Chunky, and a bit crumbly

First things first. I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m a hack and a fraud and probably an insult to all those people who have spent years learning their craft.

As a kid I drew all the time until that passion was killed by a school assessment that this boy was just average at art. Thankfully, a textiles teacher when I was 15 told me that I had a spark of potential and although it would be another 25 years before I would start drawing and painting again, that comment stayed with me.

Fast forward to 40 years of age, a career in public health and 3 kids. I was suffering from extreme panic attacks through the stress of life and from losing both of my parents to cancer. I found doodling helped manage the anxiety, in meetings, at home, at my desk, it didn’t matter. Fast forward again to 47 and my eldest daughter now studying art at college told me I should use some of my doodles for something. So, we put Theo, one of my characters on a T shirt. My mate put them in his shop, Disorder in Birmingham and unbelievably they sold. So we added another design, some prints and Hope & Mania was born.

Nigel wearing one of the t-shirts he has designed

Ok so fast forward yet again to a year later and it was time to try something other than doodling. Popping into my local Cass art, I was pointed in the direction of pastels. Having tried a few brands before I told them that I hadn’t been impressed. They told me to try Unison. I fell in love.

Chunky and a bit crumbly (like me), these sticks of amazing colours and textures have changed my life.

In the hands of a proper artist, Unison pastels produce the most amazing results. But they are also great for beginners, intermediates and numpties like me.

Click to enlarge

I love them because you can draw with them, they crack and crumble at will and you can blend and smush them and throw bits at your canvas, whatever you want to do, whatever takes the mood. I use a variety of methods often starting with using a bit of water and a brush to create a wash. I might then make an outline of something and smush the pastel with my finger and use the moisture on my fingertip to paint with. A smudge of linseed oil to help with shadows and such like and there you go. Finger painting ain’t just for kids you know!

Pastel artwork by Nigel Smith
Cyborg Death Mask

My favourites are the vibrant yellows and reds especially, but I also love love love the BV18 blue which as one art shop employee exclaimed to me recently, ‘that’s a lot of pigment’.

It's a gas, by Nigel Smith
It’s a gas

Unison pastels have given me the confidence to experiment and now my experimentations have led to sales which whilst not my primary objective has been nice especially as 20% of all profits go to Papyrus the young person suicide prevention charity. I’ve also had a couple of my works using Unison pastels, Slick and a mixed media piece called ‘What are you afraid of’, featured in Outsider Art magazine which was quite an achievement for me.

Pastel artwork by Nigel Smith
Pastel artwork by Nigel Smith
Fat Lip

Locked Down and Dirty

One of the good things about lockdown this year has been reducing the commute between me and my Unison pastels.

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18 Responses

  1. This is amazing Nige. I love your doodlings and I am glad you are opening them up to the wider world. What a lovely piece about the therapy of art. You are a very talented man with a great inner depth that I hope comes through your art.

  2. This is brilliant, loved reading it, beautifully written and the comment where the passion was killed by a school assessment definitely resonates with me. You are certainly not a fraud, art is a powerful tool for mental health. Great title too 🙂

    1. Ahh thank you loads Estelle that’s really made my birthday. Sorry if you’ve had your passion killed at any point. I get teaching is hard and curriculums tend to be narrow thinking but no one should have their creativity or enthusiasm stomped on. Hope you’re having an awesome day. Nigel

  3. I understand about having confidence squashed at school as not being any good at Art was told “give up” and attention focused on people who could draw.

    So it was years later that l had the confidence to scribble and splash paint around but just for my enjoyment. But when l tried pastels l found it so exciting that my “drawing” sometimes looked passable. I now attempt animals and various other subjects. No l am not good but enjoy (just for me) getting a recognisable/passable picture which gives me encouragement and enjoyment to keep on trying.

    Loving your story

    1. Ahhh thank you loads Jean that means a lot. I bet your drawings and paintings look ace, it would be great to see your stuff sometime.

      You’ve totally hit the nail on the head, it is all about enjoyment, plain and simple and feeling and experience of making something. It is hard not to compare your own art with others and I still even amongst us amateurs hear people being critical or arrogant about their art and its all rubbish. My eldest is at art school at the moment and its brutal!

      What we create is ours and ours alone and means something to us and others can go take a running jump in my opinion. After a 35 year break what also helped me was discovering genres like outside art and art brut where the art is all about the feeling and not some photo realistic painting that 99.99% of us could ever achieve. (Sorry Ive gone on a bit here 🙂

      Keep doing what you’re doing Jean

      All the best


  4. Hey Nigel: I’ve browsed through all the artists on here and yes they are all great but there are only just one or two where I actually think “oh wow – I love that!” – and you are one of them. Love your style and also that you stuck a finger up to that teacher; huge well done too for supporting Papyrus 🙂

    1. Ren that has totally made my day, no actually its made my week 🙂 thank you so much for taking the time to comment it really means a lot. Hope you’re having a lovely day wherever you are and whatever you’re doing – Nigel

  5. Wow perseverance was just great love your story and it resonates in the fact l was told l was useless at art at school so never bothered to even scribble for years. But since finding pastels l enjoy “trying to create” and although l know l will never be a hreat artist l have found an enjoyable activity that gives me time to myself and the feeling that l am actually improving. Continue to do your “thing” its great

    1. Hi Jean thank you for the reply. I agree, same for me, I’m never going to be great but just having something that I can make an ok fist at and that I can see me improving in is so rewarding, the mental health benefits are just so rich. Keep doing your thing too 🙂 Nigel

  6. There’s an energy in your work that cannot be captured by intricate copying from a photograph that often looks impressive but lacks what’s iinvisible, spirit. I loved reading about the way you bash and smash up your pastels to make them work for you. They are only pigment after all, pure, pure pigment conveniently at the tip of your fingers!

    1. ahh Jane that has totally made my day – thank you. I must admit its been an education for me to stop seeing all the perfect paintings as something to aspire to or envy or feel like giving up to – not having had an art education I think its taken me to this point to see what you’re describing which is the energy and the passion and spirit thats gone into making a piece (as well as its beauty/ugliness (which can be a good thing) and not whether all the brush strokes or whatever are perfectly formed 🙂 Also if you are the same Jane that does print making and Lino cuts and such like then I’ve just reminded myself of your work and its bloody amazing so I feel extra humbled by your words.

  7. Nigel love your story and your work. I recently took up art as a hobby. I used to love doodling as a kid but never had any praise for my art work at school. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, I’ve been guilty of that as everyone seems to be producing amazing work in my class. I’ve not yet worked with pastels but you have inspired me to try them. I’ll never be taking on any commissions but I’m enjoying it and that’s the main thing.

  8. Ahh thank you Jackie that means a lot. It is rubbish when teachers don’t or haven’t the time to appreciate anything more than the obvious, such as what a child gets out of art or any subject regardless of their ability. My youngest daughters school is a case in point. It’s the highest scoring secondary in the county but any pastoral care or focus on the experience of the child is woefully absent and attitudes like that make it impossible like you say not to compare your work with others and be impacted when you don’t feel yours is good enough (though I bet I was great).

    And yes do have a go at pastels – I was sceptical when I first tried them as for some reason thought they were not as worthy or as cool as say oils but they are, they’re so versatile.

    Have an awesome day


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