in bed with… Unison

Thorneyburn Rectory’s coach house

If you’re into vast skies and rolling hills covered with heather in bloom, exquisite man-made grey stone walls crisscrossing them, beige-grey stone houses with slate roofs in which you can just imagine the Brontë sisters writing their novels and, of course, sheep… Northumberland might be just right for you. (Read the fine print before moving there, however, as you agree to quite a few grey skies to match those lovely greys!) But if you enjoy colours, as I do, don’t imagine these muted tones are all the place has to offer. In fact, down one of those single traffic lanes bordered with wildflowers and low stone walls, you’ll find Thorneyburn Rectory, where incredibly coloured beauties are made with passion and dedication (cake helps too apparently) by the hundred… every day! Intrigued? Follow me into the world of Unison Colour. 

When artist John Hersey moved some 35 years ago to this remote part of the Northumberland National Park with his wife Kate and four children in tow, he was giving up a fine art photography business for a full time go at his artistic career. He promptly turned the top of the old coach house into his studio and found endless inspiration in the wild, vast open spaces… yet Kate was intrigued John seemed to spend more time mixing his oil paints than actually getting them onto canvas! I could have told her that I know of quite a few artists who got the art materials bug and virtually deserted their careers in pursuit of a perfect oil / acrylic paint, oil stick, etc. but, for John, the weird and passionate path of art materials was to take him on a quest for the perfect pastel. (Of course, that one doesn’t exist! But Unison’s highly pigmented, quite firm hand-made sticks with a creamy, smooth texture definitely have found their place up there with the best.) I am not quite sure how/why John switched from using oils to playing with pastels (maybe not enough greys and greens in the oil ranges?), still he immediately found the existing ones too crumbly and inconsistent in both texture and colour, and so embarked into what turned out to be long years of research on production methods, pigment mixtures and perfect colour sequences for his sticks. John’s philosophy and aim was, all along, “…to realise the light [as] the heart of colour is light, the dance of light is colour.” And yet, when it came to naming his babies, it was not to a colour or light term John turned to, but to music. From Newton to George Field, Goethe to Kandinsky, many have made analogies between music and colour. Harmony is a word often used by painters, but also more technical terms such as chords and keys to describe colour groups and tonal values. What John was trying to achieve with his original sets, however, was a chorus of colour… different voices indeed, each distinct and beautiful but singing in… unison! (And when you see how the colours are sequenced in his colour world and ‘system’ you might just agree he’s succeeded on this elusive quest.)

(This is Kate in… perfect pastel tones!)

Yet, at that stage, none of this was bringing home the bacon (or lamb chop) so that, eventually, one day, Kate put her foot down and off they went to their first art fair with their pretty sticks. Two art stores, including my beloved Cornelissen where they still sell them, agreed to give them a try… Today, still in this charming and most unlikely place (it’s really hard to call this true cottage industry a factory), a quarter of a million soft pastels are made every year in a range of 380 hues, each and every one of them, as their motto promises, going straight “from our hands to yours.”

The lovely and enthusatic Liz who gave me the guided tour…

I’ve often compared paint-making facilities to industrial kitchens. Still, here, where pastels are made in what was John’s studio, under the venerable beams of the coach house, on long wooden tables where rows upon rows of colourful ‘macarons’ are drying, an old stove is piled with dotted papers (could be a year’s worth of Sunday papers), the only utensils in sight a happy blender, a scale, a few stainless steel bowls, spoons and spatulas, you rather feel you’ve entered a happy cook’s wonderfully rustic kitchen! (Of course, the glass jars are filled with pigment and not rice and lentils, but, you know…) 

The Masterchef on the morning of my visit is Jim, who is in the process of making a concoction (a sort of Victoria Green / Emerald Green with a tinge of blue) to become Blue Green Earth 11, I believe, but don’t quote me on that one, as it’s from memory. First, he checks John’s recipe for that specific hue, and weighs the pigments (in fact, traditional premium lightfast pigments) and binder needed (China Clay, aka kaolin, in the smallest possible amount always) and throws these in a blender with the correct ratio of water. Quite a twist they get but soon enough, the paste is ready to be spooned out. It’s all done from experience from then on; nothing weighed or measured, really…

Jim scoops out of the bowl methodically more or less equal dollops of paste and throws these from the spoon onto butcher’s paper where they will first dry for a little while (watch him here)— some need more time, as you’ll soon hear. When the little blobs are ready (i.e. still soft but dry enough to be formed into sticks), off they go downstairs, where they will be rolled by hand on another piece of paper (watch Nessie rolling the pastels here.)

Not quite sure what is most divine, quite frankly… the dots or the stripes? What do you think?
(The dried sheets of butcher’s paper are artworks in themselves!)

When a whole row is rolled, the pastels’ ends will be cut off by the most amusing house-made implement… two palette knives tied together at the required distance! On the drying racks they now go and from there, first to the quality control room (a sort of cupboard of a room really but with the most divine trays of “master colours” where hue consistency will be checked against these generic ones) to the labelling and packing area where they’ll finish this part of their journey. Looking both elegant and cosy in their foam nests yet all singularly different in shape and ‘attitude’, their job will now be to tempt you into using them!

Rows of Y9 being labelled
and a large stick custom order for an artist particularly addicted to Dark15!

It’s going to be hard to resist as there is something most sensuous about them, especially the large ones which totally fill your hand… maybe a residue of the person’s hand who has rolled them lovingly is present in the caress you receive when your palm envelops one of these powdery yet solid handful of near pure pigment? Their names? not that romantic, I’m afraid… Where the Roché pastels go by Vert feuille morte, Vert saule, Vert algue, Vert rainette and Vert perruche (Dead Leaf Green, Willow Green, Algae Green, Tree Frog Green or even Budgie Green), here you’ll have to contend with a numbered declension of Reds / Red Earths / Yellows / Brown Earths / Greens / Blue Greens / Blue Violets / Greys, etc. and a few, somewhat mysterious, “additionals.” Eventually, too… you will have to commit the sacrilege of breaking them, as it is only thus that the angled shards will give you smaller tools for precision and lines!

One of the yummy “Mastercopy” trays in the quality control room

As in most soft pastel ranges, you can buy Unison’s in half-sticks, but unlike most other brands, you can also get some in large sticks (7.5 x 2.4cm in 108 colours at present) or even, on-demand, in XXL but… you’ll have to be patient for these as they can take up to 6 weeks to dry!! And, talking of drying, my last conversation was with Hazel in the quality control room. I had been offered to pick some ‘rejects’ from the so-called graveyard (nothing wrong with them, you will understand, but the hues were just ever so slightly different to what that precise one should be). We got chatting about how everyone here has colours they love and some they… really don’t. Nothing to do with their shade of blue or green, mind you, but with how difficult they are to make. (BV12 and the beautiful Milori Blue, with a mind of its own, seems to rally everyone against them, though.) As you probably know, each pigment has characteristics, and some here, for example, are fast driers. Jim loves these… you scoop them, you mix them, you spoon them, you roll them, you “cook” them, and that’s it. But Hazel likes long driers… you spoon them at the beginning of the day, go back later to give them a bit of a squeeze and roll them later yet… only then can you cook them, often overnight. Cook them? Really? In fact, no, pastels are not cooked. But that’s how the ultimate drying is called, and, yes, sometimes, a fan is used to accelerate the process. The reds, who simply run out of your fingers if you touch them too soon, need a fan, for example, but you’ll never want a fan anywhere near a blue. The blues hate it and will go all scratchy edges. The yellows, being greasy, it’s apparently quite difficult to tell when these are 100% dry. And then there’s those six from which a little white kaolin oozes out, but all they need is a slight rub when they are dry, and it won’t happen again later… on the other hand, they have no idea why that happens, and only to those six colours. Gosh! I think pigments will amaze me to my dying day! I have never heard of behaviours going across entire hues like this! I have never read, anywhere, that ALL the blues, or reds, or yellows, share any kind of predictable trait in a given medium, but then… maybe pastel is a glorious exception! How thrilling!

PS Emboldened by the sticks I was offered and the truly inspiring sharings from artists on the Unison blog, I tried this tool after my visit, I must confess, for the very first time. Having colour in your hand is exciting, there is no doubt about that. Then there is the advantage of a no-fuss, virtually reversible medium and ideal for plein-air for example, but also there is something immediate and generous about being able to make such significant marks in the one gesture. Pastel is probably the only art material which allows you, in all colours of the rainbow, such hands-on broad freedom. You can then add more precise pastel/pencil marks, watercolours or inks to your work as all these behave well together (on specific papers.) Pastels can also be combined with water or liquefied with Isopropyl Alcohol and many other tricks I had no idea about to achieve beautiful effects, some very modern and abstracted, which I really like. In short, this visit (and the enthusiam of everyone at Unison) showed me it was time to dust off some of my pre-conceived opinions on this dusty material as there is much more to soft pastels than I had previously thought, and maybe you’ll find this out too… should try them. (Please do!!)

Do you love a colourful story, now and then? How about you follow my blog, in bed with Mona Lisa… I won’t send you an email very often as these take me ages to research/write (and I only visit colour companies on my way to something else!) but that way we keep in touch!
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. edith ferns says:

    Oh Sabine, Beautiful to see this. Always a joy to hear from you and share in your adventures and discoveries. With so much to explore we will never tempt you back to Byron Bay, so merci for the opportunity to be a small part of your exciting life. Edith F. x [and Sophie too]


  2. Vianney Pinon says:

    Wonderful, thank you for this wonderful trip to colourland !

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