Re: pastel brands - descriptions
Okay here's what I have:
I still consider myself in the learning stages, but I've been doing this now for several years and have done hundreds of paintings and sketches. I have acquired a fairly large and eclectic set of pastels that I use extensively, along with a big bunch of pastels I made from scratch. I have read many posts in Wet Canvas that talk about the different pastel brands, which ones are best and which ones to avoid, and I studied a lot of those when I first began and while they were very helpful, most were just a simple word or two like, "Creamy" or "Buttery" which is all well and good, but kind of kept me wondering and wanting more specific information. I've always wanted to do this, give a little more descriptive information about the different pastels I've used. Here goes!
first thing's first, I'm a landscape artist and I work on sanded paper. I've tried using different pastel papers and velours, but I didn't like those surfaces nearly as much, and I noticed the pastels behaved quite differently on them. So if you prefer those surfaces over the sanded papers, these musings might not be as useful for you. And full disclosure, I like to work big, the bigger the better. 18x24 size is common, though I have done lots of smaller and larger ones too. I also tend to underpaint, though not always, and I rub and blend the heck out of the first few layers while I block everything in, and then gradually lighten up as I go and work towards the final layers being left alone, just the marks as I make them with the softest pastels in my collection. I'm only mentioning these things because they make a big difference when it comes to pastel choices, over someone who does very small, intricate animal portraits for example.
So if you might be interested in working like me, large landscapes on sanded paper with a lot of "physicality" these thoughts might be helpful.
1) Unison/Jack Richeson: These are probably my most often used pastels. I put these two pastel brands together because honestly, aside from the colors, I can't tell them apart. Anyway, they feel great and are always consistent. I can count on them. They have what I would call a great staining quality, meaning you get nice intense marks without much work. You go over a wide area lightly and rub it in, and the color seems to almost be like paint, especially the darker colors. They just have a nice, consistently intense mark. I really like the dark greens, and my all time favorite is A43. It is just the best for doing shady parts of trees and bushes. You use the dark greens along with the dark neutrals and that is a dynamite combination. They work really well for layering the shadows on trees and shrubs and grasses. I also love the light blues and lavenders for working on skies, they have the same sort of effect and they blend together without using fingers or blending tools really well, just by overlaying the colors. Between the two, Richeson and Unison, I think they must have every color imaginable, and you just have to look at some of the sets to see what I mean. For the bread and butter work, I think there is no brand better. You could finish with them too, they are soft enough, so you could really do complete paintings with them and use no other brand. It seems basic and fundamental, but what it all boils down to is you want a brand of pastel that will do what you want, isn't that right? The best pastels with perform brilliantly when you need them to, and these are just that. Consistent and reliable.
2) Rembrandts: these are also a close second to the Unison/Richeson combo for your workhorse pastels. I was lucky enough to get an old set of complete colors, I must have about 400 or so, and I use them all the time for putting on the first several layers of colors. They are so great because they have just the right amount of softness to be rich and cover well, but they don't fill up the tooth so fast. I would say they are the best all around pastel for blending with each other too, just using the sticks and not your fingers or a blending tool. They just seem to have always the same amount of hardness and workability with each other, the white is almost the same as the black in density, feel, and performance, and everything in between. It is amazing to me how similar they all are, they feel almost exactly the same. They are dense and heavy and they last a long time. They blend well by rubbing down into the surface, and they also blend well together using the sticks. I look at my array of sticks and I wonder how I would ever need any other color, but of course I always find myself looking for a minutely different color that I need, so I have only done one or two paintings using only Rembrandts, I always seem to finish with other brands. My only complaint would be that the color range is not quite there, just a little bit lacking. Just like a honey bee as soon as I see another attractive color I'm off, and again and again. I will always jump to another brand to get just the right color I need. It seems to work though, the softer pastels will always be compatible with the Rembrandts. I loved the Rembrandts when I was a youngster, and I still love them today.
3) Terry Ludwigs: it is hard to say I have a favorite pastel, but if I was forced to choose, I would have to say they are these. I'm all about colors, it is what generates dopamine (or whatever the scientific term is) and I am addicted to it. I really think it is what makes life worth living for me. I just can't imagine life without colors, and when it comes right down to it Terry Ludwig has the best. I don't know how he does it, after making my own pastels for years now, I cannot see how he gets those fantastic colors he does. Whatever magic he uses, it works and works well. I had to work at it in order to get a decent set to experiment with because they are a little pricey, but they are worth every penny. I honestly tell you, if I ever get stuck on a painting, you know how you get to a point sometimes where things just aren't quite working for you, and you don't know what's wrong exactly, all I have to do is take out some Terry Ludwigs and pick one out, and I can rescue my painting every time. I don't use them exclusively, because I find that they really work best for finishing, but oh my gosh how great they are for that! I've taken some of the wonderful ochre colors and gone over some of my grasses, and voila, they just sparkle. I've taken some dusty rose colors and gone over some water reflections, or some greys to put into some clouds, or whatever, and they just do the trick every time. It seems like the colors are just perfect. If you look at them and use a little imagination, you can pick just the right one for the job every time. It really is amazing. I had the pleasure of going to the Dakota Art Store in Mount Vernon, WA to look at pastels one day, and beforehand I had made up my mind that I wanted to get the Terry Ludwig Umber Shadows and Shades set. When I got there I picked up the Stunning Yellows, and I was literally mesmerized for a moment. I've never seen an array of yellows that are quite so beautiful. I had to get them. It is hard to explain how wonderful the Terry Ludwig colors are, they are just unique and they perform so beautifully, there is nothing out there quite like them. Sometimes they have kind of a waxy feel to them in your hand, but they always go on the surface flawlessly. They too are nice and dense and heavy, and they are pretty consistent in the way they work and feel, like the Rembrandts, but there are a few colors that tend to be a little scratchy, or softer feeling and they deposit more than other colors. Those dense feeling ones are amazing, you can drag them on their side and they skim along leaving such nice texture over another color, or you turn them on an edge and them make a crisp line almost like a pencil. I like to vary my marks as much as possible, and if I take a Terry Ludwig and use a corner edge, I can twist it and apply different pressure and I get a wonderful varied line which looks organic, like a tree branch or something, and yet when I lay it down for a broader stroke it will give me something nice and smooth and even. They just seem to be able to do what you want them to when you want them to. Almost always, the last couple layers of my painting belong to Terry Ludwigs.
4) Schminckes: these beauties are again some of my favorites for sparkle and finishing touches. I tend to buy all my pastels second hand, and I got a great old set of beat up Schminckes for a really good deal, which enabled me to add to the set with a few very darks and very lights, and now I have a pretty complete set. So there is nothing quite like a Schmincke for those bright whites and highlight colors to use in a painting. Their bright colors are just the best, and they go on like a dream. Soft and buttery doesn't even begin to describe it. Again, they are fairly consistent in the way they perform, but some colors are just a bit softer than others. You can actually feel it when you pick them up. Some colors will rub off on your fingers like crazy when you handle them, and those are the ones that will go on smoothest and deposit the most color. Darks as well as lights. I should mention here that I have a set of Great Americans and they are very similar to the Schminckes, both in the feel and the way they work with you. I'm not sure about the colors so much, the set of GA's that I have number about 70, so I have a limited amount. It just seems like the Schminckes are such classically beautiful colors, they have the same recipes used for over a hundred years, while the GA colors are very bright and they seem a little more modern, if that makes any sense. Anyway, the GA pastels are very soft and they go on well too, but I find certain colors of the GA brand are very very fragile. I've always heard the same about Schminckes too, but I don't really find that to be true. I have had some small sets of 15 that have been perfect, when I unwrap them none are broken at all. Other sets I've had seem to be the opposite, some crumbling into uselessness in my hand. It depends on the luck of the draw, I guess. I think some sets have been dropped or handled badly, and so the brand gets a bad name for that and it shouldn't be that way. Schminckes are big and beautiful, a little bigger than Rembrandts or Senneliers. Getting a full stick of Schmincke in your hand is a wonderful thing. You can apply them in almost an impasto way, they are so soft. Nothing is better at finishing highlight or bright spot touches than a good soft Schmincke.
5) Senneliers: Not a huge fan of these pastels. Some of them are wonderful, but the inconsistency is not good. My very first set of good quality artist pastels were these, and I loved them until I tried other brands, and in my opinion the Senneliers just don't hold up. I've seen people complain about the brittle quality and I've run into that. After just stating that when pastels break apart when you unwrap them it isn't necessarily the fault of the brand, that's true, but I have had more problems with crumbling Senneliers than any other brand. I have had better luck with the open stock sticks I've bought off the shelf, but only a little. Even with the crumbling and breaking, my biggest complaint is how inconsistent they are in performance. Some of the colors are fine, in fact I would say most of them are quite good, but some of them are really bad. I've had Senneliers that don't work well at all, they are so scratchy and/or crumbly. The colors are nice, a lot like the Schminckes in that they are classically beautiful being around for as long or longer than the Schminckes. It isn't that they are bad, quite the opposite, in fact a lot of people just love Senneliers. I just find that there are other brands that perform just as well as these, only they don't have the problems. That being said, I do have quite a few of these pastels and I use them frequently. Whenever I come across one that is too scratchy or doesn't perform well I just toss it away. I would be a little miffed if I was just starting out and bought a large set of these pastels and couldn't use several of them though. That's just not acceptable, in my opinion.
6) Grumbachers: these pastels are very similar in performance to the Rembrandts, only without the color range. I got an old set of 120, some are square and some are round. I think the square pastels are supposed to be a little harder than the round ones, but I can't really tell the difference. They are nice to use as the backbone of a painting, the same way the Rembrandts and Unison/Richeson pastels are, and there are a few distinct colors that I really like. There is a nice deep ultramarine that is just super for doing dark water and deep blue skies. I like the way the white performs too, it is great for blending over the top. Again, they just seem to have a nice consistent quality to them which I like, but the colors seem to be pretty limited. The set I have has two sticks of each color, so there are only 60 different colors. Still, I have a hard time finding the right brown or green when I need it, so I never seem to be able to use them for much more than blocking in a painting with just a few exceptions. Quality is good, performance is good, but I guess I just don't have enough colors. I have looked at other more complete sets of these on line, however, and I really don't see quite the range or beauty of colors from other brands. They are kind of rough and scratchy sometimes, like they contain pumice powder, but they lay down colors very smoothly. Most of the colors have that kind of staining quality of the dark Unisons, where you rub and blend them in and they seem to grow more intense, which I like a lot.
7) Art Spectum: I bought a few of these pastels because I saw those big jumbo ones and just had to try it out. I only have a couple of the "Extra Soft" type, which are very close to the feel and performance of Unisons, but they are square. They are maybe a little grittier, but still are very soft. I have mostly the brand called "Soft Pastels" but they are actually more semi-soft, similar to Rembrandts. They have a similar feel and performance as Rembrandts, but they have a really nice staining quality. They have a kind of scratchy feel like they contain pumice powder too, but those colors really go on well and cover, and when you tap them or blend them they become really intense. I wouldn't say the colors have the same beautiful qualities of other brands, but there are some absolutely lovely blues and greens, which I value quite a bit in my work. There are also some very unique earth colors, I think because they are made in Australia, the colors reflect the unique earth tones found on that continent. They have a range of about a dozen of a bright lime green color that is just super. The color is so brilliant on the paper, I just wish I had more use for it. There is a dark sort of Prussian Blue that is really great, and those jumbos just feel so good in my hand. I definitely want to get more of these to really get the feel for them. I have about 30 or 40 of these and I use them a lot for the early to middle layers of my paintings.
8) Nupastels: These are a long time favorite for me as well. I will almost always go to the Nupastels for sketching in on my blank paper, and I'll lay colors on their sides to lightly block in when I underpaint. These are just great for that. I always use a dark red to sketch and begin the whole process, because of all the greens I use in the final image. I use alcohol with the underpainting, and the Nupastels seem to come alive with alcohol. I've tried the softer pastels with underpainting and they don't work as nicely, but the Rembrandts work well for this too. Typically I will start sketching with the deep red Nupastel and then choose several other shades of deep reds and purples to lightly fill in before I start brushing. When I'm finishing up the painting I like to come in with Nupastels and use them for texture, like grasses. I like to scrape away with an ochre color to indicate soft reedy grass, it seems to give it just the right touch. I have also drawn buildings where I use the Nupastels for edging and thin straight lines, they seem ideal for that. You would think that you couldn't go over soft pastels with hard ones, but they work pretty well, even white. You have to press hard and use them more like pencils, and keep in mind that they are actually texturing the layers beneath as well as laying down a little color. I have a set of Faber Castell Polychromos hard pastels too, and they are very similar in their performance. I don't know why but I just seem to prefer the Nupastel colors. Even though there are only 96 of them, I believe, they have a really great deep red and purple, and a great dark green color, along with three or four tan and ochre colors that I use all the time, along with the white. The Polychromos colors are a little too vibrant for me, not really colors found in nature too often, but they are great pastels and work well when I use them for similar things.
9) Mungyo Gallery/Mount Vision: I bought a set of the hand made pastels just because the price is so great and the colors looked fabulous in the picture. I wasn't disappointed. I got the set of 36, which is just about right to try out. They have quite a bit of bulk and softness to them, very much like a Mount Vision pastel. Is anyone old enough to remember those big soft sticks of chalk they used in school? These are similar to those big yellow chalk pieces the teachers had back when I was just a wee lad. I don't know if anyone remembers those, but the schools had them and they were used with those green blackboards. They were so soft and wonderful, they made a very soft sound when used and they made a brilliant opaque mark. Anyway, that's what the feel and consistency of these reminds me of. The pastel feels solid, not like it's about to break or crumble in your hand. Yet when you make a mark, it is soft and leaves a lot of color on the paper. You can use a soft touch and make thin lines that go down well, or lay them on their side and let them rip and they work great. They don't seem to wear down quickly like some of the Art Spectrum soft pastels do. I feel pretty much the same way about the Mount Vision pastels too. I only have a few of these but they perform very much the same way. I like the size of them, and what I use them a lot for is scumbling light colors on to get the impression of leaves reflecting light, or in water reflections, things like that. I tend to use the lighter colors more than the darker or more brilliant colors, but that's just me. The hand made Mungyo pastels have lovely colors. I bought some of the semi-soft square pastels too, and I found that they don't really work well for my style of painting. The colors are nice and they feel a little harder, and the seem to go on nicely, but they just disappear when I layer with them. I guess the pigments are kind of weak. Especially if I blend with them they will get lost, both the light and dark colors. I have found them not very useful.
10) Soho Urban Artist: I bought a set of these just to try out. They are the small half stick size, very similar in size and feel to Rembrandts. They are okay, and would be especially useful to sort of fill out your collection which is what I did. They perform like Rembrandts but the colors are no where near the range of Rembrandts. There are lots of colors which are almost exactly the same as to be indistinguishable when they are used. There are also a lot of violets and neon kind of colors which I don't find too useful doing landscapes, but for the money they actually perform pretty well. You can use them quite a bit for the early layers of a painting, and for doing your underpainting layer as well. The colors are quite brilliant. I would suggest someone getting these if they want to try pastels as a beginner, they would be great to sort of learn with, to use along with some more expensive finishing pastels.
11) Pastel pencils: I have some Contes, some Derwent, and some Carbothellos, along with a few Pitt pencils and some General Art charcoal pencils that I use. I find the pencils to be very useful to add texture to a painting, and maybe for some small detail but I don't really use them for that as much. I like to take the pencils and give some texture to grasses and shrubs, mainly. Even though you don't lay down a lot of color with these, the colors still are very important. I primarily use beiges and tans and pale yellows in my grasses, and the whole spectrum of greens. I have all the other colors but don't use them very often. Sometimes when I work very small I find the pencils more useful, but that isn't very often. I find that the Carbothello pencils are probably my favorite, just because I love the colors and the others fall into a close second. I guess I use the Contes second most, but there are a few Derwent colors that are great too. All of these brands perform in a very similar manner, the softness is pretty much the same throughout, I would say.
And the best of the rest: I have only tried two or three Giraults that I obtained from some unfamiliar source, so I don't feel I can really comment on actually using them. I just haven't found a particular use for pastels like these, which are supposed to be somewhere between a medium and soft pastel. The colors look a little limiting to me as well, especially as they organize them into sets of 25. Let's face it, the price is a little daunting too. I keep hearing about them so some day I'll get my hands on them.
I have a couple Diane Townsend pastels that I picked up here and there, and they seem nice. Just like people say they seem to be a little bit gritty but soft at the same time. They are fine for what little I have used them for. I also don't have any Henri Roche pastels either, just because of the price. I just can't seem to justify spending over $200 for a 12 stick set. I mean how much better can they be? I don't think I'll ever own any of them at that rate. I picked up a Blue Earth pastel in a sample set from Dakota and it is really soft and nice. Very intriguing, but they are just so small I don't think I would be comfortable using them. I much prefer the larger sticks, and rarely break any of mine in half to use. Just me I guess. I have a couple Rowney pastels and they seem nice too, but don't really have enough experience with them to have much of an opinion yet. There is one more major brand that looks very interesting to me, called Gondola from Japan. The colors seem really great, and they seem to be a nice shape and size but a little on the small side, and you can get them for about a dollar per stick, so you can't beat the price. Some day I'll get a set to try out.
So that about wraps up my pastel experiences. I think I've covered the major brands anyway, but I may have missed a few. As a general rule I would avoid buying the cheaper brands, none of them seem worth the aggravation. Trust me, you will not be able to do the things you see in the great pastel paintings with brands like Alphacolor or Artist Loft or Reeves brands, which are the cheap ones. Some brands offer good value, like the Mungyo handmade pastels. Instead, if you want to try pastels and you can't afford to spend several hundred dollars on a good quality starter set, keep your eyes out for used pastel bargains on ebay or craigslist or something like that. Rembrandts are the most popular pastel in the world, and you can almost always find a good quality set somewhere for a bargain. I have found some good quality small pastel sets for really cheap prices at thrift stores too. There is nothing wrong with taking on a good quality used set of pastels. I actually enjoy it, sort of continuing on a tradition that an artist had before me kind of thing. It may be hard, but try to start out with good quality stuff, both pastels and paper or ground. You will be surprised how quickly you can collect a good set of your own stuff if you just keep at it. Also, try to get involved with a local art or pastel group too. Networking is always a good idea, so you can learn all about things and bonus, you can meet some pretty nice like-minded people along the way too. You will be amazed at how quickly you will learn and pick things up this way.