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  • Writer's pictureMakalla Shernick

Chalk Pastels

Health and Safety Disclaimer

When used properly, chalk pastels are generally safe for use. The majority of soft pastels are made of non-toxic pigments that do not pose a risk of harm. However, there are still important health and safety concerns that must be addressed. Since chalk pastels produce dust when used, there is always the potential of these particles posing harm to lungs if they are breathed in. Pastels also leave a lot of residue on one’s fingers and hands. This can be harmful if you were to touch your mouth or eyes with chalk on your fingers. The Art and Creative Materials Insitiute’s (ACMI) is an organization that promotes safety in the manufacturing of art materials. They have two seals, AP and CL, that indicate the safety of a product for use with children and adults. The AP (Approved Product) Seal identifies art materials that are safe and that are certified by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems. The CL (Cautionary Labeling) Seal appears on products that are not hazardous if used correctly. These products should never be given to children in grade 6 or lower or anyone with a physical or mental handicap who is unable to read and understand safety labeling on packages. On the ACMI’s website, there is a tool you can use to search all AP or CL certified products by the ACMI. This can be a very handy tool in quickly deciding if a material is safe for use or not in a classroom setting.

Brands Compared: Artist Loft (Micheals’ brand) Soft Pastels ($5.99 for 36) & Prismacolor Nupastels ($39.37 for 36)

Pastels come in a variety of formats. The main types of pastels are labeled soft, hard, oil, or pencil pastels. For my studio exploration I compared soft (Artist Loft) and hard (Prismacolor) pastels. Both of these chalk pastels are made of a ratio of pigment and gum binder. Soft pastels contain less gum binder and more pigment. This results in pastel sticks that are typically chunky and always more brittle and powdery. Hard pastels are created by adding more gum binder into the composition of the chalk pastel. The result of this is a pastel that is typically long, slender, and much firmer than the softer pastels.

The two sets of chalk pastels I purchased varied greatly in their use. The Artist Loft soft pastels were wider and shorter physically. They broke and crumbled easily under moderate pressure. In the same vein, using these pastels left a lot of pigmented dust behind. Using the same amount of pressure, the Prismacolor hard pastels performed much better. There was minimal residual pigment left on the page. Further, the color seemed to adhere better to the paper. In my observations, the most significant difference between the two types of pastels was the color mixing capabilities. For both of the brands I used yellow and blue and mixed them with my finger. The Artist Loft brand turned a muddy green color and started to clump together as I blended. The Prismacolor pastels blended evenly without any clumping and combined to create a clear green hue. While the Artist Loft pastels were able to create a decent variety of line weights, the Prismacolor pastels were able to achieve more varied line qualities.

Prior to starting my studio exploration, I had never used chalk pastels. That is besides sidewalk chalk or blackboard chalk, which may be similar but does not really compare at all to the experience of using artist chalk pastels. I found out rather quickly that having paper towels and wet wipes nearby was going to be essential to using chalk pastels. The chalky dust residue can get everywhere if you are not mindful of what you are touching. Other considerations of this medium would be storage and transportation. Since the pastels are easily breakable, storing them in a flat container seems to work the best. I have seen artists use flat wooden boxes to store their pastels. There was a large variety of effects that you could employ with chalk pastels. Through blending, layering, and defining it felt a lot similar to the process of painting. I also found that by adding water with a brush, the pastels could be used almost like watercolors. This was one of many ways that pastels could be manipulated and pushed as a medium. The nature of this medium being mostly pigment made the colors all very vibrant and enjoyable to use. However, I found that the vibrancy of the colors could easily get muddied through over mixing. Also, if you were working on a flat surface it was a challenge to remove the dust left behind without smudging your drawing.

I found this video helpful in learning some cool and interesting techniques to implement when using chalk pastels:

When it comes to chalk pastels, it can be difficult to decide their age appropriateness. I believe that all age ranges would appreciate pastels for different reasons. Children aged Pre-K to grade 5 could benefit greatly from using chalk pastels, they are vibrant and could be incredibly useful in developing fine motor skills. However, chalk pastels are very messy, dusty, fragile, and would require very direct supervision by the art teacher. As children get older, it becomes easier to be able to use chalk pastels in the classroom. For children in middle school, chalk pastels can be a quick and easy way of introducing and discussing color theory. As children become teenagers in high school, chalk pastels can be a prelude to introducing paints. Alternatively they can be used to “paint” without having to use any brushes. The contemporary artist, Debora Stewart, is a renowned pastel artist. She has attributed the soft and ease of use that comes with soft pastels, to developing her now signature abstract style. This artist could be a great opportunity to explain abstraction in art and employ students to create their own abstract works with pastels.

Initially, I was a little frustrated using pastels. It took some adjusting to get used to controlling the pastel to get the marks I wanted to make. Also, I had to get used to avoiding unwanted smudge marks and fingerprints. However, the more I used pastels, the more I grew to appreciate them as a medium. In my completed work with pastels, I found myself using them similar to how I would oil paints. I went back and forth between layering, blending and adding details with the pastels until I was happy with my finished work. I had a lot of fun making this artwork. The photo I referenced was taken by myself a couple of weeks ago at a local winery I went to on a really beautiful Saturday. I think this personal aspect really helped me use and experiment with pastels to replicate how that day felt to me. I would be comfortable teaching pastels to a classroom, as the medium is fairly simple to understand. However, I would need to improve my abilities in creating works that are more detailed and photo realistic if I were to teach this medium to older students.

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