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Pastel basics, from the Renaissance to Frank Reaugh to today

By Rebecca Johnson

“I love the big open skies of West Texas. I grew up in Virginia. There, everything is so much closer feeling. So coming out here for the first time, it’s just like—whoa! It’s almost a physical sensation you get when you’re out in that big, open-sky country. So that’s what draws me to paint it.”


Contemporary Texas artist Jeri Salter uses pastels to communicate the landscapes of Texas.


Pastels are a medium that artists use to draw and paint that doesn’t require a brush. These drawing sticks are made by combining pigment with a filler (like chalk) and a binder (usually a resin). Different combinations of pigments create different colors of pastels, and varying how much filler is used will make different intensities, or tints, of a single color.



Pastels are usually used on paper, but artists past and present have used them on everything from canvas to cardboard. Whatever the surface, it must have some amount of “tooth”—that is, texture—to hold the pastel particles.


“For me, pastels were a better fit because I can stop and start when I want: I don’t have to clean brushes, I don’t have to wait for something to dry completely before I can go to the next stage,” Salter says. “And, I felt like I was more willing to experiment with color, because I didn’t have to mix it up. I could just pick up a pastel and say ‘oh, I wonder what this will do?’”


Not long ago, at the urging of her friend, Houston gallery owner Bill Reaves, Salter embarked on a series of pastel works inspired by Texas artist Frank Reaugh.


Frank Reaugh, preliminary sketch for <em>Driving the Herd</em>, 1887. Pastel on paper, 5 ½ × 8 ½ inches. William Hill Collection
Frank Reaugh, preliminary sketch for Driving the Herd, 1887. Pastel on paper, 5 ½ × 8 ½ inches. William Hill Collection


About a century ago, Reaugh captured the landscapes of Texas—and famously the longhorn cattle drives —in pastel. Salter had been inspired by views of Reaugh’s pieces in the Panhandle Plains Museum. “His little paintings were just these jewels. They were just so beautiful and fresh,” she says.


For her series “On the Trail of Frank Reaugh,” Salter re-visited many sites Reaugh painted, capturing them as they look today, in her own style. The works were recently exhibited at Reaves’s Houston gallery.


Pastels are in wide use today, but when Reaugh started using them in the late nineteenth century, they were just undergoing a popularity revival. Pastels at the time were the favorite medium of French Impressionist Edgar Degas, who used them to bring jockeys and ballerinas to life.


The roots of pastels go even further back. Renaissance artists used chalk to make preparatory drawings for their wall paintings called frescoes. These drawings, never meant to be finished works in themselves, were made in a limited palette of black, red, and white chalk. By the eighteenth century, pastels in an array of colors started to be used to make finished works of art, especially in portraits. Since pastels could be used quickly and required no drying time, they required fewer sittings. They were also easy for artists to transport.


Undated portrait of Frank Reaugh with palette. Unknown photographer.
Undated portrait of Frank Reaugh with palette. Unknown photographer.


Salter’s process has similarities and differences to artists of the past. She prefers a modern material not available to those past artists called Gator Board, a thick plastic board covered on both sides with paper. She preps the board all over with gesso, then applies a matte gel medium with pumice added, to create the “tooth” that will hold the pastel particles.


Onto the prepped board, Salter sketches in her idea in charcoal, then uses hard pastels to block in colors and shapes into an abstract design. Then the board gets coated with mineral spirits to create an underpainting much a like a watercolor. She begins the final picture atop that, in soft pastels.


Hard pastels and soft pastels simply contain different amounts of binder and filler, giving them different consistencies. Each has their uses and drawbacks. Hard pastels make a firmer line, but are more difficult to blend. Soft pastels are more luminous and easier to blend, but are crumblier and break easily. Other types of modern pastels include oil pastels (made of pigment mixed with oil and wax), and even pastel pencils.


Frank Reaugh liked pastels so much that he made his own, concentrating the palette on colors found in the landscapes of the Southwest. When Reaugh became a well-known artist and art teacher, he sold his line of pastels, as well as a lap easel for painting in the field that he designed and patented.


Jeri Salter’s pastels and workspace. Photo by Rebecca Johnson.
Jeri Salter’s pastels and workspace. Photo by Rebecca Johnson.


Pastels do have some drawbacks. They are messy. Indoors, dust can accumulate and be difficult to filter, which is one benefit to plein air painting (painting outdoors on location).


It’s important that pastels be framed with glass to protect their surface. If they are not, particles of pastel can become dislodged. Sometimes artists spray their pastel works with a “fixer” to glue the particles to the paper, but Salter says she doesn’t, because spray fixers can affect a picture—alter its color, like old varnish can affect an oil painting.


“Before I frame a pastel, I beat the heck out of it. I thump it, I pound on it, I get all the loose pastel off, as much as I can.” Once it’s under glass, she says, it’s not a problem, she says. Properly framed pastel paintings can last hundreds of years, retaining their brilliant colors.


The exhibition Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West. Photos by Pete Smith.
The exhibition Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West. Photos by Pete Smith.


One method Reaugh employed a century ago to protect his pastel sketches was to store each one between pages of glossy magazines. This surprisingly effective storage was a practical solution while working out in the field.


The exhibition Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West is on view in the galleries through November 29. It features the above-mentioned original pastel palette, innovative easels, ephemera, and more than 100 works by Reaugh from the Ransom Center’s collection, as well as works loaned by private collectors and museums.


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