Color Spree

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Color Conte!

I have or have tried several brands of hard and semi-hard pastels. Since they are less expensive than soft pastels and often come in shorter ranges, I can get full range sets easier. So far my all-time favorites are Color Conte hard pastels.

They are Conte crayons. They have exactly the texture, easy blending and smudging, mixability, small size, intense pigment concentration and handling as the more familiar sanguine and black Conte crayons you might've tried. If you've never used Conte crayons, definitely get one and try it. You'll be in love for sketching, drawing -- and pastel sketching and drawing.

To my delighted surprise, even the little 12 color set of Color Conte is so good at mixing either by glazing and scumbling layers over each other or smudging color together with a finger, that I could get pretty much any color I wanted. I was put off by the bright spectrum colors for a long time -- it looked like I wouldn't get any natural hues and the large set seemed too expensive. Then I finally tried them and now they're a staple.

I find myself coming back to my 48 color set often because even this, the largest color set available in the USA, is so physically small and handy. The sticks are tiny and very firm, but their texture is smooth and creamy. They last a lot longer than you'd think, even covering fairly large areas with them doesn't wear them down too badly. And they blend, how they blend!

Like any hard pastels, these are square sticks with four corners that can be used for tiny details. They don't crumble, so they're particularly good for detailing pastel paintings and can sometimes go over even softer pastels if I use the right pressure or add a spritz of fixative first.

The packaging is sturdy. All the set sizes come with heavy clear plastic boxes with bead closures and smooth hinges, with a styrene tray inside to hold the sticks separately. They've survived any number of drops and banging around with the exception of a recent accident when the box was open. My cat tossed it off the bed and most of the sticks shattered into very small pieces. With about half the pieces unusably tiny, I decided to replace the set -- especially when some of the pieces were half sticks left over from using this set more than anything else.

They are a little hard to find online in open stock, so replacing colors is tricky. I think Utrecht or Pearl might have the open stock, try a variety of different suppliers or Google on them and keep looking till you find one. I found that with my techniques though, I tend to wear down the colors fairly evenly except for using up the white fastest. White sticks are available in two-packs though, so I'll probably be replacing the white by itself once I wear down this new one.

Color Conte comes in specialty sets of 12 Portrait and 12 Landscape, but the Landscape set hasn't been available online in the USA for a while. Assorted sets of 12, 24 and 48 are available along with a wood box set that has 36 colors plus the 12 color range of regular (white, black, sanguine, gray) sketching colors. Two sizes, 24 and 12, are also available in "blue box" sets that have a cardboard box with a drawer or two sliding out to show the sticks.

They're called crayons but there's nothing waxy about them. Conte Color sticks are dry pastels not that far from Prismacolor NuPastel or Cretacolor Pastel Carre in texture. The 48 color set usually goes for around $60 or so, might be a bit less on sale, depends on which online supplier you go to.

That seems high but isn't when you compare it to the per-stick price of 48 Faber-Castell Polychromos or the other high quality brands. Polychromos don't come in 48 color sets, but if you take a moderate size set, divide the price by the number of sticks and then do the same to the Color Conte sets, they're about comparable. What the shorter range means is that to get a full range set, your total outlay will be smaller -- and Color Conte are so mixable that you may not really need more.

I trust the lightfastness of Color Conte from personal experience, having used them for years and put many of the resulting sketches on my wall in bright sunlight. I haven't done a formal timed lightfastness test, but the Color Conte sketches didn't fade when some more fugitive pastels and colored pencils sketches hanging nearby did.

This is the set that I use the most often, out of all the pastels I own. Part of that is their small footprint and sheer convenience. The pocket set is sturdy enough to survive being shoved in my vest pocket when I go out to the farrier school or a doctor's appointment and just bring a sketchbook. If I were to take up street sketching again, these are probably what I'd bring out most often because of their light weight, versatility and ease of use on inexpensive smooth papers like Canson Mi-Tientes.

They layer beautifully even on smooth papers like a regular sketchbook page, but will wear down faster of course on sanded surfaces. My example painting below is done on light gray ClaireFontaine PastelMat, a coated surface that takes many layers with these, and the combination's wonderful.

So if you haven't tried these before, start out with the little 12 color set or depending on budget, treat yourself to a larger set. You'll get hooked as soon as you use them. Even if you prefer softer pastels, a few of these around will become more useful than pastel pencils for line sketching at the start of a painting, scumbling and blending for an underpainting or detailing in the finish.

Pines by River
8" square
Color Conte hard pastels on light gray ClaireFontaine PastelMat
Photo reference provided by DAK720 on posted for Feb. 2010 "Spotlight" challenge.

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