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Pastel paintings are a delightful way to create energetic and interesting paintings. The high pigment strength and convenience make pastels a true fine artist medium. Think of the sublime works of Edgar Degas pastel paintings. But excellent artist's pastels can be pricey. You cannot skimp on quality pigment either as this defeats the object of using pastels.
I was excited to try out Koh-I-Noor's extra soft artist's pastels recently. They are reasonably priced and look like good quality too. In this article I review Koh-I-Noor's extra soft pastels and Fabriano watercolor paper. Plus a full demonstration pastel painting with a handy technique for pastel paintings. Try it out for yourself.
Which Types of Pastels to Use?
The typical pastels you will encounter at good art stores are:
Of these option I suggest soft or extra soft pastels. This is due to the painterly nature of the pastels. Pencils and hard pastels, on the other hand, are more of a drawing medium. With soft pastels you will create looser style images that are more reminiscent of paintings. Ironically oil pastels do not give me the same feel and I have never felt comfortable using oil pastels. This mostly due to soft pastels being a dry pastel and oil pastels being, well ... oily. The soft dry pastels make it easier to build up layers of color in a impressionist manner. Plus the benefit of dry brushing and edge manipulation makes it easier to achieve soft and atmospheric color.
What Makes Pastels Special?
The big deal is pigment. A good pastel is made up of pure pigment held together with a binder, usually gum arabic. The price of top quality pastels is due to the concentrated pigment. In this regard artists have a wonderful opportunity to use color in its purest form.
Which Brands of Pastels to Use
Quality does vary markedly between cheap student pastels and artist's pastels. As always pigment strength is where you make your sacrifice. A cheap pastel performs much like chalk. This is because there is more white chalk and binder and less pigment. The color intensity will be missing.
My preferred artist's pastel brands are Unison, Rembrandt and Sennelier. All of these offer superior pigment and handling characteristics. Sennelier are the softer of the three. Unison may handle better for you if you like to apply firm pressure as the sticks are thicker. However all of these brands are pricey, but worth it in my opinion.
Kho-I-Noor Artist's Pastels
How about an excellent quality pastel at a good price? In South Africa? A tall order indeed. But Art Saving's Club now stock a range of products from Kho-I-Noor Hardtmuth, that include artist's extra soft pastels. A box of 24 pastels is about half the price of 15 Rembrandt pastels. I would then expect Kho-I-Noor pastels to be substantially less in quality. Happily this is not the case as you will see from the demonstration below.
Who is Kho-I-Noor?
I was curious to find out more about the manufacturer of these pastels. According to a Google search Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth is a Czech manufacturer and one of the world's largest producers and distributors of art supplies, writing equipment and stationery. It was founded in 1790 by Joseph Hardtmuth of Austria. In 1802, the company patented the first pencil lead made from a combination of kaolin and graphite.
So this is a company with a fine heritage in art materials and stationery. With confidence restored I purchased a set of 24 pastels from Art Savings Club.
Pastel and Watercolor Combination
I also purchased a watercolor journal made by Fabriano. This handy spiral bound journal contains twenty-fice sheets of 300 gram watercolor paper. I use these journal for drawing, pen and wash paintings and also for pastel painting. As you will see in the video below the journal is an ideal size for carrying about.
One of my favorite approaches is to lay out a painting in watercolor washes. Then complete the painting with pastels over the dry watercolor. The two mediums work well together. You can use pastels to touch up the watercolor painting. Alternatively cover the entire watercolor with pastel. In this sense the watercolor acts as an tone foe the pastels. I follow the latter approach in the demonstration below.
Pastel Painting Technique
Soft pastels lend themselves to several techniques. From drawing lines to softly blended shapes. You can see this in the Degas painting above. Notice how he has built up layers of color. A soft edged shape below. Then firmer lines on top. Harder edged contour lines to bring a form together.
You can uses a firm lines of color with spaces between each stroke. This allows another color to show through from below. Alternatively you can add a new color in the gaps. This is a form of optical mixing of colors alongside each other that the impressionists enjoyed. The idea is to have a variety of techniques so that you create a varied surface texture. Not simply an over-blended mess.
Drawing techniques like cross hatching, line and smudging will all be effective in this approach. Be aware of edges. Not all edges must be hard. Note Degas has soft, wavy, loose lines to convey shape and form in the dresses. Stronger lines for the arms to attract the eye to these dynamic parts of the dancers.
Fixing the Pastel Painting
Soft pastels are susceptible to smudging and particles can fall off too. You can reduce this tendency with a fixative spray. Think of this as a type of hairspray to keep everything in place. There is a slight tendency for the spray to darken the pastels, but once dry this is less apparent. Personally I do not like fixative, but will use it if I have to.
When it comes to framing pastels the usual approach is to frame them with a matte board and glass like a watercolor. I have framed pastels without a matte board before. In this case I used tiny spacers in the frame rebate to keep the glass off the pastel. See a video of this here.
I painted a large scene within a small A5 surface to show what can be achieved with this format. As far as the pastels are concerned I used Kho-I-Noor and unison pastels to supplement for colors where necessary. The Kho-I-Noor extra soft pastels performed very well. I could not distinguish any marked difference using these pastels. They are vibrant, a pleasing consistency and texture and I was pleased with the result. I did not feel that I had to struggle to achieve a colorful painting.
In short I do thin Kho-I-Noor Hardtmuth extra soft pastel are excellent value for money. Yes if you are a professional artist seeking the best materials you will stick with your premium brands. But these pastels will not let you down either. On a price to value scale Kho-I-Noor has a winner here.
In Part 1 we take a look a the Fabriano watercolor journal and the Kho-I-Noor extra soft pastels.
In Part 2 a brief demonstration of my favorite pastel sketch method. We also see how the pastels perform with a demonstration painting. Find out more about these products in South Africa at Art Savings Club or at other good art supply stores.
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