Color Spree

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

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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow! I'm so amazed with its very nice effects. Thank you so much for sharing it. Now I know how watercolors is very effective accompanied by pastels.
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  3. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is
    also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,

    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

  4. The steps you have been done in a very good manner.Nice to look that picture..I am very interest to these type of pictures..

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    check out the new video we just added, it features Isabelle making the pastels.

    It's all in french but the imagery in it is simply amazing.