Fragility and Brokenness

Having recently joined the Unison Colour community as an Associate Artist, I was excited to interact with other pastellists in Unison’s Facebook Group. Early on, I was intrigued by the comments on a fairly sad posting. Someone posted a picture of their brand-new box of Unison pastels, in which every single stick had been broken in the mail. My heart sank for the poor artist whose new pastels were shattered to pieces, but the response from the Unison community was instead excited by the pastel shards.

Tray of broken red Unison Colour pastels.
stock image – not the actual pastels ☺

The pastellists saw the broken pastels as opportunities to make interesting marks on the page. The artists were excited about how the shards could be twisted or pressed into the paper to create marks that a whole, unbroken pastel could not. I was encouraged by the way the Unison community found joy and possibility in the broken pastel pieces. My eyes were opened to the distinct perspective pastellists have when it comes to finding redemption in brokenness.

No pastel ever breaks the same way twice. Each new shard presents a unique opportunity to experiment with line and texture. Pastel paintings produced by each artist will vary depending on the way their pastels have been broken or sanded down. In this way, pastels are a highly variant, even unpredictable medium, differing greatly from the precision and control of a paintbrush.

The fragility of pastels reveals specific moments throughout the artistic process which other mediums might try to cover up. Whenever a pastel is dropped, sneezed on, or stepped on, it undergoes an unamendable break. The artist – for better or for worse – is forced to continue their painting with a broken tool. A broken paintbrush or palette knife may be rendered unusable, but a broken pastel is simply a new, unexpected opportunity to let the medium move the painting in different directions.

Seeing the Unison community’s sympathy and excitement about the shards was a wonderful testimony to the character of so many pastellists. Our medium is fragile and delicate, but all the more beautiful for the ways it breaks. Pastel artists must contend with, and depend upon their own relationship to brokenness through their ever-deteriorating medium. When a pastel suddenly breaks, it creates a completely new form for the artist to work with. When a pastellist reaches the end of a stick, smudging the final bit of dust into the page, they create a deeper, darker smudge than they may have done otherwise. In fact, some of us are so captivated by the medium’s ability to break, that we begin the artistic process by grinding our pastels down to a fine dust. The marks created by these moments of frailty and brokenness are what make each pastellist’s work distinct. The tension between creation and deterioration in each painting makes each work all the more beautiful for its inability to be replicated.

With brokenness comes unexplored possibility. With deterioration comes a beauty unique to the artist in each particular moment. I choose to work with pastels because the nature of the medium mirrors my own experience of the world: simultaneously beautiful and broken. As we live through one of the greatest global crises many of us will ever see, humanity searches for beauty amidst the brokenness. Many are asking “what good will come from all this despair?” Pastellists, by virtue of their fragile medium, have been asking and answering this question for decades. Perhaps, pastels are one of the best mediums for artists as they search for redemption in this time of global uncertainty and brokenness. Each time we pick up a stick, we anticipate – and perhaps even fear – it’s inevitable deterioration. However, we keep picking up sticks because in their breaking we find ourselves creating something beautiful, often even surprising ourselves by the timeless marks we manage to make.

Announcing New Associate Artists!

In May we held a recruitment exercise for new Associate Artists and we were overwhelmed with the number of applications. So much so we will have 2 groups of new artists. Our 2nd group will be announced in August 2020.

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12 Responses

  1. My pastels have been in open boxes in a drawer for a couple of years, yet otherwise uncovered. They now, as I revisit them, seem to be drier and more crumbly than ever. It is known that Unison Pastels dry out over time, in their stick form I mean, rather than on the paper???? Or is it my imagination?
    I have searched for an answer to this question with no success and would appreciate other thoughts on this.

    1. I don’t think this is particular to unison but common to pastels in general, they may become more fragile and more crumbly over time. Don’t forget that pastels are really pigment dust shaped into a stick which is held together with some form of binder to keep it held together. Unison and other professional grade pastels have very little binder in them in order to keep the highest concentration possible of pigment, that is why they are very soft and fragile and of course have colours that are more vibrant than the cheaper brands which are held together by some form of clay or gum arabic. The degrading of this binder over time does not have any effect of the pastel on the paper.

  2. I like the notion, that any random shapeless mark constitutes a seed that may germinate into, or be a part of, a greater composition. I guess, that part of being an artist is acquiring the ability to recognize the value of each random mark in shaping the final composition.

  3. Whilst I love experimentation and embrace any suggestion made by other practitioners, I would be more than miffed if my pastels arrived in that condition! They are not cheap and I would expect them to arrive in pristine condition. Was that resolved in any way, I ask?

  4. Hi everyone.l like Diana O,Conner would have been more than bit miffed had l received a box of Pastels in that state..Whe you open anew box of pastels it is a feast for your eyes something to look forward to..

  5. Wow. If they arrive in the post broken. Then the person who posted the pastel should replace them, no question ask. I would say bad packaging.
    I am waiting for some boxes of pastels to come from the U.S. they left 30 th October now it’s 4th November I am a bit worried after seen your photo of broken pastel. I have had pastels sent from the U.S. and all over Australia with no problems, even large rolls of sand paper and paper laying flat no problems . The pastel comment was interesting thanks this is still a good web site Pamela Lang .

  6. What a beautiful story – the artist must disturb, comes to mind. As artists, our materials, are always in a working relationship with us, and we with them.

  7. A most interesting article, and I found myself nodding my head in agreement throughout! When I get new pastels the first thing I do is remove the wrappers. Then I often break them for a more convenient piece to work with. I keep all my small pieces and have a ‘pastel making’ day every so often, when I grind those pieces down, add a bit of water to bind them together, roll them into sticks in tin foil and dry them in the oven. Sometimes you get some wonderful effects when chips emerge that have not fully ‘dissolved’ in the process.

  8. This is a wonderful read. I used to be terrified of breaking my pastels and would unwrap any label on them and keep them whole. But eventually I found the beauty in the broken too. From dropping whole sticks on my tiled floor to some being more fragile, I discovered the additional freedom that smaller shards bring to my art. It still feels like sacrilege when I first snap one stick from a pristine new box, but no longer do I worry or feel the pain of snapping them. Great article xxx

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