View Full Version : A pastel semantics question.

12-20-2009, 10:41 PM
I apologize if this has been asked before on this vast website.

I see the word, "painting" applied to pastels (soft and oil) and have always considered these to be drawings since these are dry mediums, applied without brushes or any liquid, and executed with the hand directly connected to the color and paper.

So by definition should they be called drawings, or paintings? I know the word, "painterly" can be applied to a drawing, but are pastels true paintings by definition?

Yes, I know it is a difference that makes no difference.


Paula Ford
12-20-2009, 10:49 PM
Paintings. Instead of being applied by a brush, they are just applied with hand, and therefore, are painted. I would never say my landscape paintings are drawings. MHO

12-20-2009, 11:07 PM
I agree with Paula, I concider it painting because Pastels are pure or almost pure pigments, which are the same pigments used to create the paints that artist use to put on a canvas.

12-20-2009, 11:52 PM
So by definition should they be called drawings, or paintings? I know the word, "painterly" can be applied to a drawing, but are pastels true paintings by definition?

The question, of course, is by whose definition! Since there is no "one and only" definition, you can call them drawings or paintings if you want. For 25 years I defined them the same as you - no brush, no liquid= drawing. On the other hand, I have seen drawing and painting defined by whether there is color (painting) or not (drawing). I have also seen them defined by whether they are linear (drawings) or not (paintings).

Most pastellists consider their work to be paintings - regardless of the above! On the other hand, some of the local shows that I get applications for (and sometimes enter) have separate categories for drawing and painting - and pastels are in the drawing category. This is quite stupid, but means that the organizers can collect 2 registration fees for people who do both pastels and oils, watercolors or acrylics.

Here in the pastel forum, we almost always call them paintings, so I do to!

Aren't you glad you asked! :cat:


12-21-2009, 12:05 AM

Words can often help one to express what one is "intending" to do.
Besides "painting" with pastels, I paint with watercolor and even on occasion with acrylics.
But, I also, draw with graphite, conte crayons and have even used pastels for drawing.
When I am "painting" I am probably starting out with a sketchy drawing, often in charcoal or in pastel. But, then I really shift my thinking to "spots"/shapes of color. Even though I am holding the stick of pastel in my hand and not using a brush, I am applying the color in much the same way I would be if I did have a brush. Those of us who are using PanPastels as well as stick pastels see even clearer as we apply the pastel using sponges and "tools".
It may seem like we are mincing words, but I really think differently when I am painting than when I am drawing. I value both.
You might think of it as using the pastels in a "painterly fashion".

You will probably settle on using the word "drawing" or "painting" to suit your own outlook on what you are doing.

Phil Bates
12-21-2009, 12:13 AM
Richard McKinley discusses this topic on his blog this week. Here is the link:


This blog will appear at the top of the page until mid-morning on Monday when a new blog is posted. After that, you will have to scroll down to see it.


Deborah Secor
12-21-2009, 12:24 AM
Let's define the verb 'paint', the root word of 'painting', this per Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: paint
Pronunciation: \ˈpānt\
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French paint, peint, past participle of peindre, from Latin pingere to tattoo, embroider, paint; akin to Old English fāh variegated, Greek poikilos variegated, pikros sharp, bitter
Date: 13th century
transitive verb
1 a (1) : to apply color, pigment, or paint to (2) : to color with a cosmetic b (1) : to apply with a movement resembling that used in painting (2) : to treat with a liquid by brushing or swabbing <paint the wound with iodine>
2 a (1) : to produce in lines and colors on a surface by applying pigments (2) : to depict by such lines and colors b : to decorate, adorn, or variegate by applying lines and colors c : to produce or evoke as if by painting <paints glowing pictures of the farm>
3 : to touch up or cover over by or as if by painting
4 : to depict as having specified or implied characteristics <paints them whiter than the evidence justifies — Oliver La Farge>
intransitive verb
1 : to practice the art of painting
2 : to use cosmetics

By this definition, my pastels are 'paint': color, pigment. They also contain every consideration and characteristic of a painting done in any other medium, so to me they are paintings.

I'm happy to note that in the shows around here we don't have to fight anymore with the organizers. They no longer insist that pastels be entered into the 'drawing' category. Twenty years ago we formed our local pastel society to educate people about pastels. Most of the time now they categorize by subject, and/or by whether the painting is under glass or not. (But I will say that back in the days when I entered with the charcoal and pencil drawings, I was almost ALWAYS accepted to a show because my 'drawings' really looked terrific in that company... :wink2:)


12-21-2009, 12:31 AM
Here in the pastel forum, we almost always call them paintings, so I do to!

Aren't you glad you asked!

That is what prompted my question. I noticed that artists in this forum and in the oil pastel forums, as well as the many professionals' websites refer to their pastel works as "paintings".

Historically there has been a hierarchy of two dimensional art media with oil painting at the top. Watercolor, and acrylic are the red-headed stepchildren, and drawing comes in last as the illegitimate offspring. This makes me wonder if many pastel artists have bought into this concept and feel the need to make their art more valid by calling it a painting instead of a drawing. Is it a marketing thing?

And just to make sure you know where I'm coming from; I personally feel that drawing should be at the top of the heap, and that includes how it applies to sculpture. Afterall, that's where it starts, no? Up until now I have always considered my pencil, ink and pastel work as drawings, no matter how painterly they become.


12-21-2009, 07:36 AM
Hi Bill, I guess the last word on this subject will never be uttered... as long as you don't call pastels "chalks", you'll do fine. ;-)

Here's another view, and as the text below concerns pet pevees... I may sound a bit... definite:

The medium/media in themselves do not matter, as you can perfectly well draw with a brush and wet media, so pastels are actually not the medium that combines drawing and painting, as many say, but is just like any other medium, it can do both.

It is the approach and treatment of the surface of the support that is of importance. Is the emphasis on drawing lines letting them represent form, with maybe a dash of colour here and there and a bit of shading -- then you have drawing. If the artist has used primarily hue-chroma-value to create a semblance of, say, a landscape, filling the paper with pigment -- then it is painting. (Yes, a vignette can very well be a painting.)

Drawing very often goes from the particular (line) to the general, while painting (often) starts with the general large masses moving successively to the particular where needed.

And then we can complicate things by mentioning linear style of painting... like Botticelli, who relied heavily on linearity, then colour in what he'd drawn, and blithly proceeded to indicate volume. And they're divine paintings --still.

The grey zone is rather wide, where painting and drawing overlap. But I'd give the 'rule of thumb' that if one is mainly concerned with outlining edges, then one draws, regardless of medium. And if one is mainly concerned with the masses and shapes, treating edges as a detail (albeit a very important one), then one paints.

Having come from oils, I treat pastels the same way, and I ain't drawing with them. I could, can, and have drawn, but then I'd call it a drawing, regardless of medium.

Disclaimer: This may well be the European approach to the question, or perhaps the academic, as I learned it at university (art history).

And isn't it funny that the old 18th and 19th century hierarchy still rules our thoughts so rigidly? I'd rather take a superb drawing over a bad oil, anytime! Oil-painted classical scenes were at the top, especially classic (Greek) heroes or nude godesses, as the human form was considered the most noble subject. Landscapes were lower on the 'rungs', unless depicting classical ruins... Somehow landscapes migrated to the top during the 20th century.


At the end of the day, it is our joy in creating that is the only important thing.


12-21-2009, 11:13 AM
I did wonder why all the beautiful mythology and history stuff started dropping out of galleries before I was born, Charlie. Those are paintings that caught my imagination when I was a kid. But so do landscapes. I don't think animal portraits even got into the hierarchy in the 18th-19th century order, let alone paintings of dinosaurs -- and those are favorites too.

I wound up defining painting vs. drawing for myself close to what you did but simpler -- if I used the ground as part of the drawing and defined it mostly with line and smudge shading, then it's a drawing. I sold cheap pastel drawings all through my years as a street artist in New Orleans and it was a valid market price for a pastel drawing.

When I started getting involved here is when I began to really understand painting with pastels. I started using the full surface of the paper or support sometimes and working the background with depth, painting details last, thinking in terms of masses of tone more than lines. I also don't try to hide my strokes any more.

I got so impressed by some of the 18th-19th century paintings where in various textures the artists carefully hid their strokes and smoothed every soft edge so that it looked real, that I was trying for most of my life to hide my strokes in any painting medium. Yet even then I could see that Impressionists with bold obvious strokes still managed to make a scene look real and the light look real, it was a different look that seemed like it'd be easy.

It wasn't. It took me the longest time to get to where my strokes looked good enough to let them show instead of blending them to death.

A lot of my drawings vignetted off into squiggly linear elements at the edges of hair or down where my subject's clothes were going on. I didn't want to distract from the face, where I'd go into a lot more detail. I had maybe three to five layers on the face in order to get the skin tone right but blended those carefully and still had linear elements.

So that to me is the difference between painting and drawing. In looking at it, a painting looks more painterly and a drawing looks sketchy-but-cool, or meticulously detailed and accurate but still drawing-looking. Mostly line vs. mostly tone seems like a good place to draw the line, since some paintings do trail off into a vignetted background too.

This is not a slur on drawings, half the art I've bought has been meticulous graphite drawings from nature artist John Houly. But it's true that galleries seem to give more serious attention to paintings until the artist is actually famous, at which point drawings and even preliminary sketches start getting matted, framed and sold.

Pan Pastels are a painterly medium though. It's hard to draw with them, as hard as drawing with oils and comes out looking about like that. It's very easy to paint with them and all of my results have been painterly.

12-21-2009, 12:45 PM
I am very impressed with the very well thought out, and written replies to my question. Thank you very much.

I had a college professor (40 years ago...yikes) who would say to me, "I don't know why you don't do more painting since you draw like a painter"...confused the hell out of me.(kidding)

What Elsie and Charlie pointed out makes a lot of sense, especially about the treatments of large areas (painting) as opposed to a more linear approach (drawing).

Deborah, I am very glad to see that the gaps between oil painting, pastels, watercolors, and other media are closing in the art show venue. Those gaps never seemed justified to me, when the artistic merit of the end result is more important than the medium (in the ideal world).

I guess for me, it is the direct, dry application of the pigment that makes a pastel more of a drawing than a painting, but after this discussion I will be more comfortable with them being labeled as paintings.

Thanks for the participation. It has been a very long time since I have thought of such things. By the way, I googled the name of that professor and there he was, still teaching at the community college I attended in the late 60's; Martin Mondrus. He was my most influential and encouraging mentor.


Deborah Secor
12-21-2009, 01:42 PM
Just to put a period to the end of my own thoughts, and not meant to be in any way dismissive, call it anything you like. It really doesn't matter. In 1989 when I started the Pastel Society of New Mexico I was trying to get the art world to admit pastels were every bit as legitimate as any other medium. Now, not so much. In college (30 years ago for me..yikes) I declared that I would NEVER paint... I was heavily into printmaking at the time. Long ago I changed my tune regarding pastels as paintings and I recently took up painting in gouache (actually using a brush--shocking!), so I guess that 'NEVER' should never have been said. The resulting conclusion? Call it what you like. I'm just going to my studio.... :wink2:

...but I've always enjoyed the give-and-take of discussions like this. :D


12-21-2009, 05:08 PM
horsefeathers! you got a DaVinci 'drawing' lying around - I'll give it a home. You got a cave with pictures within - don't answer that.
Casalbo's work in the 1600's was means and recognition.
You can't roll it up and run like with oils, waterc., and recently, acrylic.
Is it painting? Well, Sennieler and Roche developed huge selections. Covering their bases, were they?
Sounds like it's up to you and your situation.
It is, if you think about it, a logical progression. E

12-21-2009, 05:38 PM
The resulting conclusion? Call it what you like. I'm just going to my studio.... :wink2:

...but I've always enjoyed the give-and-take of discussions like this. :D


You are right of course. Semantics always makes for interesting conversation, but it is what goes on at the easel that matters most.

And just to add a little visual to the verbal, here is an oil pastel I recently posted in that forum, re-posted here along with the drawing I did as a practice study before the painting:

Descent, oil pastell, 12" x 16"

Study for Descent, graphite, 8" x 10"


12-21-2009, 09:31 PM
Just out of curiosity, and because we do have members from around the world, I am wondering if the same sort of division or categorization exists in all other languages. Anybody know of a language that has only one word to describe what we in English refer to as drawings and paintings? Wouldn't that simplify things! How about a language that has more than 2 words to categorize these types of artwork?

One reason I ask - even though it has nothing to do with the discussion - is that I have always found it odd that the English language, with its huge vocabulary, has only one verb (to paint) regardless if one is painting a piece of artwork or painting the walls of your house. I'm sure we have all told someone at one time or another that we were going home to paint, only to be asked, "What room are you painting?" German, for example has two separate verbs, "malen" (for artwork) and "streichen" (for walls). Hopefully, my limited knowledge of German is correct!

Just curious!


12-22-2009, 12:09 AM
Richard McKinley discusses this topic on his blog this week. Here is the link:


Thanks for that link, Phil. I just had a chance to read it, and it appears the opinion is simialar to here. (Also some good reading about the color, green).


12-22-2009, 05:31 AM
Another version of the definition between the two...a pastel drawing covers part of the ground,,,leaves a lot of it showing...whereas a pastel painting covers the whole of the ground

12-22-2009, 07:58 AM
Bill, IMHO, your old teacher was right, painting and drawing doesn't have much difference at all for you. The drawn frog is fantastic! The painted one is good!

Don, in Swedish, we have one word for "to paint": att måla. The noun 'paint' is färg, which also has the same meaning as 'colour', but we use the word kulör too. Then we can differ between an "artist", konstnär, and a 'painter', målare. So if I say I'm about to paint, I may get the same reaction. And it sounds very pretentious to say: I'm about to create a 2-dimensional work of art to be hung, framed, on a wall... :-D

So, you English speakers have the word for 'a painting', and also a word for 'picture'. Which of them do you hang on the wall? Both? Does any of those words mean a painted picture exclusively? You can frame a poster, or a photograph and hang it, and I'd call that a 'picture', while I'd call a man-made painting a, well, painting. Is that a correct distinction?


12-22-2009, 11:54 AM
Charlie, I would say that photographs, drawings, paintings etc. can all be called pictures. The word "painting" gives more information about the kind of picture. Example: one could ask, "Is that picture a photograph or a painting"? (I imagine that question is asked a lot around the photo-realist painters).


12-22-2009, 05:56 PM
I would agree that "picture" is kind of a catch-all word that can include just about anything! It would be fairly common for someone to say, "You painted a really nice picture!" - although I think creative types who actually draw, paint, photograph, etc. would be less likely to use the term. The nouns "painting" "drawing" and "photo" would be specific only. The term "print" however is more vague as it can mean a print (as from a woodcut, etching, etc.), or a photo, or a reproduction of a painting or drawing.


12-22-2009, 06:21 PM
Don, Bill, thanks. Ah, arn't languages wonderfully confusing!