cleaning a set of antique pastels

Marian Parsonsa slice of life, Antiques, Art, Artistic Endeavors, Cleaning & care, Favorite Things44 Comments

When I shared about antique and vintage art supplies in THIS POST, I also did a bit of window shopping to share some listings on Etsy and eBay.  Well, my window shopping turned into actual shopping when I found this set of antique pastels listed for a great price.  It was purchased by the seller at an estate sale in Scotland and it just spoke to me.  I snapped it right up!

Unfortunately, when it arrived, it wasn’t packaged as well as it could’ve been and one of the pastels (it looked like black or close to black) was pulverized and made quite a mess.  It was all over the inside the of the box, the bubble wrap and the interior of the box.  I receievd a partial refund from the seller for the damage to the set, which I was happy with.  I now had to go about cleaning up the set, so I took advantage of an unusually warm November day in Minnesota to get that done.

box of antique pastels before cleaning | miss mustard seed

I did some research and there are several methods for cleaning pastels.  One of them involved rolling the pastels in cornmeal, which looks to be pretty effective.  Instead, I followed the method of just wiping them down with paper towels.  Since I was working with antique and vintage pastels, some of them containing lead and other toxins, I wore a mask and gloves.  It was amazing how much brighter the colors were once they were wiped down and I sort of loved the process of “getting to know” each one and I’ll share more about what I discovered in a minute

antique pastels after cleaning | miss mustard seed

Once they were cleaned, I stored them in a plastic bin while I thoroughly cleaned the box.  I vacuumed the dust and wiped it all out with a damp paper towel.  Once it was dried, I waxed the exterior of the box to hydrate it and bring it back to life.

I used Miss Mustard Seed’s Furniture Wax for the job and just worked it into the grain with a wax brush (this is the MMSMP Medium Wax/Paint brush)…

waxing antique pastel box | furniture wax on wood | miss mustard seed

Here is how the box looked before…

waxing antique pastel box | furniture wax on wood | miss mustard seed

…and after the wax…

waxing antique pastel box | furniture wax on wood | miss mustard seed

The wood is richer and it feels nicer to the touch.  The wood box is relatively rough, so it benefitted from a good rubbing with wax.  I could’ve taken it a step further and sanded it a bit, but I decided against that.

The box looked so much better after a good cleaning!

cleaned antique pastel box | miss mustard seed

Through the process of cleaning and organizing the pastels, I learned that three different brands of pastels came in this box.

Rowney & Co dates back to the 1700’s and I believe those pastels might be the oldest.  The majority of the Rowney pastels, particularly the reds, have lost some of their pigment.  Vermillion and Crimson Lake, which are both vibrant reds, look like pale pinks.  I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I know that pastels are made from pure pigment and a binder, so the fact that they have faded is a little puzzling.   I’m guessing age and/or exposure to light caused the fading.

antique george rowney & co pastels | miss mustard seed

The bulk of the pastels are made by Rembrandt, which did not start making pastels until the early 1900’s and these look much newer than the others.  I couldn’t find any information on dating vintage and antique pastels, so I’m not sure of their exact age.

There are only a few, but the third brand is LeFranc.  So, the interesting thing is that the box is labeled Bourgeois Ainé Paris, which is a company that was founded in 1867 and merged with LeFranc in 1965.  So, which pastels are original to the box, if any?  I wasn’t able to find which pastels were originally sold in this Bourgeois Ainé Paris box.  Maybe all of the originals were used and slowly replaced over the years.

antique george rowney & co and Rembrandt pastels | miss mustard seed

Based on my research, I would be comfortable using the Rembrandt pastels, but I’m a little wary of using the Rowney of LeFranc pastels. The Rowney pastels clearly contain toxic metals like lead and cadmium.  When pastels are used, they create dust which can be inhaled and that is when lead is harmful.  I’ve considered storing those pastels in a separate box and just filling this box with pastels I can use.  In fact, that’s probably what I will do.  I believe in using things, even old beautiful things.   And, what a joy it would be to open this box and start creating.

antique george rowney & co and Rembrandt pastels | miss mustard seed

The funny thing is that I really struggle with pastels!  They are probably my least favorite medium.  But, I’m coming around and adding a little bit to my mixed media paintings and I might branch out and try pastel painting again.  I just love mixing colors so much that it’s a challenge for me to work with such a wide range of options!  I seem to do better with a limited palette.

antique george rowney & co and Rembrandt pastels | miss mustard seed

It was a lot of work to bring this box back to life, but completely worth it.

antique george rowney & co and Rembrandt pastels | miss mustard seed

It’s just so darn pretty.

antique george rowney & co and Rembrandt pastels | miss mustard seed

antique george rowney & co and Rembrandt pastels | miss mustard seed

And, speaking of art, I wanted to let you know that my original art sale is happening this evening (Wednesday, Nov. 18) at 7:00 pm CST.

Visit THIS PAGE at that time and the paintings will go live at 7:00 pm on the nose.  You can also click the “SHOP ARTWORK” tab in the navigation bar.


cleaning a set of antique pastels

Related Posts

creative play | handmade brushes & pens

Christmas Gift Guide for the Neatnik

black Friday art sale & giveaway

Gift Guide for the Creative

44 Comments on “cleaning a set of antique pastels”

  1. I have beautiful; pastels that my father did in the 1920 when he studied at the Art Students League in NYC. They are beautifully framed and are copies of ballerinas. Cant think of the artist. After that i think he stuck to oils.

  2. Some things are just stand alone pretty….I call them my treasures. Right now, I put little artificial trees in a pair of antique copper dipped baby shoes and talk about cute. I’m having so much fun creating. It’s not my usual time to decorate, but this is the exception year. I have little miniature trees and candles all over the place and at 4pm every day, all the lights go on. What a pleasure and a little fun pick me up is just what I need right now.

  3. Very cool and so nice that you brought them back to life and that you will use them.
    Love your site and look forward to it everyday. Thx!

  4. That box was swoon worthy! What a treasure to find it filled with antique pastels, and I can’t think of a better person to enjoy the legacy of your find!

  5. Pastels are very challenging ! Try using them as an under base to one of your paintings. Experiment brushing water or alcohol over them once they are on the paper. You get so amazing results. Have some fun with them!

  6. One of my art instructors talks about using pastels with watercolor to get just the right effect! I have experimented with white pastel on waves breaking on the seashore. Really exciting to explore!

  7. What a wonderful find, and something you are appreciating. I would separate the pastels that might contain toxins from the others. With out world as it is today, why take any more chances with the toxins? I appreciate the way they are in the box, all the colors together yet forming a picture by themselves. What a beautiful display!

  8. I love pastels! They are my medium of choice. So much fun to use other mediums as underpaintings…ink, watercolor, thinned oils or even use pastels wetted with water or alcohol or gamsol. Wonderful effects and then apply more pastel over the dry surface. Look at Richard McKinley’s work. Enjoy them! And the colors…sigh

    1. Yes, I’m interested in making paint from pastels. I saw an article about that and it seems like I would enjoy that more than straight pastels!

  9. I don’t v want this to be seen as a negative review but it seems like a lot of your comments lately have been about items that I don’t have much interest in. When I first started watching you were more into things that were more common to everyday people. Now it seems to be a lot more about things the average person is not interested in. Like today’s comments about cleaning pastels or books you have read. Maybe I should just get off your site since a lot of things you are now talking about don’t seem to apply to the everyday person. I would to see more about what your bedroom looks like now or your painting classes, anything but how to clean pastels. I’m sorry, but I am beginning to not relate to you anymore. We all have to do what makes us happy. So thanks for letting me into your home and life. I have always enjoyed it in the past.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Mona. I go through seasons when I do a lot of home posts and projects (like over the summer) and then other times when I’m not doing as much, so I just share this and that. I realize most people aren’t cleaning old sets of pastels, but I thought my readers might find it interesting.

      I’m going to take a break for Thanksgiving and then I’ll be sharing about decorating my home for Christmas as well as other Christmas home projects, so I hope you’ll stick around.

  10. Makes me wish I had taken art classes in college and HS instead of typing and shorthand! These are so pretty and interesting!

    1. Since the box had a rough texture, I felt like the wax would smooth it out a little bit more and create a nicer feel to the wood. Hemp Oil would’ve been a good option, too.

  11. Take beautiful pictures of the toxic pastels and then put them in a pretty jar with a lid and leave them sealed up on a shelf somewhere?

      1. I think arranging them in lines (as in the box) and mounting them in a shadow box would be another option. I can see them with a nice rough linen background.

  12. What a great find!! I’m not a fan of using pastels either – something about the way they feel (too chalky?) but these colors!! Wow!

  13. What a great find, they are really worth a lot of money. I have not used pastels although I admired many ancient portraits. One friend took some classes here in NYC and she is now comfortable with this medium. But even unused, just opening the box you got and see this rich range of delicate tones would make me happy.

  14. I have some nice glass canisters with lids that I have my flour and sugar in. The toxic pastels would look pretty displayed in a jar like that. Then you could buy the newer, safer pastels for your pretty box.

  15. Fun post! I’m guessing that because those red tones are labeled as varying levels of tint (0, 2), that is why they are lighter than you would expect otherwise. Tint = color with white added.

    1. That’s a good point! I was comparing it to my paints that are tints and they still look pretty saturated. You might be right, though. Maybe they were pale pink all along.

  16. About the red fading: in the book Colour Travels through the paintbox by Victoria Finlay in Chapter 4 RED the painter William Turner was warned in 1835 by Mr Windsor of Windsor a& Newton remonstrated with him that some of the pigments he was buying, saying he knew, “that these aren’t going to last”, but Turner told him to mind his own business, he didn’t care. Red was Carmine pigment made from blood which doesn’t keep its red color very long.

    1. Very interesting! I wonder if some of these older, faded pastels were pigmented in a similar fashion.

  17. You mention that a lot of the pastels have faded but I was wondering if they are faded under the paper covering as well. Just curious.

    1. They are faded under the paper as well, which makes me think they faded from age more than light exposure. It’s a mystery!

  18. This is an incredible find! You did a wonderful job cleaning and restoring things to a better state. I love using pastels. I love how you can rub them with your fingers on the canvas and get an ethereal affect. I think I would use the very old ones – very limited usage, but I’d wear a mask and gloves. I couldn’t not use them to see how they look on canvas. Lucky lucky you!

  19. HI all

    I would like to comment on reciprocal interests. I would not buy or use pastels, but, learning how to refresh old wood was informative and interesting. Even if a post has little in common with my interests I still get something out of it. I especially enjoy seeing how you organize and display useful or decorative items in your home. Maybe seeing something art related will encourage a reader to just give something a try. Please don’t change a thing.


    1. I appreciate that, Kim, and that’s how I feel. I hope my posts are interesting, informative, and entertaining, even if a reader isn’t interested in that particular subject.

  20. I loved this post, it reminded me of opening a new box of crayola crayons as a kid! I like the variety of posts, fun to be surprised sometimes. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

  21. I’m curious if just the surface has faded on the oldest pastels. I wonder if you used one just a bit, if the deeper pigment would be there underneath a layer of faded pigment. Or you could break one in two.

    I know that in hair color reds fade fastest….

    I applaud your response to Mona. I hope she sticks around. She may find herself becoming interested in something she never expected.

    I enjoy the variety of content you produce. I share your interest in color in all its forms.

  22. That box full of pastels is quite a find. I can’t draw or paint (very NOT artistic) but I still enjoy looking at what you do with odd things. I love your photos & always get ideas. Don’t always implement them though! 🙂
    I look forward to you getting ready for Christmas. I don’t do as much as I once did (because I hate to put it away!), but I love Christmas & lights & all the festive things!

  23. I’m jealous of your find, Marian! I love to keep my art supplies in old wood boxes with character.
    It could be that your reds are the lighter tints of the hue. Many manufacturers numbered and labeled their sticks with the levels of a color, tints having white added and tones having black added. I notice in your photographs that you have “Tint 0” on some of your pale red labels. Even though a few red pigments are not highly lightfast, if they were stored in the box, it’s not likely that they would be faded like that. Also, because you have partial sets, the middle hues may have been in another box. We all have different ways of organizing our palettes, or perhaps they were crumbled sometime along the way, just as you experienced with the black stick.
    As for protecting yourself from toxic dust, know that any dust in large amounts can be harmful to the lungs. I have asthma and have never experienced breathing problems while using pastels over the past 25 years. A few precautions are to use gloves or a barrier cream like Gloves in a Bottle or Winsor-Newton’s; never blow on your work, tap it gently on a hard surface instead; and use a sanded ground which will grip more of the pastel. I very rarely use fixative; it’s optional, but also presents toxic complications if not used with ventilation.
    I hope this info helps anyone interested in working with pastel.

    1. That is wonderful information, thank you! I’m not too concerned about modern pastels, but ones that are old make me a little nervous because I know they weren’t aware of how dangerous some of the metals can be if inhaled.

  24. My first thought was to frame it with a piece of glass and hang it as art and I would hang the lid above it also. I just love how colourful it is and the wood. Great find! I have always had an interest in pastels. I love the thought of rubbing the pastels on the paper and getting my hands all dirty.

  25. I inherited my grandfather’s pastel box and everyone in our family has at least one of his beautiful pastel works. He did portraits and still life. I don’t know how old they are as he studied art in college in the 1920s, then became a doctor and did most of his pastel works in the 60s and 70s when he retired. I got them in the 70s sometime I think, after he passed away. The pastel labels look a lot like the set you have which is in incredible condition! My grandfather must have broken off pieces as there are many pieces in baggies by color. They are in a wood box as well. I still use them though I prefer oil painting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *