugely if you want to develop your set of pastels.

However one of the problems is that some of the pastel names have changed and some pastels are no longer easily available. For example 'Quentin de la Tour' stopped being a tradename in 1995 and they are now known as Pastels Girault. The list of suppliers is also inevitably going to be out of date. Others such as Grumbacher can now be very difficult to find. The likelihood is that the only place you'll find them is as vintage sets being sold on eBay!

I'm finding that it's nice to look back at all the descriptions of pastels and - in the age of the Internet selling - to realise that it's now possible to purchase some of the pastels (like Diane Townsends) which were just names to me when I started out!

The section on papers explains what each is good for - and re-reading for this review, I discovered that I'd never thought of using handmade watercolour papers from India which he recommends. he also explains how to make your own canvas panel and cover it with the medium of your choice.

Basic pastel techniques
if hard pastels are this medium's pencil points, then soft pastels are its paintbrushes
It's when you read simple sentences like that, that you know this is somebody who enjoys this medium!

What I particularly like about this section on basic pastel techniques is that the drawings are anything but basic. I do get annoyed when books which introduce a medium only ever show techniques at a beginner level of dexterity and application. Where's the source of inspiration in that? What this book did for me was make me want to try and achieve some of the techniques and pictures I saw demonstrated - and buy all the different pastel brands!

A double page spread provides an overview of with a variety of techniques for applying pastels in terms of the scope for drawing and mark-marking strokes , dusting and scumbling and other ways of manipulating pastels, and using pastels with other media and various tools. Each is then explained further in a double page spread - or more with excellent images. You'll get a sense of how good they are, if I say that I've had this book very nearly 20 years and I can still remember vividly what some of these demonstrations look like without even looking at the book!

What I love is that this is an accomplished artist who can ably demonstrate a variety of techniques. He does not attempt to 'sell' only one method - rather he opens up a world of possibilities and leaves you wanting to get started as soon as you can. However anybody (like me!) who likes painterly realism will really appreciate this book.

He finishes with a detailed review of the role of erasers and fixatives.

Pastel textures

This section looks at the special properties of pastels in terms of how they can blend and represent colour and explains what can be achieved using pastels in different ways. He demonstrates the use of various blending tools - and on the opposite page shows what can be done in terms of representing the same image in broken colour. His explanations of how to use the pastels are again very detailed and accessible.

This was the book which persuaded me that broken colour was much more visually exciting than smooth and blended colour and got me started on feathering, scumbling and the use of broken colour.

They didn't skimp on the photography for this book. This is also one of the few pastel books which shows you proper 'grainy' pictures of pastel paintings - of pastels on an abrasive surface. This is one of the few books where I've ever had a real sense of texture and scumbling.

Color and Pastels

Given the availability of techniques for creating optical mixtures of colours, it's also important to explain basic approaches to colour management as well as the techniques for delivery pastel to support - and this is what this section does. He doesn't spend forever explaining the colour wheel in basic terms. Rather he gets into the different approaches to using colour, how these relate to how light works in relation to colour and how all of this can be achieved with the use of pastels.

Pastels and Mixed Media

One of the aspects of pastels which often gets neglected is the scope to mix pastels with other media. This book does the reverse and devotes an entire section to this topic. He highlights in particular one of his favourite ways of working - using acrylic gel without using any acrylic paint to create a textured surface. He also explains how to use alkyd gels or liquin - which then reduce the need for fixative.

I've also never seen pastel monotypes or gum traganth combined with pastels ever tackled by any other book!

Oil Pastels and Oil Sticks

If I was wanting to learn more about oil pastels and oil sticks this is the book I'd want to start with. It has a section for each and deals with how they handle and the sort of strokes you can create and how they can be combined with other media. It pretty much follows the same sequence as used for soft pastels in terms of materials, basic techniques and ways to combine the media with other media.


Overall I have to endorse the publishers description of this book. It's one of the best books I've ever read about pastels and it has more about the basics relating to materials, papers and tools then many books which are much more modern.
Absolutely the most thorough guide to pastel materials and techniques ever assembled in a single volume, this is the book for anyone working with pastels, from beginners to experienced artists looking to develop more professional skills.
For anybody wanting a really good overview of each different type of soft pastel, this book is worth buying for that aspect alone - even with the omissions and amendments to names. It's such a pity that there isn't a modern and updated version of this book. Personally, I think the various pastel brands ought to get together and sponsor an update!

There is no doubt that this book is a "standard" in the field of pastel art instruction. I know that it attracts positive comments from a variety of sources. Different people like different aspects of it but all appreciate the quality of the content.

On a final note, in rereading The Pastel Book for this review, I started to itch to get my pastels out again!


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