Wet Pastels – Not Dry!

There again I have never used any art media in the conventional way. I am a mixed media artist and I specialise in landscapes, the wild spaces and places in between the iconic scenes and views of Scotland are my thing and the wilder the better. I usually start my paintings outside and then they, and me, go back into the studio, where I finish them off. I work in a panoramic format to give me scope to work on wide lengths of paper.

Where does my use of Unison pastels fit into all of this? It may not seem obvious looking at my work, I don’t apply pure thick quantities of the pastels onto the surface of the paper to create full deep colourful works such as the wonderful Zaria Foreman does, as rich and as luscious as Unison Colour pastels are. I use them in a very painterly way and I have heard it said (by Unison Colour) that the percentage of pigment in their pastels is very high, with a tiny amount of binder. I think that is why they work for me and my work. Because they are so rich in pigment I am able to use them the way I do as a little goes a long way.

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In my work, I paint and draw with pastels, inks, watercolour and pencils. In particular, I apply Unison Colour pastels as a base to my paintings, I use them to dramatise the wide expanse of skies and weather that so inspire me. I apply water onto a blank sheet of white paper using a paint brush, this is done in a controlled way. I will then have a knife and one of my pastels to hand and I’ll lightly scrape some pastel into powder (as though you are sharpening a pencil with a knife) over the paper, quite lightly, where I have dampened the surface. I work quickly at this point as I dampen my paint brush further, just a little before working the powdered pastel into the paper’s surface. The effect is one that is expressive as I can see the brush marks through the pastel. That is the thing that I do with these pastels, I use them with water – not dry!

The pastels can be drawn into a dampened surface, which gives a line that has a rich, deep and velvety quality. Another way is to apply dry pastel directly on to the paper and then with a wet brush move the pastel around creating expressive brushstrokes. Once the pastel has dried it still retains the quality of a matt, velvet finish yet it is more gentle, subtle and dynamic. Sometimes I build layers changing colours and this can give an overall effect of iridescence.

There are times when I am working outside and it often starts raining on my work and I end up with drops of water in the pastel making an appearance into the final work. It is a way of the outdoor experience imbuing itself onto the painting and I like that. Sometimes I will throw drops of water on to the surface, wait a few seconds and then with a clean dry brush sweep through to reveal lovely gentle watermarks, which gives the surface a mottled appearance. Just happy accidents that I use and develop.

I have a lot of fun at this point. Bear in mind there is little me in a huge vast expanse of landscape that I am trying to express onto a relatively small piece of paper. I work quickly moving my brush through the pastel powder and move it around on the paper to create the area of light and dark tonal qualities that are in front of me. My most favourite of colours from the Unison Colour range that I use at this stage is Additional 49 – an intensely dark Prussian / Indigo blue and one that I keep returning back to. Simply as it is just one of those colours that I find works so well in expressing the tonal qualities of landscape wildness, it is a great colour for dark and deep brooding skies. Another, which lives beside Additional 49 is Additional 30, which is the beautiful depth of purple blue that I use for winter colours especially when the light is fading. For the land, the two colours I come back to using again and again is Yellow Green Earth 10, a bright and vivid yellow green that I find perfect for fields and tracks. The other is Yellow 1. I have used it extensively for the golden light of low setting suns splitting between the hills or using it to highlight the vivid autumn colours on the ground as it is an intense yellow ochre.

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I am about to start my latest project which involves capturing the elements of the Moray coastline, weather streaming in from the West and the conditions of the sea. I have an idea of the pastels I will use, in particular Blue Green 14 – an intense turquoise that I know will work so well for that area of Scotland.

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I do not hold a large pastel collection but when I go out with a Unison box of pastels and I open up my little box of gems, just seeing those beautiful colours inspires me in what I do and how I do it.

I always buy the large pastel size, of which Unison has a range of 120 of these beauties, as the half sizes I would use up all too quickly. Something that is little known of is that Unison do do a third pastel size – Huge! It measures approximately 30 x 80mm of pure pastel perfection and I intend to order a few of these one day soon. These huge pastel sizes are done only by special order and can take up to 6 weeks to dry.

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Why do I use Unison Colour pastels? I tend to find a lot of the higher quality pastel brands can be overly mushy in feel, or overly silky smooth and can powder into nothingness. The Unison Colour pastels have a weight about them, which I believe is the level of quality pigment and the handmade process they use to make them. In many ways, each pastel has its own individual characteristic as I always feel sadness when one is finished but delight in the selection of a new pastel in its place.

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We’d like to thank Libby for writing such a detailed blog for us, and we’re sure it will inspire many artists to try something outside of their comfort zone.

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9 Responses

  1. That was really interesting – thanks to Libby for sharing her process so generously. I love the drama she creates in her landscapes.

  2. Thank you Libby for this interesting article and for sharing your techniques. I have used Unison pastels in this way on Pastel at paper, but only to create an underpainting for the background. I will definitely experiment.

  3. amazing blogpost – loved reading this. The size of those pastels!!! How do you fix them? Will they rub off in the same way that dry pastel would?

  4. Thank you Libby for your generosity in sharing and Anne for highlighting this, what a super idea, off to give it a try.👏👏

  5. Thank you that was really interesting and I’m going to try and have a go. I love the countryside and would love to be able to create those dfeelibgs on paper

  6. Loved this. I am intending to do a garden journal. I am now planning in my head to use this method. Thank you for the inspiration.

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