Portraiture and Unison Colour Soft Pastels

Experience informs our art. What we have seen and endured is as much a part of our art as learning sketching and painting.

I have lived all over the world. I was born in France and have lived in Germany, Holland, Panama, the Caribbean, Ethiopia, and in seven American states.  Before I became an Artist I travelled to the Middle East, Korea and Japan.  I now live in Naples, Florida, USA.

My travels developed in me a love for the Human face in all its myriad colour and contours.  People all over the world share a common humanity we seem to have forgotten.  Merriment in a child’s eyes are the same in Iraq as Panama.  The pain of life is etched in every line of a grandmother’s face who has known too much loss and suffering.  I have seen the humiliation of a soldier who has lost everything in battle and the haunted look in the eyes of a starving child.  This is my canvas.  This is my art.

Portraiture and Unison Colour Soft Pastels 1
Pastel portrait using mixed media

Art is the universal language.  We can gaze on art made by Neolithic people 40,000 years ago in a cave in Southern France and immediately connect to those whose lives were unimaginably different from ours and feel a kinship. A hand pressed in ochre on a rock wall is our hand covered in pastel. We each create and stand in the light. We are one. 

Portraiture and Unison Colour Soft Pastels 2
Hand of a creator

Every time I finish an oil painting I am drawn back to pastels.  I am a stickler for quality.  As a former engineer I spent years researching pigments and materials. I learned how to make paints and pastels and now demonstrate that to my many students. I now teach “Mixed Media and Pastels” and “Pastels for Everyone” at the Naples Art Center. Although, classes have been on hold during this pandemic.

Pastel art is a tactile and visual craft.  A rich, dense, soft pastel is a joy to hold and use.  When I started, I didn’t know much about the quality of different brands.  It was an experience of hit and miss. I now let my students use my pastels so they can see and feel the difference between a student and artist grade pastel.  I tell them there is no better soft pastel in the world than Unison Colour Soft Pastels.  Like your own art, it is something created with loving hands and not by a machine.  Love is an essential ingredient to art great and small.

Portraiture and Unison Colour Soft Pastels 3
“Orang & Pearl” 13″ x 16″, Mixed Media and Pastel on Archival Paper, by Jack Vincent Barnhill

A superior soft pastel like Unison has characteristics not found in many other pastels.  First, you’re dealing with a pastel that is comprised of pure pigment and binder with a minimum amount of filler.  Many other pastels are cheaper because they use less pigment and more fillers and binder. Fillers are typically talc in cheaper pastels and chalk or kaolin in better pastels although, transparent titanium oxide and lithopone are also used.  The best pastels use gum tragacanth or gum arabic as a binder.  The actual composition of pastels is a closely guarded trade secret.

When you swipe a superior quality soft pastel like Unison across your textured paper it lays down in dense, rich lines. It flows from the stick like sumi ink from a brush.  Run your finger through the line and pigment spreads as fine powder.  The finely ground pigment embraces the paper in a tight bond.

Portraiture and Unison Colour Soft Pastels 4
“Lake Sunset”, Pastel on Board, 15 ” x 20″, by Jack Vincent Barnhill

The lack of the extensive use of fillers has an added benefit, ease of erasure.  Using an eraser made specifically for pastels, such as the General’s FACTIS Black 18, pastel can be picked up easily.  This can be a fun tool for exposing previous passages of pastel colour or simply changing your mind.

Using General's FACTIS Black 18 Eraser
Using General’s FACTIS Black 18 Eraser

Highly pigmented pastels also lend themselves to being used as a powder or applied using a sponge or make-up applicator.  This achieves a soft, transparent passages of colour.

Portraiture and Unison Colour Soft Pastels 5
Soft passages of colour using a dry sponge

In future blogs I will explore more on using Unison soft pastels with other mediums, techniques for layering, the history of pastels, and safely using pastels and fixatives.

This time of isolation and social distancing can be a blessing. It lets you focus on your creative impulses without outside distractions.  Art is the best therapy!

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20 Responses

  1. Thanks Jack, some very interesting detail on quality and process of pigments. I wonder if you have done any research of the actual pigment crystals and reflected light? What gives that phenominal luminosity?
    Look forward to other tips in future blogs on combining pastels with other media.

    1. Jane,

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. And, thanks for your reply. If you go to the National Gallery of Art, they have a series of books entitled, “Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, Volume 1 – 3 (https://www.nga.gov/research/publications/pdf-library/artists-pigments-vol-1.html). You can view PDF versions of these books. They are quite expensive on Amazon, but the PDF versions satisfy. I hope to do a video tutorial on Pastel and Mixed Media. Stay tuned.


  2. (Translated)Beautiful portraits, Jack! Such heights of skill! Eye color, skin overflows! That’s incredible! The seeming simplicity of performance has been achieved by years of creativity. The game of warm-cold color gives an inexplicable delight and awe before such skill. Such is the strength of the artist’s influence and excellent materials, pastels of excellent quality. I only have one creamy color, I can’t do that candy. Maybe someday it will be possible to buy halves….I also like to draw portraits, even though I am an aspiring artist!

    (Original)Прекрасные портреты, Джек! Такие высоты мастерства! Цвет глаз, переливы кожи! Фантастика! Кажущуюся простота исполнения достигнута годами творчества. Игра тепло-холодного цвета даёт необьяснимый восторг и трепет перед таким мастерством. Такова сила воздействия Художника и превосходных материалов, пастели отличного качества. У меня только один цвет сливочный, берегу эту конфетку. Может когда-то получится приобрести половинки….Мне тоже нравится рисовать портреты, хоть я и начинающий художник!

    1. Natalia,

      Thanks so much for you kind comments. The key to any art is to keep doing it. You should draw every day in pastel or pencil. That’s how you develop skill. I would love to see some of your work. Send me some pictures. Maybe I can help. Keep creating!


  3. (Translated)I really like this artist, does he give classes in France, or by internet? Thank you for your answer..

    (Original)J aime beaucoup cet artiste, donne t il des cours en France, ou par internet? Merci pour votre réponse..

  4. Good morning, love this blog and I went to see your web site and your work is amazing but didn’t see the course you give? is it only at the Naples’Center? if so is it possible to take them even from outside of the state?

    Thank you

  5. I love your work thankyou for your knowledge and experience with pastels. I have only recently started and I am already addicted to unison pastels. Thanks again

  6. Love my Unison pastels! Have collected so many, now trying to fill in more portrait colors as I take Alain Picards portrait workshop. Enjoyed this portrait article by Jack Barnhill. Appreciate the support Unison gives to all the LIVE events Eric Rhoads has hosted online during covid. And look foward to seeing you on PastelLIVE in August. Heading out to Plein Air paint with my Unisons!

  7. Hola!
    No puedo dar mi impresión acerca del relato ( no domino el idioma inglés) Sin embargo me gustaría felicitarlo por su hermoso trabajo, hay mucha sensualidad en ellos.

    Un saludo desde Santiago de Chile!

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