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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Blick Artists Pastels

Rose Sketch
4" x 6"
Blick Artist soft pastel sample plus a Terry Ludwig and Sennelier for comparison
White sketchbook paper

Anything will go well on sanded papers, I've noticed, so I tested this pastel in my sketchbook. I also made some random marks on a scrap of PastelMat just to see if it would cause a problem on coated paper -- not.

The full range of 90 colors is ludicrously inexpensive at $124.99 at Dick Blick. This isn't the first time I've tried a Blick house brand product, so I was optimistic about the quality when I emailed them for a sample. Happily, the sample they sent is a good full strength color -- it's hard to tell sometimes with the swatches whether a color has full intensity or not. Cadmium Red Hue is definitely strong and intense!

The tip of the pastel was crumbled on one end, possibly from the way it was packaged as a sample. Other friends noticed the tip was crumbled on theirs, but once past the little bit of cracked part it went on very smooth and soft. Good strong pigment saturation and a nice medium soft texture a bit softer than Rembrandt.

I compared it with a Terry Ludwig pastel, which was much softer, and a Sennelier that was also distinctly softer -- but it was closer to the Sennelier than to a Rembrandt. I definitely enjoy this texture.

The full range of these colors include hues rather than mineral pigments, so that keeps the cost down and also makes it safe to use these around my grandkids. That's another point in favor of my picking up the full range. I noticed a good variety of tints in the full range judging by swatches, also plenty of muted and grayed colors for those who enjoy using muted colors.

Based on the swatches, it seems a little short on deep dark colors, but there is a full spectrum of tints and several degrees of tints available in some. There is a dark green, Terre Verte Hue 4, plus Prussian Blue, so that'll help for depths of foliage and so on, as well as a couple of very deep dark browns and Chestnut Red 4 for dashes of a deep dark reddish tone in shadows.

Overall, this product is a great value. I'd definitely recommend it for beginners because of the price, quality and lack of toxicity. Once again, Blick has created a "house brand" artist grade product that stands up well to comparison with other artist grade brands -- and every time they do, my wallet sighs in relief!

The sticks are round and wrapped, about the size of a Sennelier or Rembrandt stick, pretty standard. I don't have a photo of just the one stick, but you can get a sample for yourself emailing Dick Blick through their contact form. Definitely give these a try, they can seriously help start or fill out the medium-soft range!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prismacolor Colored Pencils

I've been addicted to Prismacolor colored pencils since high school, when I begged shameless as a puppy for a 72 color set. Up to that point I'd been a bit frustrated with colored pencils because most of what I used was hard student grade ones. Kid pencils are difficult for beginners. Skilled colored pencil artists can do a lot with any level of hardness or softness, but the creamy, soft, easily blended Prismacolor texture gave me a new passion for the medium.

That set also came with a little booklet showing colored pencil art by some serious professionals. The cover painting was a realist landscape with reflecting water, trees, clouds in the sky, all done so well that it was better than a photo. I finally understood what could be done with colored pencils and spent the next 40 years learning to do it myself.

This set, the 24 color Portfolio set, is darned convenient. It comes with a good sized pad of heavy white paper, a manual sharpener, a padded faux leather portfolio that protects the delicate pencils well and a pocket in the front for storing your finished art. So this one is my take-along set.

The range includes Indigo, one of my all time necessity colors. So does the 12 color Portfolio set. Either of these is a good bargain on sale, because the case is well worth it to protect these frustratingly delicate pencils.

Prismacolor colored pencils are also the worst offenders for internal breakage.

That's what happens when you get a new replacement pencil from the store, start to sharpen it and the point falls off. You sharpen it again and the point breaks off as it's almost sharp. Repeat until pencil is a tiny stub shorter than the one you decided to replace. Bang head on desk a few times, return to store, get another one from open stock.

Every art supply store or online supplier I've ever bought them from will replace those internally-broken Prismacolors without charge. They know that happens. I found out by trial and error that open stock pencils ordered online are less likely to have internal breakage before I even sharpen them the first time. Possibly they're handled less because of the sheer volume of orders.

What happens is that the very soft core of the pencil cracks inside the wood case. You can't tell there's anything wrong with it until you start to sharpen it. This can happen because you dropped it. Think about how many times display racks in stores fall over and employees pick everything up to reshelve it. Before you bought the open stock pencil, a seven year old may have played Pick Up Sticks with the display.

This is why I always keep Prismacolors and other soft colored pencils in elastic band cases, preferably padded ones. The portfolio sets have elastic bands to hold each pencil separately so they don't bang into each other. Prismacolor tins are a bit too large, when you tilt them or hold them on end all the pencils jump out of their styrene trays and bang into each other.

That causes internal breakage and it can happen before you even get the shrink wrapping off the new tin to sharpen any of them. However, Blick and other suppliers will replace any damaged pencils from a set if you email them to tell them what's missing or damaged. Nearly every time I've gotten a large set, I've had to email them for one to half a dozen specific colors that had internal breakage.

The newer tins have been redesigned to help solve the problem. The big 132 color tin has a lid over the top stack and all the trays snap together, so that tin is actually safe for your set. I still moved mine to elastic band leather cases because they're also easier to get at in those cases. I'll do a review on the cases later on in more detail. It's just important to remember that some type of elastic-band case is a necessity for Prismacolors because of their fragility.

It's also absolutely necessary to use sharp new pencil sharpener blades. Prismacolor makes a special Prismacolor Colored Pencil Sharpener that has some advantages, it's a little gentler on them than normal ones by its design. Just replace the blade often, as soon as it's at all hard to turn the pencil it's time for a new blade.

A good alternative is an electric or crank grinder style sharpener. Those are self sharpening and don't eat Prismacolors nearly as much, but still take some care. You need to run a normal cheap HB pencil into the sharpener after every half dozen to a dozen Prismacolors so that the grinder doesn't get gummed up with the soft waxy formula. Also empty the shavings receptacle often. Either stuffed-up receptacles or wax jamming can cause problems with these fussy, overly-delicate pencils.

Not all the colors in the range are lightfast. If you're concerned about lightfastness, do a home lightfastness test. Make two labeled charts with all the colors. Tape one into a sunny window for a year. Leave the other one safe in a closed box in the back of your closet or somewhere else dark and safe. Then compare them for how much each color faded and you'll know which colors to use only for projects that won't be exposed to light much or don't need to last a long time.

Sanford also makes Prismacolor Lightfast colored pencils in a shorter 48 color range. Happily these have the same sweet Prismacolor texture, so if you don't mind having fewer colors to work with, you can get good archival paintings done with them. If you aren't as worried about lightfastness, the Premier Lightfast range with the Aztec mask on the tin has different colors. Everything but black, white and lemon yellow is unique, so it'd extend your range a lot.

So why, after all those troubles, do I still keep coming back to Prismacolor colored pencils like an old friend?

They are available in more colors than any other colored pencil. They have a unique soft easily blended texture that's glorious for doing layered realistic painting. They're pigment-rich and strong too. The amount of time and effort that goes into a 20-30 layer realist Prismacolor painting on a good archival support is worth buying museum glass for the frame.

All colored pencils have different binders. Every manufacturer has proprietary colors and proprietary binders. Like pastels, the more colors you have, the more colors you want. Even when you start mixing colors, a large range gives more possibilities -- you want to glaze a light blue over a bright orange area, but the one that's the right color is too dark.

I actually use all of the colors. I started tracking this when I wondered if I was buying a lot of colors I didn't use. Then I realized that what wore down fastest was just the colors that often get used for large areas -- some colors I only use for details, others I have to lay down repeatedly to cover skies and foliage. Blues, darks and greens wear down the fastest for me, your mileage may vary depending on your favorite subjects.

Prismacolor's specific translucence is perfect for a multi-layered, rich, shimmering color. Some prominent realist colored pencil painters like Alyona Nickelsen only use Prismacolors for their effects. Others combine multiple brands but keep coming back to Prismacolor for its range, its texture and its exact translucence. Another good point in their favor is the price -- they're often on sale and even at normal prices run a bit lower than many other brands.

These pencils are also the easiest artist grade brand to find in the USA. You can get them online or at any brick and mortar art store. If you are in the UK or anywhere in the British Commonwealth, you may find them marketed as Karismacolour or Karisma Colour, those are exactly the same product under a different label.

This is the best Prismacolor painting that I've ever done, from a photo reference in Arlene Steinberg's book Masterful Color. I used Ms. Steinberg's techniques including complementary underpainting and took my time with it, using 30+ layers on some of the marbles and at least seven or eight on the background areas.

The luminosity of this painting in person is indescribable. If you look at her book you'll see many incredible paintings, but if you try one of the projects you'll understand why so many professional painters still come back to Prismacolors like an old friend. They give a special glow and are one of the best brands for that multi-layered super realism style, where your art comes out looking truer than a photo and just as detailed.

Colors mix well by blending, glazing and burnishing. Prismacolor also makes a Colorless Blender that's tremendously useful if you just want a thin burnished layer without changing its hue. You can also burnish with White, but that takes going over it again with the previous colors to darken it up again. There's an extra loop in the spine of the Portfolio sets if you want to add a colorless blender to make the small set complete.

These classic pencils are still among my favorites despite all their troubles. Give them a try, especially if you're new to colored pencils. You'll find it a lot easier to get these effects than if you're struggling with student grade pencils or a harder artist grade brand like Derwent Studio or Prismacolor Verithin. Those have their uses, but the soft pencils are the best for blending smooth flat areas of color, covering thoroughly and layering for rich luminous effects.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mount Vision Pastels

These are sumptuous, huge soft hand-rolled pastels available in a range of 330 colors. This is my 25 color Chromatic Set, an inspiration as soon as I open the box for its brilliant intense hues.

Hue is what color it is, intense means just that -- strong color versus soft grayed-out colors. I bought the Chromatic Set because a number of other artist grade pastels include grays, browns, brownish or grayish colors and don't always have a pure screaming acid green or bright purple. It's much easier to mix a little yellow into loud bright purple to tone it down than it is to try to intensify a dusty purple to get the color of say, a purple iris.

A number of friends recommended Mount Vision. The company was founded by an artist, Karl Kelly, who makes the pastels himself and often invents new colors. Here's the website for his company: Mount Vision Pastels, with complete color charts, history, technical details and tons of information. I surfed the site a few times before buying.

But that Chromatic Set was what finally sold me, because so many other sets have gaps in their intense hues. There'll be good oranges but no clean purple, greens will be muted to look more natural but not come in the clear emerald that you get in student sets. If you like to mix your own, these are fantastic.

They're also not as expensive as Unison or some of the other hand-rolled pastels. Packaging is bare-bones simple -- a brown corrugated cardboard box with a thick slotted foam insert. Even the full range just comes in lots of plain corrugated cardboard boxes with black and white printout labels pasted on for what's in it. So you're not wasting money on four color printing and it's up to you to buy your own fancy wood box, what you get with a set of Mount Visions is just the really good pastels.

These like sanded papers. I've used them on Colourfix and Wallis with fantastic results. They layer well, it's also easy for me to blend colors with the sticks rather than finger blending. Some colors use toxic pigments, so don't eat or drink with colorfully messy hands or inhale too much of the dust. That holds true for most artist grade pastels though.

They're all right on regular paper, just don't expect to do as much layering. The feel is very soft, more like Senneliers than like the harder sticks I'm used to using (Rembrandt, Art Spectrum) and so they work better for soft stick techniques like scumbling, adding more layers when hard pastels have filled the tooth of the paper and covering large areas with bold swipes.

They are really good for covering large areas with bold swipes too. These always make me think of working large and loose rather than noodling around with a lot of details on a small piece of paper. I'm more likely to swing them from the arm and wrist than hold them close and move them with my fingers.

If you want a sharp edge, just break one of the sticks and you have sharp edges along the break on both pieces. Or wear down a stick at an angle while filling in a large area, this works for other stick mediums too. Their texture encourages a painterly approach in masses and blocks of color rather than lines and drawing. It would take some work to wear them down to something more linear and then they'd lose the point almost immediately.

Some of Karl Kelly's original colors fill important gaps in landscape lineups. The Tropical set is the only one I know of that has the right hues for sunny Florida landscapes or Caribbean scenes, so if you like palms and beaches, that may be a necessity. Thunderstorm Grays are very popular, with a wide variety of subtle colors and a strong range of values.

The photos on the site are pretty close to true for colors and values. Not all the value ranges are just mixed with a color and white or black. Many of the unique Mount Vision colors are created along a hue range, such as Pthalo Green with a little more yellow added per stick to give a sequence that gets warmer as it lightens in value.

They're a great bargain for their size, softness, light buttery texture and sensible packaging. If you like Susan Sarback's techniques, the 25 Chromatic set plus a black, a white and some chosen tints and shades around the spectrum would be just about the perfect palette.

Think big, get loose, work painterly and fall in love with color, that's what Mount Vision pastels mean to me. Here's a landscape in progress, done with my 25 color Chromatic set and a Sennelier white and light blue.

And here's a sketch I did today on plain white sketchbook paper with them, showing how those super bright colors do blend to nice muted neutrals.

Even on the plain paper, I found myself doing looser motions, swiping the stick lightly or mashing it down hard for impasto effects. That's what the softness does. They come out more textured and painterly than the tight control I get with harder pastels.

I love art supplies!

Some of my colored pencils sets laid out together.

Like many professional and leisure painters, nothing cheers me so much as a new color or a new surface. I've had spending money on a regular monthly basis since 2005 and most of it has flowed toward Dick Blick, with occasional raids on ASW and Dakota Pastels.

I purchase my supplies online. With short term sale coupons, Clearance items and out of season holiday gift packages, on average most of my expensive goodies cost about half retail. Sometimes they're a lot lower! So thrift and frugality in getting and using art supplies will also be a theme in this blog.

I've never met a drawing or painting medium I didn't like. My main website, is specifically about Oil Pastels. You'll find many reviews of different brands, surfaces and tools there for Oil Pastelists.

This blog is about everything else! I'll include some oil pastels too now and then, just to keep it complete, but you'll find much more information and demonstrations on the site. Most of my reviews here will be on pastels and colored pencils, with occasional posts on paint, mediums and primers. I'll also review surfaces, tools, accessories, storage options and furniture like easels or tables.

If you have something you're curious about, let me know. I might have it or be able to get samples to test and write it up. If there's something you love or hate, please comment and let me know why!