This December marks the ten-year anniversary of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, an area encompassing the whole of Northumberland National Park and most of Kielder Water & Forest Park, dedicated to conserving the most pristine dark sky found within Europe.
To celebrate this incredible milestone, Unison Colour collaborated with Northumberland National Park to create a limited-edition Dark Sky Mini Set, inspired by Northumbrian dark skies. Alongside deep navy, purple and charcoal-grey, are icy blue, turquoise, plum and orange – colours chosen to challenge traditional perceptions of night-sky. These sets were then given to eight students from Newcastle University to use during a five-day residency at VARC Highgreen in which they were invited to create artworks inspired by the dark skies.
The eight students arrived at Highgreen at midday on Monday 6th November, and after getting settled into their new home for the week, they popped down the road to visit the Unison Colour workshop to be given a tour and turn their hand at making pastels. Whilst we have every assurance each student will have a bright future in their respective artistic endeavours, if any of them discovered that pastel-making was in fact their true vocation, then they would be heartily welcomed into the team – they all produced pastels of the highest standards! Hazel, our eagle-eyed Quality Controller, was very impressed.
The students loved learning about the various processes and stages of pastel-making and were full of questions about the pigments we use, factors that affect drying times, and whether the weather has any effect on the pastels (it does!) They heard from makers Jim and Sue about their favourite (and least favourite) pastels to make and learnt from Judy, one of our packers, how to carefully place each pastel into the foams. Dan then gave the students a potted history of Unison Colour and told them how the stunning light and colours of the Northumbrian landscape were the original inspiration for his father to begin manufacturing his own soft pastels. We showed the students our recipe archive and even some of John’s original pastels, which look as if they were made only yesterday.
On Monday evening, Duncan Wise from the National Park visited the students at Highgreen to deliver an evening of stargazing. Despite every finger being crossed, the clouds unfortunately prevented any chance of viewing the stars, however, the students were told about the history of the Dark Sky Park and the importance of protecting the night skies.
The students spent the rest of the week at Highgreen, working both in the studio and en plein aire – despite the adverse weather conditions! Artist-in-residence, Christy Burdock, was also on-hand to provide invaluable advice, which the students greatly appreciated. Luckily, the stars did make an appearance on Tuesday night, so they took to the hills for a night-time walk.
It was fascinating to see how our pastels were used, especially as most of the students were unfamiliar with the medium. Some applied them directly to paper in bold, strong strokes, whilst others used them to make delicate rubbings of natural materials. A few crumbled them to add to water or oil, to apply like paint. The resulting artworks are so beautifully diverse, showcasing the individuality of each artist and the unique, intimate responses they had to the dark sky and landscape.
It has been an absolute privilege to be part of a partnership between multiple organisations to celebrate our beautiful dark skies.
The student’s works will be exhibited opposite the welcome desk at The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre from Monday 20th November – Thursday 30th November. The Dark Sky Mini Sets will be available to purchase from Saturday 9th December.