Color Spree

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

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.