Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Metallic Pan Pastels

Metallic Pan Pastels are the latest invention from Colorfin LLC, makers of Pan Pastels. The range was originally 60 colors, then expanded to 80 with 20 more useful Deep Dark Shades. Pan Pastels are soft pastels that handle like paint. They come in sturdy plastic compacts and are applied with Sofft micropore sponge tools, either knives or sponges shaped to work like different paintbrush styles. I've got the full range, both sizes of trays, a good assortment of tools and found out which my favorite tools are.

I was thrilled to get a pack of four Metallic Pan Pastel colors to try. Metallic Pan Pastels are available now everywhere Pan Pastels can be found, individually or in two sets of 3 or a full set of 6 colors. The two lightest Metallic Pan Pastels, Silver and Light Rich Gold, are each available in one of the sets of 3. Like all the Pan Pastels, they are a little less expensive in sets than individually. If you only get one, Silver would be the mixer handling most like white or light gray, Light Gold more like a bright light yellow. But if you can, get the set of 6 - it's a little more at first but you'll want the deeper Rich Gold, Bronze, Copper and Pewter hues. Pewter is not a dull grayish product but a shimmering rich deep shiny Pewter. The photo doesn't convey the photos that well compared to their shimmery iridescence in person.

My first expectation was that they should handle exactly like the other colors. No matter what artist pigments go into the other colors of Pan Pastels, the texture of the product is the same in every color.

Yes, that's how they work. These are exactly like all the other Pan Pastels. Just shimmery metallic.

That this is a huge big deal only made sense to me at time of writing.

I'm not sure readers who aren't serious artists appreciate just how difficult that was for them to invent. Pigments have different qualities. They weigh different, they feel different, they clump different, they're transparent and opaque, for the makers of Pans to get 20 pure clean colors all with exactly the same texture, feel and handling qualities is darn near a miracle. I think of it in relation to other pastels or paint and I'm boggled. Yet I trusted them to do exactly the same thing with Metallic Pan Pastels. Same feel, some texture, same thickness when it goes on, same opacity, mixability, everything.

To be friendly to them, I started off my test with my favorite surface for Pan Pastels, Clairefontaine PastelMat. This coated pastel card is soft and smooth, clings to pigment like the sticky side of glue and lets me layer as much Pan Pastel as I want. Colors don't mix without a good heavy layer but it's not hard to blend once there's enough color on - so hard edges are easy to get, mistakes easy to lift and mixing on the painting as easy as painting in oils. Painting with Pan Pastels has a little in common with oils except that it's actually dry, it's always workable and much smoother. It's hard to get textured brushstrokes in it, the pigment goes down flat and texture is created by adding new strokes or using sticks for texture accents.

Despite the color it looks in the photo, that's Pewter Metallic Pan Pastel on a Maize color card - a bright sunny warm yellow something like a strong tint of Yellow Ochre with a big dose of Cadmium Yellow Medium to jazz it up. I sketched the composition and subject with a dark green Col-Erase pencil for easy erasing and used a Vanish eraser to correct the lines. Shown is a wedge sponge on the bottom, at the bottom of the next photo I showed the eraser - it's a great eraser. Nice, soft, clean and leaves no residue.

I decided to do a stylized water rendering, just irregular ripple shapes in two or three different contrasting hues of the same value. That'd push the background back while giving it some nice variegation and most of all give my main subject a Shiny Metallic Background - as metallic as if I did this on variegated metallic card. Something closer to Christmas card fancy than impressionist depth. If I'd meant depth, I'd have started playing with the values too and shaded it top to bottom to flatten it into a horizontal plane. So far so good. The value of Pewter is a nice middle value, maybe 6 or 7 if your scale has 10 for black. (I've seen value scales run both ways.)

There's my pretty variegated background! I blended some of the edges to softness to see how the colors mixed, used Copper, a touch of Bronze here and there and Rich Gold for what became a lovely group of Metallic Primaries. Those three colors together are a palette! Start shading them up with Titanium White and down with Black and you will have a muted spectrum of metallic color before you add in any other colors. Pewter is not actually as blue as it looks in this photo because the light from my light well was very bluish sky light - it's a light well and the sun was not directly coming down it so it had a heavy blue cast canceling out the Maize and making the neutral gray Pewter look very blue. But even in the electric incandescent light of my room, those Pewter areas look blue across the room by color contrast with the Copper and Rich Gold.

You get something like the Zorn Palette where black tints can be substituted for all the blue mixes using Pewter and Silver as your cool colors. So in this abstract watery background, I've got primaries and I could paint anything I wanted in a metallic varied-metals icon style. Like all metallic mediums, Metallic Pan Pastels create a glittering surface of matte metal. They look like you took polished metal and gave it a matte surface. It will not create Chrome Effects or burnish to looking shiny and chromelike.

You do those by shading it up with White and down with Black. The best way to get shiny metal effects with the added shimmer of metallic color is to treat it as the value it is. Ignore that it's a metallic pigment and use it for what color it is, then create distorted reflections of everything around the Shiny Thing. I would not necessarily choose Metallic Pan Pastels to render a shiny red Christmas ball ornament because I might get truer realism using Permanent Red as a base and shading, tinting and modifying it with all the other colors in the scene including the hue of the lights on it. I will be tackling this in a lesson in Rob's Art Lessons soon, paint a shiny metallic object using Metallic Pan Pastels. Meanwhile, what I have is exactly what I intended - something that looks like a metallic card for a background to my duck.

So let's paint the duck! I used 10 Painters Colors for him, plus 5 Deep Dark Shades and 5 Tints. This is what I keep for a field set in two 10 color trays, what I use to paint when I don't have the table space to spread out all four 20 color trays at once. 10 Painters is a great starter for using Pan Pastels if you haven't tried them before - it has all the essential mixing colors and several good convenience colors, it's comparable to your 10 or 12 color basic watercolors set for plein air. 20 Painters gives you all the pigments. Tints, Shades and Deep Darks are convenience colors and I love having the Deep Dark Shades for sketching colors because they're like using tinted charcoal on white sketchbook paper.

He was my big test. I used just the Painters colors on his beak, white band and fluffy chest and most of his wings, was painting him basically as a duck from a photo reference on WetCanvas posted by DAK720 for the December "Spotlight" challenge in the Pastels forum. What drew me to him as a subject was his shimmering iridescent green head. I knew I could get an added punch to that iridescence using Metallic Pan Pastels and I wanted to see how well the colors mixed with other Pan Pastels. Could I get Metallic Green by mixing Rich Gold with Pthalo Green and Ultramarine Blue?

Yes. I sure did. I used Violet, Pthalo Green and a little Ultramarine Deep Dark on the shadow side of his head - sketched it in with Deep Dark and touches of Deep Dark Violet, then laid in the color. Did the light side with Pthalo Green and Yellow Ochre to lighten and yellow it, made a tint up near the top where the sun was hitting his head with a little White. I got all my values and hues right before I started in with Rich Gold. I was satisfied with him, he looked natural and some Violet in the shadows gave the green enough punch to create an effect of iridescence. I'd used Violet Deep Dark with White over it in his chest and gotten that difficult grayish lavender fluffiness just right. I liked my duck.

Pow, when I started bringing in the Rich Gold into the sunlit areas first I was stunned at what it did. The sparkle blended into the green and vanished, blended as if I'd brought in more Yellow Ochre. He'd be a touch more shiny if I hadn't used the Yellow Ochre at all but stuck with the Rich Gold throughout, but I built up a final layer and got him to a shimmering iridescence. Shadow side I used Ultramarine Blue with Rich Gold to balance it out closer to the cool Pthalo blue of the main tone and it didn't lose its intensity at all. you can see individual sparkles in the large version of the photo.

What this looks like on my wall is spectacular. It looks shimmering metalic, that addition of Rich Gold into the green head was just enough to unify the painting. I used a little swipe of Rich Gold and background color into his wing to create a splash of metallic accent to tie it all together at the end. The painting would work as a Christmas card though I think I'd need some kind of specialty printer to create the metallic prints! It'd take special inks - or it'd take doing a hand painted design, which might be a whole lot easier.

Whether you're a professional, a leisure painter, a crafter or art journaler, Metallic Pan Pastels have a good place in your palette. They perform like all other Pan Pastels, they're archival artist grade materials and will bring that metallic shimmer to anything you paint with them. Add black and white for a Metallic Zorn palette and try doing a Christmas landscape. I purchased the other two Metallic Pans when I replaced some lost supplies and the Light Rich Gold is exactly the hue of the 24kt Gold Dot available from Jerry's Artarama - that is, Light Rich Gold is precisely the hue of real gold ground to a pigment. Silver is very bright and looks like the Silver Dot, so Gold and Silver accents in icon style paintings or fancy medieval calligraphy are the true hues of precious metals.

Copper is extremely bright pinkish-red copper. Bronze is a very bright bronze, polished bronze warmer than Rich Gold and sitting between the two as a hue - Rich Gold is a very bright cheery brass color. So you can play around with these different metals and their values, shade up a bit with Light Rich Gold and Silver before getting to White and get a stronger "metallic chrome" effect that way. I love the color of the Copper and will be having loads of fun with that painting still lifes - just be sure to shade it with the right other pigments to get the real hues and values of your subject. But that's a topic for another article!

Five thumbs up for Metallic Pan Pastels. The range on one of my all time favorite mediums just expanded. Pan Pastels are insanely versatile, clean, handy, powerful, convenient and archival. Metallic ones now make it possible to get lively, whimsical and dramatic with them. Happy Holidays!

PS -- Sorry about my absence of over a year. This happened due to health problems and some money trouble that made my health problems worse. Since then I've gotten things sorted out and my life is back on track, better than ever. Slowly I'm putting together my habits again. Watch for more reviews in 2013 - I'll start by trying for monthly updates and build up from there!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics

SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics are a great choice for a beginner. All of the SoHo Urban Artist products so far advertise artist grade quality at student grade prices. I received the 24 color Value Set of 21ml tubes for review. Normal price is $19.99 at Jerry's Artarama, currently the set is on sale for $12.99 - so they really mean it. These are definitely student grade prices.

I'm happy to report that the quality of the paint is pretty good - incredible at those prices. It's not as runny as some other bargain brand acrylics that I've tried in the past. The colors are consistent, the named hues like Cadmium Yellow Medium are a good match for the toxic mineral pigments they replace and they handle the same as several other brands of acrylics I've tried. Some of the pricier artist grade acrylics do beat the SoHo pigment concentration, but not by so much that they're unworkable.

Mixing quality is excellent, very comparable to Liquitex. All colors are also available separately in 75ml and 250ml tubes plus 500ml jars. The 21ml small tubes in the Value Set are best for miniature painters, artists who want to try a wide variety of pigments at a very low price and plein air painters. They're handy if you want to just choose a primary triad or a half dozen colors, tuck them in your pocket and head outdoors to paint.

Like all acrylics, they dry quickly. They will mix with any brand of acrylic gloss or matte medium for glazing, while it's very easy to create washes with additional water. I haven't tried the specialty mediums like slow-dry or impasto paste mixed with these but I trust they'll behave like other acrylics if I do.

If you buy this set as an introductory set for a new painter, definitely also purchase a 75ml tube of Titanium White. There isn't an extra white tube in the 24 color Value Set - but then, there isn't in the Liquitex intro sets either. If you're thinking of gifts, Jerry's also has a Really Complete Painting Set including this 24 color set of tubes plus painting boards, brushes, table easel, gloss and gel mediums, painting knives, painting palette and plastic double dip mediums, paper palette and instructional DVD for $79.99 - the bundle set is a bargain for all the supplies included so if you want to gift a relative with a new hobby, that might be the way to go. I'd still slip in a 75ml tube of Titanium White with it so that they don't scowl at the white running out before they finish the second or third painting.

The other type of painter who might really enjoy the SoHo Urban Artist acrylics is a muralist. 500ml jars are good big supplies and the 49 color range is extensive. You can stick to a small palette of favorites or splurge and try new colors without spending a bundle - even the big jars are only $7.99 on average.

Plastic painting knives and an acrylic spray bottle are accessories available under the same brand, modestly priced and useful. Any brand of gloss or matte gel mediums should work with these for hobby projects or serious artworks. If you work on a big scale, these can be a good choice.

The lids went back on the plastic tubes easily. None of the tubes were damaged and it was very easy to remove paint clots from the threads if I left a tube a little too long before closing.

If you're interested in doing hobby projects with liquid acrylics, just add a little water to the paint when you've spread it into your palette or picnic plate. This is a good brand to experiment with one-stroke methods and other hobby projects. They're bright, they're sturdy, they'll introduce you to handling both opaque and transparent paints and of course, soap and water cleanup is standard for any acrylics.

Be sure to keep brushes moist when working with any brand of acrylic paints. If acrylic dries in your brush, it's very difficult or even impossible to remove without damaging the hairs. Rather than putting your brush hair down in your water jar, squeeze the paint out on a rag or paper towel, rinse thoroughly and lay the brush flat on a paper towel or change colors.

Acrylic paints are tougher on brush hairs than watercolors, so don't use expensive sable watercolor rounds with these. You'll find synthetic sable or stiff synthetic bristle brushes work best with heavy body acrylics depending on the effect you want. Pick up a bag of synthetic brushes in a variety of sizes and shapes if you're just starting out, experiment to find which ones suit your style best. Miniature brushes work very well with SoHo Urban Artist Acrylics.

If you're an ACEO painter, these may be a brilliant choice to start getting into acrylics. Either get some ATC blanks in acrylic paper, or cut them to size from a canvas or canva-paper pad. Acrylics work well on watercolor paper or on gessoed canvas.

My example painting is on a Stillman & Birn Beta journal page, 180lb extra heavy watercolor paper, bright white. These are great acrylics for art journaling. The small tubes, strong pigments, variety of pigments and hues and their clean ease of use make them a wonderful choice. Drawings and sketches sealed with acrylic washes are waterproof, glazes and washes can also make a barrier layer for adding other media over them such as oil pastels.

I didn't gesso the journal page. Some artists do, but the sizing in the S&B Beta journal was strong enough that I didn't need to. The painting on the other side of the page was completely undisturbed - another sign that these medium-heavy body paints are a better grade than others in their price category. I have seen some pretty nasty student grade acrylics that separated, turned into goo, smelled funny when you open the tube or were so runny and thin that they might as well be washes right from the tube.

While they're not up with Daniel Smith or Winsor & Newton, these compare favorably with Liquitex and are way, way beyond anything else as cheap as they go. Good intro to a rewarding medium. Pick them up for a lark, you'll get a great range for a pocket money price. Definitely fantastic for hobbyists, students, big scale painters, sign painting, illustrators, art journals, ACEO painters and anyone else who wants to find out what acrylics can do!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Henri Roche Pastels





Henri Roche' pastels are the most expensive pastel sticks I know of. From previous experience, I know that you get what you pay for in pastels. These run about $15 to $18 a stick at The Fine Art Store online, or if you're lucky enough to live somewhere The Fine Art Store has a brick and mortar outlet. That's just unbelievable. Even the other good brands I've bought, if I spend five or six dollars for a stick I'm getting the best. So what makes Roche' pastels worth this amount of money?

Thankfully, a good friend in France who uses Roche' pastels helped me to answer that question by sending my a little box with eight pieces and one full stick (the bright gold color).

I know my personal answer. Roche' pastels are strong and bright but as lightfast as it gets. They are pure pigment hand rolled with a minimum of proprietary binder. They are incredible. The bright colors are strong!

A part of me will always love the kid pastels, the cheap student grade square blocks like Loew-Cornell where vivid fugitive dyes turn chalk into a rainbow of transcendent color. Unfortunately, grownup pastels for professional artists don't get that intense.

Except the Ultramarine piece and the red piece and gold stick, all the pure spectrum colors in my handful DO have that brilliance. They have it looking at the sticks and they have it on the paper. I can use these the way I would the cheap ones and trust my art will come through the ages as bright and gorgeous as I painted it. I've also got the same selling point that I did when I used small quantities of 24kt shell gold in watercolor or gouache paintings.

I can tell the buyer about the product and reassure them that I'm using the world's best supplies for their commission. When collectors buy something valuable they like to know they're getting luxurious materials used with brilliant craft, and that to me is a basis for honesty as a creator. So it's a fair selling point.

Now let's come to what happened after I stopped drooling at those bright little jewels in their box and actually used them. 

Artist grade pastels, the more expensive they are, the more personality they have. Your basic workhorse brands, Rembrandt, Art Spectrum, Winsor & Newton, Blick Artists, all have in common that they're medium soft and will perform well using any pastel paper and most techniques. The higher up the price scale I go, the more fussy the expensive pastels get.

They have a favorite paper. They have a favorite technique. They have a quirky color range, maybe all the greens are muted or turquoise because the maker is a landscape artist who never uses pure spectrum grass green as being too garish in large quantities. Pastels at the upper price ranges become specialists and when they're used on their best substrates in their best techniques, nothing else can compare.

This is why some professional pastelists have studios with multiple giant tables holding trays with 5,000 pastels on them. It's not all about having 5,000 slightly different colors and values, though that does come into it. They may have eight different sticks that are all exactly the same hue of reddish orange. Each one will have a different texture.

Surprisingly, Roche' fits one of those categories with one other pastel - Townsend Terrages, also hand made. Roche' has pumice in the mixture.

Pumice pastels are at their best on non sanded, non coated toothy paper. The pumice rips up the paper and lets it hold more pigment. I feel like it's almost a waste using pumice pastels on sanded papers because their special effect becomes irrelevant, though I'd make exceptions for Roche' pastels when I must, absolutely must have that perfect insanely vivid color. Nonetheless, knowing pumice is in the stick, I chose a non sanded paper for my test.

The first test, I tried blending them and stick-blending them across different colors. Wow, they come off the stick so easily that I had to have a light hand using them or I'd be facing a mountain of expensive, wasted powder. Paint lightly with these! They're heavy in the hand and come off on the paper like I'm using Senneliers. They're not that soft but they respond to a gentle touch and blend beautifully.

My second test, over my areas of color I sketched a dandelion from memory to see how opaque they are. Whoohoo! Beautiful opacity. Bang, there were bright white and yellow light over the deep Ultramarine, exactly where and how I wanted it. Yes, they perform well. That layering might have been difficult with regular medium-soft pastels to that level of intense contrast. I can correct paintings with Roche' easily - so they go on the "Paramedics" list for pastel paintings. If in doubt, use a Roche' stick to make corrections. 

Third test - I soaked that test sheet with fixative. I did have a cue from a friend's review of Roche' pastels. Because these were invented in the time of Degas and among his favorite pastels, they lend themselves to that technique - layering with heavy fixative use to provide tooth for the next layers. Well, I used SpectraFix so it wasn't really darkening from the fixative itself. The white of the dandelion clock did diffuse a bit, because I overdid it and actually had pools of the stuff on the paper. I wasn't sure if I'd wrecked it.

Fourth image - I waited till those puddles dried and went back. Wow. Powerful brilliant opacity and it stuck like there was nothing on the page. These photos don't do justice to the brilliance my test page has where I have it up on the wall. That particular Ultramarine is the color I fell in love with at so many museum visits. It has that screaming brilliance like a chip of sky trapped in the painting. The color swatches were not restated but did get the fixative, they're still that bright and lovely. 

Roche' pastels are worth the money. Optical mixing is easy with them. Pumice lets them perform their best on non-sanded papers, as specialists I would recommend them for Finishing Pastels. Build up to them with other good artist grade pastels and use them for your final accents, or get a big sheet of good archival toothy paper and use them all the way up, spraying layers of fixative whenever you need to add more tooth. 

A more detailed demonstration with Roche' pastels including paintings on different substrates is available at Charlotte Herczfeld's blog: Henri Roche' Pastels Review. I'm linking to her blog for those tests on other substrates, because I don't really want to waste those precious little jewels trying them on the wrong surfaces and waste their gorgeous pigment-heavy beauty on something that is less likely to work. I feel as if mine is an adjunct to her review since I read it a couple of days before I got the box with those precious pieces.

What I found out in person is that she's 100% right about how well they perform on non sanded paper. I am going to be buying more of these, even at that price. I'm saving up for a small set and will sometimes be using that set by itself.

I can also add some things from my test. I blended with Assorted Fingers. The blended section was tons brighter than I usually get even with other artist grade pastels on non sanded paper. If you like doing finger blending, Henri Roche' does not seem to dull as much as other brands - it's the high pigment concentration that makes it work that way. Stick blending works the same, finger blending has brighter results, so when you want your finger blended passages to be more muted, use the Rembrandts etc. 

They are specialists, like most of the very expensive pastels. But they are also good for casually picking up one stick while discussing a commission and saying "This one color is worth $18 a stick" and watch your buyer look at the box of all your pastels and think - 'okay, yeah, I can see why he is selling these paintings for hundreds or thousands of dollars.' 

My example was using them by themselves, but I could see how beautifully the Roche' texture would work with Unisons or Mount Vision or any of my good artist grade pastels. Sometimes I like using a change in texture to pull an area of a painting forward. Henri Roche' pastels are definitely the ones to use on that 'forward" element so when I buy mine, they'll mostly be bright colors and tints.

A good way to purchase them for trying yourself are the new half stick sets the Fine Art Store carries. They're modestly priced - a 12 color full stick set is about $200 but a half stick set of 12 is only $100 and a three color half stick set is only about $30, so you can get a few of them to see for yourself if you like their feel. They are definitely something you'll love or not, and I'd seriously recommend them for final layers or painting on non sanded good papers. Tints would make another good small set because tints are such good finishing colors - in many subjects the light accents are the ones that need to go last. Like most good pastels, there is a bit of a price dip if you purchase a set versus the same number of open stock sticks. Or you can split an order with a pastelist friend and get twice as many colors by choosing colors together and breaking each stick in half once you get the box.

One paper I plan to try them on is Rising Stonehenge. It's 100% rag with a soft toothy surface. Normally I think of it as a magnificent heavy archival colored pencils surface, because it takes layers of wax and fine details so well. I'm thinking that of all-rag archival papers, the non-sized Stonehenge might be  wonderful with these Henri Roche' pastels. Coated papers like ClaireFontaine PastelMat may also respond well to them, or Colourfix Suede. I wouldn't waste them on velour or sanded papers, their extra sticking quality isn't needed and less expensive pastels could give the same effects. 

Townsend Terrages or Soft Form (same formula, different shape) might be a good brand to combine them with if you choose select finishing colors in Henri Roche' and fill out your collection with a broader range in another good artist grade brand. I've tested one Terrages stick and the pumice effect is very similar. Townsend Terrages are a third the price, so if you're in that price range.

Best of the best - yes, in its specialist category, and utterly gorgeous. Good reason to collect pastels in multiple brands and keep Henri Roche' sticks segregated in their own box so you don't wind up using them on the first layers of a small study instead of finishing layers on a gallery painting or commission. This is an old pastel with a grand long history like Girault, so using older techniques and substrates is their greatest strength.

I'm hooked. I won't turn into an artist who only uses this brand, but when I get rich enough for a real studio I'll dream of owning the full range $9,000 set in a rosewood box with drawers. There is something far, far beyond 525 Sennelier pastels and Henri Roche' pastels are that something. I love them and am going to be getting more of them soon - on a smaller scale, and treasure every one.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Masters Water-Soluble Pastel Sticks



Masters Water-Soluble Pastel Sticks are a new product in an old category - semi-hard pastels. It's a little bit of a marketing trick that these inexpensive hard pastels are advertised as water-soluble when many brands of dry pastels are water soluble. Cretacolor Pastels Carre' are also watersoluble, Sennelier pastels are water soluble and most pastels will respond well to a water or alcohol wash in the first block-in layers of a pastel painting.

What these Masters Pastels offer for a beginner is decent quality, manufacturer's claim of lightfastness and water washability at a loony low price. Available in sets of 24 and 48, Jerry's Artarama carries these inexpensive hard pastels. The sticks are short compared to most brands, 2 3/8" rectangular sticks 1/4" wide. They look thick because they're so short, but they're a standard width. The 48 color set I bought to test was only $10.99 on sale at Jerry's.

Getting a big range for a low price is an important factor for beginners. If I was kitting up a student, these beat even the other low priced brands for getting more colors at less initial outlay. Their texture is very firm, there's a good range of darks, neutrals, skin tones and brights but very few tints or light colors. The white is going to wear down very fast and there's no ivory in the set, so I would supplement it with a Cretacolor Pastels Carre' white and perhaps an Ivory for lightening when you don't want to cool the underlying color.

One of the other ways the manufacturer cut prices is with inexpensive yet effective packaging. The box is unbleached, uncolored heavy cardboard, designed so that each piece has an indent on two sides. That makes it easy to lift out the top tray to get at the bottom 24 colors. There's a 1/8" thick pad of dense foam over the top tray and a sheet of wax paper over the second tray to keep the pastels clean and reduce dust migrating into other colors. The sticks are packed into thick dense slotted foam inside thin black cardboard trays. A heavy cardboard lid goes over the top, then a thin cardboard sleeve goes over the box to keep the lid from flying off.

By spending less on printing and colored pictures, the company's focused most of its resources on producing a decent product in a 6" square box sturdy enough to survive being knocked around in a backpack. I appreciate cost cutting that doesn't hurt quality and packaging that's usable in rough conditions for the life of the product.

I tested these over a washed Inktense underpainting. I was very pleased with how they performed. Similar to other hard pastels, they have a firm texture, blend well and mix easily once blended with fingers or sticks.



Of course that didn't tell me much about the product's big claim - that these sticks are water soluble. I decided to see how well they'd dissolve with another pears study. I deliberately scribbled loosely with distinct marks to see how well a good scrubbing would dissolve those marks.



So far, so good. They went on well over bare paper with good strong color. If I pressed hard I got strong distinct marks, just dragging the sticks lightly over the rough cream paper of my Stillman & Birn Delta journal produced good broken color.

Using a water brush, I scrubbed hard at all the marks, swirling the water around to dissolve everything as well as I could. I was happy with the results. Washing the Masters Pastels is as easy as washing any other water soluble pastel. They dissolve easily and didn't leave irritating specks of undissolved pastel or deep marks that didn't come up. If I wanted a lighter sketch and wash technique I would have to wash carefully to leave linear marks or redefine them by drawing into the wet area.



Then I finished my test painting working over the washed pears and background with the same Masters pastels. Just as with the Inktense underpainting, they covered easily and blended well. This time instead of the finger blending I used in some areas of the first test, I blended the background and pink covered table with the white stick to lighten my earlier scribbled marks. I used some complementary colors to tone the russet pear and the very bright green pear, mixing a mid-green with the lemon yellow to get the light yellow-green that wasn't in the set.

They do mix well enough to make up for any essential hues not in the set. There's no peach skin highlight stick, but white over any of the sanguine or russet colors will give a good skin highlight. Stick-blending and finger blending both work well. Colors are reasonably opaque, responding like other semi-hard and hard pastels.



My conclusion: Masters Water-Soluble Pastel Sticks are a good starter set for anyone thinking of trying soft pastels. These plus a 64 color Mungyo Gallery Standard Half-Sticks set will give a beginner a good range of colors plus a combination of firm and soft textures. When the paper tooth fills, switch to the Standard Half Sticks to add final details and accents. Working soft over hard extends how many layers you can use on non-sanded paper.

When you're ready to move up to using sanded and coated pastel papers and surfaces, consider buying a more expensive range of semi-hard pastels such as Mungyo, Richeson, Cretacolor, Sanford NuPastel or even the wonderful but expensive Faber-Castell Polychromos. However, even experts may benefit from having cheap and copious sketch supplies at a loony cheap price. There's something inspiring about not having to worry about cost even if you have to replace the whole set to get an extra white. It's easy to let yourself go and play like a kid.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Girault Pastels For Great Details



Girault pastels, available at Jerry's Artarama, Dakota Pastels and The Fine Art Store online, are one of the more interesting premium artist grade brands. Available in a range of 300 including a good wood box full range set, they are strong in neutrals and muted colors.

Packaging is bare bone efficiency. A long narrow corrugated cardboard box is contained in a sturdy corrugated cardboard outer sleeve. Inside, the top flips up without tucking into the box and the pastels are protected by a half inch thick piece of sturdy foam, while each stick is nestled in a slotted foam layer with another thick foam piece under them. A small color printed example painting sitting on an easel showing the full range occupies the middle of the outer sleeve but that's all Girault spends on fancy printing. What you're paying for with the price is high pigment density, consistent high quality, unique proprietary colors and a special texture unlike all other pastels.

The portrait range and greens in Girault pastels are wonderful, also the darks have a beautiful rich variety of hues. Spectrum brights are relatively few but have good tints and shades, the Girault range is strongest in interesting combination colors like the Violet to Yellow range of hues with increasing amounts of yellow. They come in a variety of specialized sets of 25 or 50 plus open stock and the full range wood box set. Price is fairly high, manufacturer's suggested retail price is $6.48 per stick but of course they're marked down online due to lower overhead.

Friends often described them as combining the best qualities of soft and hard pastels in one stick. Firm enough to get details, soft enough to put them over heavy layers of pastel and everyone who's tried them loved them for a unique texture. I finally bought a 25 color Landscape set from Jerry's Artarama and added two extra sticks, Madder Carmine 380 and Purple VIolet 323 because those hues aren't included in the 25 color Landscape set. A red and a violet are in the 50 Landscape set.

I find violet to be essential in landscapes. Nothing else balances warm yellow greens as well in the shadows of foliage masses or as patches of flowers in green fields. Purple Violet turned out to be more reddish than I expected from the online swatch and both sticks were less intense than I expected. However, some intense greens, yellows and oranges are in the set box so I could simply have chosen the wrong red and purple for what I wanted. A couple of bluer violets looked very intense on the Fine Art Store swatch page and so did a couple of warm reds and Carmine without the madder.

I'll definitely look into expanding my collection from open stock because these are beautiful pastels. As usual, the higher priced pastel brands are cost effective if you like them and not if you don't. Lower priced artist grade pastels have a uniform quality, accept most surfaces, work similar to each other and are good "Workhorse" pastels. They're what I recommend to beginners along with a Super Soft half stick set and some hard pastels.

Girault pastels don't fit any of my usual categories. They aren't Hard/Semi-Hard, Medium Soft, Super Soft or Hand-Rolled in texture. They're exactly what my friends said they were - they combine the qualities of Hard pastels and Medium-Soft pastels in one dense, heavily pigmented solid round stick. I get better details with these pastels than I do with Hard or Semi-Hard pastels. If it weren't for relative price I'd consider using these instead of hard pastels entirely. They stand alone in this regard.

Small details go over heavy layers of other colors well. The sticks are beautifully opaque. When I placed eye highlights and bright white whiskers on the cat below, they shined out bright as if she was alive in my lap. Yet by varying pressure and gently using the stick as a blender, I was able to lighten hues that were too dark.

Various areas of Kokomoko's fur were primarily the hue of the Brown Black stick but much lighter. So I varied her body with other earth colors but went over pale areas carefully with the Brown Black going lightly. A blending stroke or two later, her light patches had those areas of "Pale Brown Black."

Girault Pastels are wonderfully expressive. Fine lines, calligraphic lines, broken color, blending, scumbling, filling in, smudging - the sticks did everything I wanted them to. Many artists who like Girault pastels use only Girault pastels since they are so versatile. They'd wear down faster on sanded or heavily sanded paper of course, but layer beautifully on PastelMat, a smooth coated paper well suited to detail work.

Both sketchy drawing effects and broad painterly strokes are possible with the same stick. The amazing part of this is those clean expressive thin lines and delicate small dots I could produce with them. They layer like the softer pastels - in some areas they layered a bit like Senneliers, eliminating the need to add Super Soft pastels to your palette.

If you want to try Giraults on a smaller budget than purchasing a set, consider buying a white stick and a dark stick in a drawing color like any of the browns, russet, sanguine or other deep darks including black and several deep blues. Sketching on mid-tone paper and blending the dark and white over each other will mix the colors perfectly with the right pressure. With a different speed and pressure, broken color can go over the other color without disturbing it.

An advantage of good mixing and compact size is that you can get by with a smaller palette of Girault pastels than many other brands. Select your colors carefully if you want spectrum brights though, since the brand's range is strongest in subtle muted colors and variations. Johannes Vloothuis recommends a "martini olive" green in landscapes - you will find more than one tint and more than one variation of martini olive hues in the Girault greens. If you love foliage and water, you'll have what you need. Set prices give a small but reasonable discount on price per stick.

I will definitely be getting an extra white stick because Girault white is so opaque and so good at laying delicate whiskers over layers of other pastels. Cat whiskers go on last and I've used pastel pencils, broken stick edges, hard pastels and even Pan Pastels in the search for the Perfect Whisker Stick. I've found it in Giraults. I'll definitely be getting an extra black for the dark-whiskered animals and expanding my range because by themselves or with other pastels, Girault has claimed its own unique, necessary space in my workbox.

If the white does perfect cat whiskers, the bright cadmium yellow could do stamens and pistils in flowers. The green could dance around the edges of ivy with curling tiny tendrils or the shadow side of rounded curling tendrils. Blue glass marbles and the reflection of an entire room in a living eye will demand other colors. Girault pastels have taken the lead as the most impressive Detail pastel I own.

This short range may become a good plein air set because the box is sturdy and compact. The pastels are so versatile I could grab this and a pad of Bogus paper or sketchbook for anything I want to draw outdoors - and I'd be able to capture the interesting details of my subject's focal area in the drawings. The only product I've used that's as good for fine details on bare paper is Conte crayons. Those don't go over heavy layers of other pastels, so these are a special category of finishing pastels that can also be used as general pastels.

Try a stick or two and see if you like them. One risk is that you may get carried away with detail and forget to blend loose painterly areas away from your focal area. Below is a painting completed entirely with Girault pastels on light grey PastelMat. "Kuddly Kokomoko" is 8" x 10 and painted over a Unisons underpainting washed with water. I did not need to use fixative on the final painting at all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede Reviewed



Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede is a new pastel surface that came out in 2010 or 2011. I bought a pack of ten pieces with all 8 colors plus an extra sheet of black and an extra sheet of white. It's similar to ClaireFontaine PastelMat in that it's a coated surface but not sanded or gritty. It has a soft almost velvety fine-grained matte surface.

So fine grained that if I wanted to do pen details or mix media on it, I could do that. The advantage of both products is that they'll make very fine detail possible while holding many more layers of pastel than non-sanded pastel paper. The coating is applied to a heavy card and stands up well to wet underpaintings and wash treatments. I cut out a six inch square to do my section of a "Puzzle Painting" where the photo reference was divided on a grid and 36 different artists each do a piece of the whole painting, then marked it up for a 5" square piece.

I think the photo reference is of a candy dish with some jelly beans in it, my piece definitely looked like jelly beans but some other pieces looked like they had bits of chocolate. I liked how much detail I had so I could get down, layer, underpaint and see how well the surface stands up to water.

I sketched the outlines using Carb-Othello pastel pencils, filled them with flat color and then washed over them using a waterbrush. I'm not sure what would've happened if I'd used a lot of water, soaked it like I was going to do big watery washes with watercolor, but at least for washing a dry underpainting to turn it into a wet one, the Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede performed beautifully!



Pencil lines come through strong and clean on Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede. If you want to combine pencil and pastel or pen and watercolor and pastel, this stuff would be wonderful for various multi-media styles. Try different mediums on the surface along with soft or oil pastels. I don't think you'd get much layering with oil pastels but using hard or soft pastels it gives plenty of layering and removes easily with a kneaded eraser.

You can see that my brush strokes with the round water brush - equivalent of a size 7 Winsor & Newton round brush - are quite visible. Watercolor moves around on this surface. I don't think I'd have any trouble if I wanted to do wet into wet watercolor washes on it. The coating is absorbent and retains its texture after washing. This isn't true of all coated and sanded pastel surfaces.

Sennelier La Carte pastel card is made with a watersoluble glue holding the vegetable flakes to the card, so you don't dare sneeze at it. Little holes will appear where the coating washes off. So it's best with any coated or sanded pastel surface to test water on a small piece of it to find out what dissolves the coating. I haven't tested it with turpentine or odorless mineral spirits yet so I'll add to this review if I do - sometimes water won't dissolve a coating but other solvents do. Whatever solvents you use, always test them on a small bit outside the picture area to find out if it'll destroy the coating on any coated or sanded pastel paper.

I found that it could hold quite a few layers. The finished pastel puzzle piece is up at the top of this article. I used Color Conte hard pastels and gave it four or five layers to mix colors before I had to add anything else. This is about twice as much layering as I'd get using non-sanded paper like Canson mi-Tientes. It was still grabby and full of tooth when I switched to Mungyo Gallery Artist Soft Squares for the final two or three layers - again for color mixing, some areas got two or three more coats in more than one color to blend them.

It holds hard edges beautifully, almost too well. I had to deliberately soften some edges on this little square painting because working just up to the lines and changig colors gave harsh clean edges. Perfect if what you want is hard-edged details, for soft edges it's better to blend across them with a stick than try to blend with fingers or tools.

I tried blending the edges softer with Q-tips but discovered this pulled off color and went back to the underpainting rather than blurring it. Some other blenders like Colour Shapers might work better and it helps to have a lot of pastel on before trying to blend. Like PastelMat, Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede keeps your strokes exactly where you put them. This makes blending with sticks work beautifully. I choose a stick that's mid-way between the adjacent colors in value and a hue that works well with both of them - in some areas I used gray, in others I used a dark sanguine, it varied.

Because you can add so many layers, even a small set of pastels like my 24 Color Conte sticks will give a gorgeous range of combinations. Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede is perfect for detailed realism and hard or medium pastels. It's grabby but fine-grained, so filling the tooth with super soft pastels like Senneliers would probably limit how much more you can put on it unless they're rubbed in thoroughly.

Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede also erases completely clean with a kneaded eraser. I got a dark smudge in the middle of a bright spot when I was doing the original layers, a bit of the dark blue got misplaced. A kneaded eraser cleaned it right back to white without damaging the surface at all. I was gentle with it but very happy with how it erases.

Because it's in a category with Clairefontaine PastelMat, Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede is a wonderful surface for Pan Pastels painting. I haven't tried Pans on it yet but judging by how pastel pencils and hard pastels work on it, I expect the same wonderful results. It's like painting on the sticky side of glue. Erase if you want to make major changes, you can get it good and clean. If you want a thick, textured, painterly look with super-soft pastels, go back to the original Art Spectrum Colourfix or try Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth, which as almost as harsh and toothy as Kitty Wallis paper.

Enjoy! Art Spectrum Colourfix Suede comes in eight good colors including white, black, cool and dark colors and a brilliant blue-violet that would be fun for nocturnes. You can tell sheets apart from Art Spectrum Colourfix at a glance because unlike regular Colourfix, the coating goes right out to the edges of the sheet without a bare half inch around it to put under the mat.

PS - sorry about the two month hiatus. I had some serious health problems over December and January. I'd been overextending myself physically, routinely walking too far, going up and down too many stairs since the elevator broke and just doing too much. Eventually I hit the Big Crash and literally slept through Christmas, then had a two month backlog of things to catch up on.

I'll be working on getting back to regular weekly posts now, enjoy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stillman and Birn Gamma Sketchbook



Stillman & Birn's Gamma Series sketchbook is the fifth of the beautiful journals the company sent me to try. Available in several sizes with either a hard cover or a wirebound hard cover, the Gamma Series has 100lb ivory vellum archival paper. It's a very light ivory, not so dark that white strokes show up dramatically. The color gives a warm glow to anything drawn or painted on it and the heavy weight allows a variety of mixed media uses.

The paper is the same as the Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, its only difference is the ivory color. So I decided to test it again thoroughly with different mediums. Seeing how the ivory paper affects color in sketches and trying out a couple of dry mediums I didn't use in the Alpha for my review seemed like a good idea.

I trusted that it'd handle dry mediums well enough when I reviewed the Alpha. What I didn't realize was how great the surface was with them, whether I want broken color or blended smooth color areas. This paper, in both the Alpha and Gamma versions, shines for everything I've used on it.

I love the texture on the Stillman & Birn Gamma paper for drawing with Conte. Here's a sketch done with the traditional sketching colors, black, bistre and sanguine. I worked loosely, smudged, skittered the sticks across the page and got excellent broken color from the vellum surface. It's versatile. Not so toothy that I can't get soft blended edges or even use penwork, yet rough enough that broken color is easy.



I used SpectraFix casein fixative on this page. It's a good idea to use fixative on colored pencils paintings or drawings to prevent wax bloom. With pastels, pastel pencils or Conte drawings, even soft graphite drawings, fixative helps keep them from smearing on the facing page. At worst, smears on the facing page migrate into light areas of the drawing facing it.

For permanent storage, the hard cover Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook fits neatly on any bookcase and looks classy with its plain black binding. This is the type of bound sketchbook that gives an art journal a sense of special formality. I know in the past I was nervous about using hardbound sketchbooks at all for fear of messing up a page when it's so elegant.

Don't be afraid to experiment in the Gamma sketchbook. The strong Gamma paper stands up well to erasing and reworking for any dry medium. Any pages you're not satisfied with can always be reworked later or dated to show your progress.

One thing I like about the size is that the 8 1/2" x 11" Gamma sketchbook fits on a normal scanner unlike any of the 9" x 12" ones. That size range varies, but having a scanner sized sketchbook makes it much easier to post your pages online. If you don't have a camera tripod, it can be hard to snap photos of artwork without blurring. So having scanner sized pages makes it a lot easier to keep a digital record in case my sketchbooks are damaged by a flood or lost in a move.

Below is an oil pastel still life in my hardbound Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook. Oil pastels are a little different. Unlike Conte crayons, colored pencils or other dry mediums, they have mineral oils in them that never completely dry. Sometimes these oils can seep through sketchbook paper to appear on the reverse.

The strong paper with its sizing kept the oils in my oil pastels page from coming through at all. I could use watercolors on the reverse of this page with no problem. That's important to me because oil pastel is one of my favorite sketch mediums as well as a serious painting medium.

Because the hard covers are light proof, I can even use cheap student oil pastels in my sketchbook without worrying about fading. So I'm always on the lookout for papers that take them well. They're a portable, convenient color medium for studies in their cheapest form and it's a lot of fun to experiment, trusting that the paper will stand up to my experiments.




So if this paper stands up well to oil pastels and Conte crayons, I trust it'll be fine with colored pencils. It's toothy and should take some serious layering if you want to play with your Prismacolors on it. Stick to light applications till your final blending if you want to maximize layering though

Naturally I wanted to see how the Gamma paper holds up to light washes. Except that my example wasn't a light wash by the time I was done with it. I'd call it a heavy wash. I used Stabilo Point 88 fine tip watersoluble pens in a color set that came with my Carb-Othello pastel pencils.

Once I'd sketched the scene using half a dozen colors, I started washing by color area and pushing color around. I scrubbed hard in some areas to almost completely dissolve my pen lines, leaving only faint echoes if that. I dabbed color into damp areas from darker areas for wet in wet effects. What happened was some very slight curling at the edge when it was completely soggy and finished. That flattened out as it dried and the scanner finished flattening it to minimal.

This paper stands up to wet techniques and mixed media so well that I won't hesitate to use watersoluble pencils, watercolor sketching or any water media in it. The label says "light washes" but it stands up to some heavy washing too with minimal cockles. My main suggestion is to leave a bit of space between the edge of your painting and the edge of the paper if you're going to get really soggy, unlike what I just did. I'd rather have left about an inch but by then I had to keep going to get the composition right.

Stillman & Birn Gamma paper will put up with mistakes like that and come back strong. I'm happy with this beautiful sketchbook and know that I'll definitely replace it when it's full - these are a joy to work in and an inducement to sketch and paint more often.