Newsletter #3

Newsletter #3

Howdy!

Welcome to my artist’s newsletter !

TL;DR

I’m holding a RAFFLE for newsletter subscribers only, details below. I also talk about a new painting, two people who inspired me this month (a celebrity and an artist), and my Artist’s Vision. Next, I share a joyous plea to be the artist I always wanted; a muse-poem; and three of my articles about pastel techniques.

Results

It has been a very busy month. The creative breakthrough I wrote about last time has not abated. Motivated, I’m in the studio almost every day for several hours. It’s become my new favorite room in the house.

Therefore, I have finished a new painting! It started as a larger study for a multimedia piece using the same source photo, but became a completed work in its own right.

Photo of a painting of a mountain overlooking a valley. The mountain is shades of green, with a dark green forest spilling over the ridge and down across the middle. The valley is mostly in bright to dull yellows, and there is a fissure running laterally across it.

Enter the raffle: give this painting a title!
(Soft pastel on archival paper, roughly 45 cm x 60 cm / 18×24″)

This mountain is at one end of ​Italy’s Piano Grande​. Here, the valley is full of yellow lentil blossoms, and a fissure caused by tectonic activity—it’s not a river.

News

  • Enter a raffle to win a print of my latest painting! It needs a title, so I’m open to your ideas. To enter, reply to this email with your title suggestion(s). If I pick yours, you win a print! (If you don’t have a title idea, you can also enter; just reply with the word “raffle” and I’ll add your email to the hat. If I don’t pick anyone’s title, I’ll randomly draw a winner from all entries.) Deadline to enter: Monday, September 4, 2023. The winner will be notified by email on September 6.
  • Put my creations on your desktop, tablet or phone. Download wallpapers by clicking on the images below (fits screens up to 2560 wide).
    [This is a benefit for people who’ve signed up for my artist updates. I invite you to sign up, too! Learn more here.]
Photograph of a mountainous vista. In the foreground is a rocky hillside of many textures and colors, in shades of grays and greens. In the back we see a snow-speckled mountain range, consisting of many crags and peaks, in shades of blue, green and violet. The sky above is a soft but bright gradation of yellow to pink.
Photograph of a grassy mountain clearing, nearly surrounded by a dense forest of very large spruce trees. In the center of the clearing is a wood house.

Inspiration

Arnold

Yes, the bodybuilder / actor / politician.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been grappling with my determination to succeed as an artist, coupled with my age. Since I have a long history exploring personal productivity, I came to the realization that I need to create a clear vision. Coincidentally, that same day I sat down and watched the first episode of the current mini-docuseries “Arnold,” which turned out to be just what I needed for inspiration.

I know enough about success to know Arnold Schwarzenegger is an outlier. Not only was he talented and determined at a very young age, but he was also incredibly lucky. That said, none of his success would have come about if he hadn’t started with his vision:

“My confidence came from my vision. . . . I am a big believer that if you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier. Because you always know why you are … pushing and going through the pain barrier, and … why you have to struggle more, and why you have to be more disciplined … I felt that I could win it, and that was what I was there for. I wasn’t there to compete. I was there to win.”

— Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast

I am also here to win. Therefore, I wrote the following audacious and determined vision statement:

My Artist’s Vision

To be an exceptional, remarkably successful ARTIST.
I will dominate with grace.
Nothing will interfere!
Nothing will dissuade me.
I will not compromise.
I will revel in the process.
I will see defeats as momentary, and turn them into wins.
I will only perform my best.
I will make my way and I will meet my goal!

Note: When I shared this with friends, one asked, “what about making money?” Rest assured, when I say successful, that includes making a living creating art. I do not shy away from the business side of my chosen profession.

With my clear vision written, I have begun to speak it aloud to myself, on a daily basis.

Remedios Varo

Two weeks ago, I discovered the late surrealist painter Remedios Varo (Wikipedia). Originally from Spain, she spent time in France, and the last 20 years of her life in Mexico, where she is well known.

This article on Varo piqued my curiosity with its discussion about her varied techniques, three I’d not heard of—decalcomania, grattage, and soufflage—but also inlay and (ta da!) textured gesso.

Since I’ve been playing with textured gesso, I am curious about other less-common ways I can affect the surface and texture of my artworks. Therefore, I have already received and started devouring the companion book, from the current show at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Challenges

“There are two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction. When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

― Wendell Berry

Truly, I don’t know which way to go, next. My journey has begun.

Blog posts in the last month:

  • You Always Wanted to Be an Artist – During this process of unlocking myself as an artist, I wrote the following joyous plea to myself. In it, I remember how good it felt to be a creative child, and to be spellbound by both seeing and creating art.
  • Memento, a Poem – This short poem was inspired by something remarkable. Written in response to a creative writing prompt—anything in 50 words, using the term “gossamer”—I include the back-story, too.

Techniques

For artists:

  • Working Safely with Pastels – A no-nonsense, straightforward guide to working safely with soft (chalk) pastels. I cut through conflicting information, draw on safety data from several pastel brands, and offer an inexpensive, highly effective solution for airborne pastel dust.
  • Make Pastel Sticks from Broken Pastels – Artist Tip! Did you know you can collect pastel dust and broken bits, and easily re-form sticks with it? Here’s a quick DIY guide on how to make pastel sticks from broken pastels.
  • Experimenting with Painting on Photos: Pt. 4 – In my fourth set of experiments with painting over fine art photographs, I had fun applying pastels to layers of gesso, textured in interesting ways with a heat gun. Learn about the process and my key takeaways.

I Appreciate You!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reply to this email with questions or comments. It’s great that you let me keep in touch with you!

Don’t forget to reply with your painting title idea(s), or simply the word “raffle” to enter!

💋
Marlene

P.S. See what I’m sharing (no account needed!) on Mastodon.art, Glass.photo and my web site, BreitensteinArt.com.


Thanks for your time and attention, both are valuable. 🙏🏻
I invite you to view my photographs and paintings, and to learn more about me.


If you liked this post, you have options:


© Marlene Breitenstein. I welcome your inquiries about purchasing, licensing, or republishing my work. I take my intellectual property seriously. This post and its contents, unless otherwise noted, is owned by Marlene Breitenstein. It is not to be reproduced, copied, or published in derivative, without permission from the artist. I’m nice, but I do not hesitate to pursue copyright infringements. Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.

You Always Wanted to Be an Artist

You Always Wanted to Be an Artist

Writer Ray Bradbury titled one of his short stories, “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” a lyrical line that has danced in my head for as long as I can remember. It comes from William Butler Yeats’ poem The Song of Wandering Aengus. Yeats composed three beautiful, short stanzas to describe a life of yearning, striving, and searching, all for an elusive desire.

Pastel painting of six green apples, on a dark patterned cloth, two of them blushing with tinges of red.
A painting from way back in college, one of the very first pastels I ever did. © Marlene Breitenstein, All Rights Reserved.

Like the character Aengus, I’ve carried a lifetime of longing for a single thing: I’ve always wanted to be an artist.

During this process of unlocking myself as an artist, last November I wrote the following joyous plea to myself. In it, I remember how good it felt to be a creative child, and to be spellbound by both seeing and creating art.


You Always Wanted to Be an Artist

Right?
So why aren’t you being one?
Photography is great, it’s an art, you love it, you’re good at it …
But I expect more from you.

1

Painting, love you long time.

Since your youth, you’ve admired painters.
As a teen, you read their diaries and writings,
And spent your weekends—not at parties—but at
Art museums and galleries, looking at paintings.
On your wall, you hung posters and post cards of, yes, paintings.

Then, you stole a book. Sort of.
It was the first library book about the Impressionists you saw,
And you didn’t return it.
(Paying for it later, it still sits on your shelf.)
When new exhibits came around, you were there,
Eating all the beauty and wonder with your eyes.
You looked at every single piece of art
In every single museum
Available to you,
Repeatedly.
You made an effort to understand modern art,
Even when you couldn’t.

2

You have always wanted to be an artist.
(Also, a poet, a writer, a dancer, even an actor.)
But you’ve always wanted to use your hands
To make art.
To lose yourself in making art. You used to do that, remember?
Remember that feeling of being lost in creating.
Before judgement,
And before insecure people visited their shortcomings on you.
(Before the jealous friend made you hide your light,
And an ex told you weren’t being an artist the right way—as if!
Before you learned how little most artists make,
And before, before …)
Forget all that!

Remember these instead:
Being a child lost in drawing, coloring books, paint-by-numbers,
And book-corner animations. Those times when
You copied drawings, drew animals from photos;
Drew what you saw at church, instead of listening.
Drew from sculptures and paintings.
Painted from paintings. Photographed paintings…

Set aside persecution, cast off doubt.
Step away from the experiences and people
That drove you away from something you loved
—And still love
Though it might seem hard to find that love
Without shame and fear of judgement.
But! The creative person inside loves you, and is smiling.
She remembers that pleasure of losing yourself
By immersing yourself in art.

3

Remember, too, what you mused over as a child?
The things your mind and imagination touched on,
Ruminated over, wondered about?

It’s time to touch base with that musing nature again.
To be free to meander and
Look and muse, explore and muse,
Walk and muse, read and muse,
Just to look at things,
Look look look and muse.
Find your muse.
To rediscover your many muses, work with them,
Let them stir you, rouse you.

After all, you’ve always wanted to be an artist.

I know you can remember that feeling,
Finding wonder in the things surrounding you.
Light bouncing golden off the pavement,
And how it glowed on a wall.
The sound of rustling leaves, and wondering,
What does the source of the wind looked like?
A turn of phrase in a book that carried you,
Inspired, into a daydream.
That is what it was like,
To be lost in creating.
It was sensual, magical, mystical, delightful.
Remember that feeling.
Nurture it.
Imagine it!
FEEL IT!

4

You loved it.
While creating, time was timeless.
You were in the moment,
Not in any story
Other than the story of the moment.

That moment was golden, innocent,
Connected to nothing but self and doing,
Doing and ether, ether and mystery, the mystery of how.
How the ability came, how the inspiration arrived,
How the marks made the results.

Because it is a mystery, it’s a knowing without knowing how.
You’ve known it was born in you, never to be taken away,
Something that will live in you for as long as you live.
And because of your knowledge now, you know it’s
Part of ancestry, a thread that goes back beyond history.

No wonder you always wanted to be an artist!
So now that you can remember,
It’s nearing the time to work through what’s happened,
One way or another.
To pull that thread through the eye,
Unravel the knot that blocks its passage,
Do what it takes to see your imagination and creation come forth.
And, soon enough, it will be time to do the work. So…

  1. Remember.
  2. Then work through.
  3. Then do the work.

One step at a time, though.

Right now, let’s just remember that ART FEELS GOOD.


After Being Reminded that I Always Wanted to Be an Artist

The night I wrote that, I slept like a baby.

Subsequently, I’ve done a lot more writing, which has taken me back to good memories, times I felt connected, safe, and loved. Conversely, I’ve recalled difficulties, explored why I’ve been stuck, and scribbled or typed raw expressions of frustration. Sometimes I’ve ruminated on the quizzical nature of other people, and their impacts on me.

These forays into the past have often been streams of consciousness, letting whatever-it-is pour out of me, going wherever it will, and carrying me along.

Surprisingly, expressing myself to myself has proven to be less emotionally heavy than I had feared. For years, decades, I’d shy away because I thought something dark would come out.

Instead, I’m finding light. Often I feel energized rather than dragged down, even in the midst of revisiting negative experiences. Within, there is a sense of fortitude and healing.

Best of all, I feel movement, and that movement is forward.


Thanks for your time and attention, both are valuable. 🙏🏻
I invite you to view my photographs and paintings, and to learn more about me.


If you liked this post, you have options:


© Marlene Breitenstein. I welcome your inquiries about purchasing, licensing, or republishing my work. I take my intellectual property seriously. This post and its contents, unless otherwise noted, is owned by Marlene Breitenstein. It is not to be reproduced, copied, or published in derivative, without permission from the artist. I’m nice, but I do not hesitate to pursue copyright infringements. Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.

Make Pastel Sticks from Broken Pastels

Make Pastel Sticks from Broken Pastels

Did you know you can collect pastel dust and broken bits, and easily re-form sticks with it? Surprisingly, I learned this rather late. Here’s a quick guide on how to make pastel sticks from broken pastels.

Gathering Pastel Bits and Dust

It’s annoying, I know. Sometimes you’re painting away with your soft pastels, and tiny bits breaks off. Other times, a particularly fragile stick seems to crumble, when painting too aggressively. Maddeningly, these remnants are too small to hold.

Further, while you work, little piles of pastel dust collect on the easel’s shelf. Argh!

Every so often, I used to wipe both the bits and dust away with a damp cloth.

Now, however, I collect it all in little marmalade jars and condiment cups. Pastels are expensive, they will only get more costly, and I was raised to be thrifty.

Photo of small jars and condiment cups, holding broken bits of pastels and pastel dust.
Squeee! A reason to collect little jars!

As I work on a painting, I sometimes use a lot of similar colors at once. That means the dust that gathers on my easel’s shelf is also similar in color. Other times, I change colors frequently, creating a multicolored dust.

In both cases, every so often I carefully sweep the dust and broken bits into my little jars, sorted by color. (Multicolor dust makes interesting shades of gray.) I store these until I have enough to form a stick.

Tip: Try lining your easel’s shelf with a smooth paper or Glassine. Then, as pastel dust collects, tip the paper every so often into a jar. Tap gently, so the pastel residue slides off the paper without creating airborne dust.

Note: Pastel dust shouldn’t be breathed. Read my complete, no-nonsense guide to Working Safely with Pastels.

How to Make Pastel Sticks from Broken Pastels

Once a little bottle of collected pastel bits gets full enough, it’s time to make a pastel stick.

Photo showing materials needed to make pastel sticks from pastel dust.
I live in Germany, so my Distilled Water has a German accent.

Materials

  • A bottle of collected pastel dust and bits
  • A small glass, metal, or glazed ceramic bowl
  • A shot glass, to hold a little water
  • A teaspoon (with a pointy-tipped handle, if you have one)
  • (A toothpick if your spoon’s handle isn’t pointy)
  • Distilled water (distilled won’t add any hard minerals, but regular water will do in a pinch)
  • A way to create water droplets: a clean pipette (dropper), the tip of a retractable pen casing, a pencil, etc.
  • A scrap of plastic wrap, smooth paper, or Glassine
  • A crumpled scrap of paper, opened and laid flattish

Instructions

  1. Put the dust and pieces in the bowl, and crush any clumps with the back of the spoon. Aim for an even powder.
  2. Pour a little water in the glass.
  3. Then, using distilled water and your dropper, apply one drop of the distilled water to the pastel dust. Mix them together using the pointy tip of your spoon’s handle, or a toothpick.
  4. Add more drops one by one, mixing each in well, just until you have a thick paste that sticks together.
  5. Place the paste on a scrap of plastic wrap, or paper, and roll it into a firm stick.
  6. Crumple a scrap piece of paper well, then open it up kind of (but not too) flattish. Place the stick gently on the paper, which will allow air to get under the stick. (You can also finely accordion-fold the paper.)
  7. Let the stick completely air dry. Unless it’s really humid, two or three days should be long enough. (If the stick feels cooler than room temperature, it may still be damp inside.)
  8. Use your new pastel color!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick guide on how to make pastels sticks from broken pastels.

Related topics

  • Read my complete, no-nonsense guide to Working Safely with Pastels.
  • Learn to make an easy, effective, all-natural, non-toxic DIY Pastel Fixative, inspired by Degas! (Coming very soon!)

Thanks for your time and attention, both are valuable. 🙏🏻
I invite you to view my photographs and paintings, and to learn more about me.


If you liked this post, you have options:


© Marlene Breitenstein. I welcome your inquiries about purchasing, licensing, or republishing my work. I take my intellectual property seriously. This post and its contents, unless otherwise noted, is owned by Marlene Breitenstein. It is not to be reproduced, copied, or published in derivative, without permission from the artist. I’m nice, but I do not hesitate to pursue copyright infringements. Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.

Memento, a Poem

Memento, a Poem

This poem, Memento, was in response to a prompt from writer Margaret Sefton, on the Mastodon social media platform. The prompt was for anything in 50 words, using the term “gossamer.”

gossamer • noun • gos· sa· mer ˈgä-sə-mər 

  1. a film of cobwebs floating in air in calm clear weather
  2. something light, delicate, or insubstantial

adjective : extremely light, delicate, or tenuous

More interesting background for gossamer at Merriam-Webster.

Here’s my poem, followed by the backstory and inspiration:

Memento

She lay headfirst on the table before me,
A slight and youthful beauty,
Gossamer hair fittingly pale blonde,
To match her translucent skin.
In 15 years, I never saw another
With hair so impossibly fine,
Floating into my oiled hands,
Unbidden, undesired, and yet …
A cherished memory; a muse.

Painting by Friedrich Heyser from around 1900, of William Shakespeare’s tragic character Ophelia, from his play Hamlet. She is depicted as a young woman in a white gown, floating among water lilies in a lake, with her arm outstretched.
Painting by Friedrich Heyser, ca. 1900, of Ophelia, William Shakespeare’s tragic character from his play Hamlet.

Backstory

For 15 years, I was in (mostly) private practice as a medical massage therapist. Some clients came simply for relaxation, many others for my specialty in pain management. However, my super-rare, very special specialty was in vocal massage therapy. As such, I saw clients with vocal pathologies, resulting from birth disorders, trauma, surgeries, brain tumors, cancers, radiation treatment, and other medical conditions. Further, I worked with professional singers, and folks with speech-heavy professions, like trial lawyers. I did a lot of work around the head and neck.

Now, being a particularly conscientious massage therapist, I was always hyper-aware of getting oil in people’s hair (assuming I was using oil, which wasn’t always the case). This was, unsurprisingly, due to my own experiences. When I went for massages, I’d repeatedly had my freshly-washed hair oiled up by other therapists. Many of them, in fact. I hated it, and could never understand how so many could be so thoughtless. Some of them weren’t just careless around my neck, but they’d purposefully run their heavily oiled fingers through my hair. Subsequently, instead of allowing the oils to condition my body until the evening, I’d have to shower immediately upon returning home, simply because my hair was now an unsightly mess.

Inspiration for the Memento Poem

Fairly early in my career, I practiced medical massage in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. One day a client came in, and she had the finest, most wispy hair that I have seen, before or since. It wasn’t sparse, just ultra fine and soft. I didn’t know individual strands of hair could actually be so thin. Her hair was shoulder-length, and I wondered if she could grow it any longer, before it succumbed to stress and broke.

Naturally, when this client lay down on my massage table, I was acutely aware of just how fine her hair was. In fact, gossamer was exactly the word that then came to mind. And, indeed, her hair practically floated into my oiled hands, despite my careful attempts to avoid such a fate. Oh, well. I apologized to her, and she said it didn’t matter.

But apparently it did, at least in my memory. Her hair was so remarkable, I’ve never forgotten it. She reminded me of so many beautiful, pensive, even sad paintings of lovely young women, like the one of Ophelia I include above.

And now she’s inspired my little poem, Memento. It’s short, but I hope you enjoyed it!

Thanks for your time and attention, both are valuable. 🙏🏻
I invite you to view my photographs and paintings, and to learn more about me.


If you liked this post, you have options:


© Marlene Breitenstein. I welcome your inquiries about purchasing, licensing, or republishing my work. I take my intellectual property seriously. This post and its contents, unless otherwise noted, is owned by Marlene Breitenstein. It is not to be reproduced, copied, or published in derivative, without permission from the artist. I’m nice, but I do not hesitate to pursue copyright infringements. Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.

Working Safely with Pastels

Working Safely with Pastels

This is a no-nonsense, straightforward guide to working safely with pastels.

Looking around the Internet, one could get the idea that soft pastels are a dangerous artist’s medium. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of conflicting information available. I cut through the confusion, draw on safety info from several pastel manufacturers, and offer an inexpensive, highly effective solution for dealing with airborne pastel dust.

The truth is that, with a little attention, working safely with soft (chalk) pastels is not hard to do.

TL;DR: The most actionable, important info starts here.

Note: I am unaffiliated with the brands I list below. I do not make any money by mentioning them.

Article Outline

[If anyone knows how I can remove the weird spacing in my outline above, please message me, thanks!]

What are Soft Pastels Made Of?

Chalk pastels are a dry medium. These pastels are made from pigment, plus enough binder to form a stick. This means they are one of the most pure, stable, and color-rich media in existence. They do not yellow as oil paint can, nor darken like acrylics. What you see is what you get.*

The term “soft pastels” actually refers to any chalk pastel stick, ranging from harder to softer. Harder pastel sticks are usually square in profile, and hold together quite firmly. Conversely, softer pastels are round, and may crumble if handled aggressively, or when applied with too much pressure.

A pastel’s relative hardness or softness depends on the pigment and the components of the binder. Certain pigments and binders are derived from harder minerals.

Colors from five pastel brands, from softest to hardest.
The pastel brands I own, from softest to hardest.
(Oops, I misspelled Sennelier, i before e.)

So the first consideration is …

Are Pastel Pigments Safe?

I first studied art in college, in the later 1980s. Back then, pastels probably weren’t as safe as they are today. Accordingly, our teachers taught us that some colors contained toxic pigments.

Fortunately, manufacturing knowledge, and safety considerations, have advanced since my college days. Some toxic components have been replaced with safer alternatives. Nevertheless, many art supply manufacturers still use a few controlled components in very select colors, like cadmium in red. Albeit, the level of the toxic component is so low, they pose no additional risk over the non-toxic ingredients.

To state that differently: Yes, some so-called toxic ingredients may be present, but at such minute levels that they are as safe as the other ingredients found in the artist’s color.

For example, Winsor & Newton says this about cadmium:

The level of soluble cadmium in the pigments is so low that no hazard warnings are needed, and they pose no greater risk after swallowing or breathing in than other pigment types.

— Winsor & Newton

Are Pastel Binders Safe?

The answer must be yes, or all pastels would be required to come with safety warnings. The “Safety Standards and Warnings” section below applies to all ingredients found in chalk pastels, pigments and binders alike. Further, it’s informative to know what the companies themselves say, about working safely with their pastels and other products.

By the way, did you know you can save pastel dust and broken bits, and re-form sticks with it?

Are Pastel Fixatives Safe?

This depends on the fixative brand and how it’s used, of course. Check the label of your fixative for more information. Most fixatives contain an (acrylic) resin mixed with a solvent, and should be sprayed outdoors.

The only natural fixative I’m aware of—and I certainly don’t know them all—is SpectraFix Degas Spray Fixative. As the name implies, it’s based on the formulation believed to have been used by Edgar Degas. Not only does it appear to treat colors with respect, leaving them unaltered, but it’s made with 100% natural, non-toxic materials, is odorless, and is safe to use indoors.

DIY Fixative Recipe

Naturally, since Degas made his own fixative, you can too! This recipe—which uses the same ingredients as the Degas Spray Fixative above—comes from David Blaine Clemmons (sources here and here), who in turn got it from the Reed Kay book “The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials.”

Mix:

  • 1 part by volume powdered casein (comes from milk) with
  • 2 parts by volume grain alcohol (like ethanol or 190 proof Everclear) and
  • 5 parts by volume distilled water.

To apply his fixative, Clemmons uses a Preval Sprayer with the inner tube’s end filter removed, since it can apparently get clogged. You can also go the simpler route of application, and use a spray bottle or mouth atomizer to apply it in fine layers. (Larger droplets will apparently disappear when dry.)

Reportedly, 2 to 4 coats of this fixative should be enough, but if you apply it very finely, you may need more. Store unused fixative in the refrigerator, where it should last a few weeks.

(I’m eager to switch to this fixative using the mouth atomizer I’ve had forever … and just found in the first place I looked 😃. Taken altogether, this method is better for the planet than metal cans, acrylic resins, solvents and aerosol!)

Safety Standards and Warnings

When art supply manufacturers source material components, and produce their products, they must adhere to nationally and/or internationally agreed up on safety standards. Accordingly, any possible risks to your safety must be disclosed to you.

In the US, one such safety standard is regulated by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration. In their brief on Hazard Communication Standard: Safety Data Sheets, they outline requirements for any “chemical manufacturer, distributor, or importer [to] provide Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) […] for each hazardous chemical, to downstream users, to communicate information on these hazards.” Most countries have similar requirements.

That means, if something in your art supplies contains a hazardous chemical, you as the “downstream user” must also be notified by an accompanying warning. These warnings are usually placed directly on the product’s label. Therefore, examine your pastel sticks, fixatives and other art supplies for such label warnings.

By being informed, you can take precautions, to ensure that you’re working safely with pastels.

If there is no warning on your modern, respectable brand art supplies, you can consider them safe. (Old, inherited, purchased-at-a-yard-sale art supplies, or from cheap sources such as dollar stores, might be a different story.)

Let’s take a look at what popular pastel manufacturers have to say about their products.

Sennelier

Art supply company Sennelier, who makes one of the most lauded brands of soft pastels, includes the following on their web site. (Emphases are mine, to demonstrate that warnings are provided, where warranted.)

Sennelier products may contain noxious ingredients, which would be indicated on the products in question. Furthermore, MAX SAUER reminds the user that particular care must be applied when handling products that are specified as dangerous on the labels, as required by regulation, that are placed on them. In the presence of such components, MAX SAUER reminds the user that it is always important to respect the following minimal precautions for use:

  • Do not ingest the product;
  • Avoid contact with skin and eyes;
  • Wear appropriate attire and protect clothing, shoes and other clothing accessories;
  • Keep the product away from a child who could use it alone and domestic animals, notably during use and storage;
  • If applicable, supervision by an adult when the product is used by a child;
  • The products must be stored away from light, in a ventilated and temperate environment (between 10 and 30°c).
Sennelier English Language Terms and Conditions, as of the date of this blog post

Winsor & Newton

Similarly, you can find information at Winsor & Newton’s page, “How to understand health and safety information on our products.” Some toxic components are used in minute amounts. Currently, Winsor & Newton claims they offer Safety Data Sheets through their web site. (However, I couldn’t find any.) I did locate this page on “Safety in the studio: decoding hazard symbols.”

Faber-Castell

Faber-Castell is opaque about the safety of their products. Their excuse is, “Due to proprietary information, we are not able to publish our Safety Data Sheets on our website. We generally do not provide SDS information to the public.” A search of their web site provides little additional information. Frankly, I am not impressed.

Prismacolor (NuPastel)

I could find zero information about safety on the Prismacolor web site. The word “safety” is not mentioned anywhere. I find that baffling.

Royal Talens (Rembrandt Pastels)

On the other hand, I am encouraged by Royal Talens. They make Rembrandt pastels, as well as many other brands of art supplies. Fully transparent about the safety of their products, Royal Talens offers Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) on all relevant art supplies.

As of this date, Royal Talens lists no SDSs for pastel sticks, making it clear they contain nothing known to be toxic. The only relevant mention is for their pastel fixative. If you want to completely minimize any possible exposure to noxious components, to ensure you’re working safely with pastels, it appears that Rembrandt would be a very good choice.

Schmincke

This German maker of the softest pastel brand offers a detailed Health and Safety page on their web site. With regard to pastels, they state:

A well ventilated room represents a preventive measure here. When substantial quantities of dust are involved, a dust mask of filter class 2 is to be worn, while masks with filter type A2 and protective breathing equipment of filter class 2-P2 […] affords protection against solid and liquid particles in the air. A further means of protection involves the use of a suitable extraction hood equipped with filters for the substance concerned, that is, appropriate fine-pored absorption mats for dust […].

For this last point, building an extraction hood to collect pastel dust certainly sounds useful … but also very expensive. I think an alternative will do, therefore I recommend a Corsi-Rosenthal box, detailed below.

Art Supply Sources: Authenticity, Quality, Price

Getting the best price isn’t everything. Consider where you source your pastels and other art materials from. Purchase the best you can afford. When possible, buying straight from the manufacturer assures that you get an authentic and fresh product, produced according to the company’s latest standards.

I’ll say it right up front: I’m not a fan of Amazon. Buying from a second or third party, especially (but not exclusively) an unfamiliar company, may be cheaper, but also carries risk. Amazon is a “second party” at best (I’m guessing they usually buy from the manufacturer, to re-sell). Some of Amazon’s Marketplace sellers are “third parties” or worse (buying stock from re-sellers, to re-sell).

Some products from these companies may be lower cost, because they are from older or damaged stock. Furthermore, they could be “seconds,” containing a slight deviance from usual manufacturing standards. For example, pencils may already be broken inside, or be more prone to breaking during use, or have a sub-par wood casing that splinters during sharpening. Old supplies, or off-name brands, could contain less desirable ingredients. They may also be dryer, or have separated, or show color shifts between areas that were light-exposed, vs. under their labels (I’ve seen this happen with cheap pastel sticks). From one purchase to the next, off-brands may have inconsistent colors. Likewise, paper too degrades as it ages. (Have you ever bought a case of mega-sale computer printer paper that created a lot of dust, or jammed more frequently? It was arguably old and beyond its intended shelf-life.)

Best Sources

All that said, I’d be willing to place higher trust in the sourcing and product turn-around—i.e. freshness—of large, well-established art supply companies, like Jerry’s Artarama, Dick Blick and Utrecht in the US, and Boesner in Europe.

Still, sometimes going right to the source ends up being the cheapest option, or so close in price that it’s the smarter choice. Therefore, I recommend always checking the manufacturer’s web site for comparison.

The Artist’s Best Practices for Working Safely with Pastels

Now, let’s explore some common sense for the pastel artist.

There are three possible ways that a substance can penetrate the body:

  • Ingestion (eating or drinking it)
  • Skin absorption, or through a skin-breaking wound
  • Inhalation (breathing it)

Avoiding Ingesting Pastels

There have long been rumors that Vincent van Gogh may have eaten his paints. There is no evidence that this is true, however. Further, when van Gogh experienced bouts of mental illness, to keep him safe, his doctors kept all liquid art materials out of his reach. That’s because it is, indeed, known that Vincent said he wanted to eat them.

I’ll tell you a not-so-secret secret: like van Gogh, I sometimes find myself wanting to eat my pastels. Why? They just look so good, so beautiful, so yummy! Pastel colors are apparently so stimulating to my high color sensitivity** that my mind wants them to be as tasty as they look. Nevertheless, I will never put one in my mouth!

Naturally, you shouldn’t either. But if you use pastels at the kitchen table, you might already be ingesting them. If you don’t wash your hands before you eat, you may be consuming pastels then, too.

Therefore, to avoid eating or drinking your art supplies, keep them separate from areas of food storage, preparation, and consumption. Similarly, keep them out of the reach of young children and pets.

Don’t make art where you sleep, either.

Also, if you paint in a home studio or room, and want to keep pastel dust out of the rest of your house, have studio-specific clothing. When you are done creating, change out of your studio clothing, preferably leaving them in the studio. Likewise, wash your hands thoroughly, especially before preparing or eating a meal.

Can Pastels be Absorbed Through the Skin?

The short answer is not really. The skin is an impermeable barrier to the components of virtually all pastel sticks. Unsurprisingly, holding pastels can dry the hands, as it wicks away oils and moisture from the skin. And, of course, the pigments can color the hands until you’ve washed. But they are unlikely to penetrate the skin all by themselves.

That said, an exception is if you have a deep enough cut or puncture wound. In that case, anything small enough can enter the body through such an opening, just like bacteria.

Still, let’s remember the first part of this post. If the pigments and binders are non-toxic, or toxic but present in vanishingly small amounts, they cannot poison the body. Even if you are holding a red cadmium-containing stick of pastels with your bare fingers, you’re still safe. Likely, the worst that can happen might be the irritation of a skin-breaking wound, if it is not kept clean and covered. Care for and protect any wounds.

When working with pastels, if you want to be ultra-careful, or prevent your hands from drying, use a barrier hand cream. Two brands are Gloves in a Bottle or Artguard Barrier Cream, but there are others. If you have a wound, use finger cots. Save them for special use, though, as they can create a lot of waste.

Great Art Gloves brand gloves.

Another option is to purchase sets of washable pastel gloves (originally designed for working with electronics). The fingertips are dipped in foamed polyurethane, creating a pastel-impermeable barrier. My original source no longer offers the gloves shown above, but if you search for ESD fingertip coated, you should find quite inexpensive ones. The gloves can be washed at 40°C (105°F) with neutral detergent and reused many times.

Breathing Pastel Dust

This is the only concern that the pastel-using artist must carefully consider, in working safely with pastels. I have read one account of a very busy, long-hours pastel painter, breathing dust to a level that caused respiratory distress. (She recovered.)

Five layers of pastel, with dust and broken pastel bits.

According to her article, breathed pastel dust can irritate the upper respiratory track. Once there, the dust mixes with mucous, is swallowed and eventually expelled from the body. Apparently, truly excessive exposure means dust can possibly enter the alveoli of the lower lungs, and remain there, though no proof is offered. (I’m not saying that’s false, I just don’t know.)

Therefore, being safe and protecting against inhaled pastel dust, is a good idea.

Minimizing and Avoiding Pastel Dust

  • Don’t blow on your pastel paintings, ever. Doing so is the quickest way to make pastel dust airborne.
  • Be gentle with your pastel application, to create less dust in the first place.
  • Avoid using a stiff brush to “erase” unwanted pastel from a painting (doing so also makes the dust airborne). Instead, try erasing with these methods, in this order:
    • use a small paintbrush to gently dab or sweep away the pastels,
    • or a cotton swab next,
    • or a knife or utility blade to gently scrape color away in the direction it was applied,
    • or a kneaded eraser to dab color off (pinching off or kneading dust into the eraser as you go),
    • or even a piece of soft, crustless bread.
  • To remove excess pastel from a painting overall, take it outside (yes, outside!) and gently tap it on the back.
  • Work on an easel, with the top of your painting slightly tipped towards you. This allows excess pastel dust to fall into the easel’s tray, rather than on the lower part of the painting.

If you’re susceptible to breathing dust, and you have respiratory concerns, I present two options:

  • Consider wearing an appropriately rated dust mask or respirator. (Caution where respiratory illness or pregnancy is present; talk to your doctor.) If you choose this option, it’s important that you seek assistance with selecting and fit-testing the appropriate respiratory protection, so you’re truly protected.
  • Build yourself an easy and inexpensive Corsi-Rosenthal box (below), to filter airborne dusts and other particulates in your studio.

More Tips for Working Safely with Pastels

  • Keep a slightly damp cloth handy. Use it as needed, to wipe your hands, the easel’s tray, and other surfaces that may become dusty.
  • Coat your hands with a barrier cream, like Gloves in a Bottle or Artguard Barrier Cream, or wear ESD fingertip coated gloves.
  • Don’t touch your eyes or face while painting.
  • Cover the floor around your easel and work area with a drop cloth or plastic barrier. The covering can be carefully removed and hosed off or laundered. (When laundering, use a second rinse.)
  • Spray pastel fixative on your paintings outdoors, where breezes carry the aerosol away from you.
  • Wear studio-only clothing and shoes, or a good smock that covers you. (I like Gustav Klimt’s, below.) When you are done, leave all garments in the studio, and close the door behind you.
Man wearing a smock.
Artist Gustav Klimt in 1914, wearing one of his self-designed smocks. (I need to make a version for myself.)

The Corsi-Rosenthal Box

This DIY (do it yourself) project is a straight-forward, inexpensive, and highly effective way to remove airborne dust from your studio space. The Corsi-Rosenthal Box was originally developed to provide indoor air filtration, to increase protection from COVID-19. Subsequently, with a different filter, it is used to filter air contaminated by wildfire smoke.

Rosenthal’s research has shown the following DIY design is the best to date. It outperforms a $1,000 high-end HEPA air cleaner (!!!), and all other DIY designs tested. Depending on use, the filters can last for up to 6-10 months before needing to be changed. (The appearance of dirt on the filters does not indicate they are no longer working.) For more information, see Rosenthal’s related articles.

How to Make a CR Box

This first illustration lists the materials needed, and shows how the CR Box is assembled. Simply tape everything together, sealing the edges and corners thoroughly. The specific type of filter listed is essential.

Corsi-Rosenthal Box design, including materials list and references.
Corsi-Rosenthal Box design, illustrated by Amanda Hu @ughberta.

Here is the CR Box’s side-lying action. I recommend this setup, with the fan pointing away from your primary work area, to draw through the filters any pastel dust you create:

Corsi-Rosenthal Box, sideways action.
Illustration by Amanda Hu @ughberta.

This top-pointing action is probably less useful for an art studio, as the fan may disturb any surfaces and supplies above it:

Corsi-Rosenthal Box, top action.
Illustration by Amanda Hu @ughberta.

The Importance of Fan Shrouds

A fan shroud significantly increases air draw, and thus filtration, without taxing or compromising the fan’s motor (see bottom of article). As a result, the “shroud,” or partial fan-face covering in the illustrations above, is a must. In How to Improve the Efficiency of the Corsi-Rosenthal Box Air Cleaner, Rosenthal states, “The idea is to cover the corners without covering any of the fan itself.”

Further, here are two optimized fan shrouds for common fan models (at least in the U.S., I guess), showing that you can also simply use tape. Not as attractive, but it works:

Optimized box fan shroud opening, for specific fans.
Optimized box fan shroud opening, for specific fans, to increase air flow efficiency. Image by @DavidElfstrom

Find more information on building CR Boxes here.

Footnotes

*

Some fixatives can darken a completed pastel painting. Test your fixative on a sample of the pastels and paper you’re using, to see its effects. Different pastels and papers react differently. Lascaux Fixative has a really great reputation for no (or minimal) color change, when used as directed. On the other hand, and as mentioned above, SpectraFix Degas Spray Fixative reportedly causes no color shifts.

Further, some pastel colors are fugitive, just like any other colored artist medium. A fugitive color means it can change appearance over time, when exposed to light, air, or for other reasons. This is why, in some old paintings, people’s skin looks bluish. Originally, the skin tones were painted to look natural, but the pigment slowly aged and changed color. Therefore, if using fugitive colors concerns you, check each stick of pastels for its color-fastness labeling. [back to text]

**

Years ago, I took at test where I had to put hundreds of colors in order, and received a 100% accuracy score. Perhaps this is one reason why I am so affected by sublime colors, and endeavor to communicate the beauty I see to anyone who views my work. [back to text]


I hope you have found this blog post to be informative, and helpful, in clearing up any confusion about working safely with pastels!

Thanks for your time and attention, both are valuable. 🙏🏻
I invite you to view my photographs and paintings, and to learn more about me.


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© Marlene Breitenstein. I welcome your inquiries about purchasing, licensing, or republishing my work. I take my intellectual property seriously. This post and its contents, unless otherwise noted, is owned by Marlene Breitenstein. It is not to be reproduced, copied, or published in derivative, without permission from the artist. I’m nice, but I do not hesitate to pursue copyright infringements. Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.