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.
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.