Unison Colour was founded by artist John Hersey in 1987. Light and colour were a life-long obsession, and when he found that industrially made pastels could not give him what he was looking for, he set about creating his own soft pastels. Today, Unison Colour are renowned all over the world for the creaminess and intensity of their handmade soft pastels. Each pastel is made by hand in the workshops and coach house at Thorneyburn, in the heart of Northumberland National Park, UK.
Soft pastel is one of the most direct approaches an artist can take to colour. Unison Colour pastels contain very little binder, making them the closest to painting with pure pigment as an artist can get. We paid Unison Colour a visit to watch the soft pastel-making process from beginning to end, and find out more about the unique colour vision behind them.
The Soft Pastel-Making Process
The pastels are made according to the original recipes created by John Hersey. Each recipe takes into account the individual properties of the pigments used, and each colour pastel needs to be made slightly differently to account for these characteristics.
The essential ingredients of Unison Colour soft pastels are pigment and kaolin clay. These are mixed with water in a food processor to make a paste (this process used to be done by hand using a pestle and mortar).
The mixture is divided and placed onto blotting paper to wick out the moisture.
The mixture can’t be rolled into pastels if it is too moist, so they are given a squeeze to remove any excess water, and then they are ready to be rolled by hand. It takes a number of months to master rolling pastels, which involves gently rolling with the fingers and the palm of the hand. Each pastel maker finds their own technique.
The pastels are cut using two palette knives with a pastel in between, to make sure each pastel is the same length.
Once the pastels are rolled, they need to fully dry out. In many artist colours, the pigments affect the drying time of the paint, and the same goes for soft pastels. The drying time ranges between 1 and 4 days, and different pastels need to dry in different conditions – some can be left overnight on the table, while others need to be placed in a heated cupboard. Once the pastels have dried out, the labels are applied by hand.
Unison Colour’s Vision
When John Hersey, his wife Kate, and their children moved to the Old Rectory in Thorneyburn in 1980, the rugged moorland and rolling hills of the Tarset Valley became a source of colour inspiration. John’s vision was to create colour harmony by making pastels grouped into related tones – rather than simply adding black or white to produce tints and shades, each pastel is a stand-alone colour. This idea is where the company name comes from: the colours are in unison with one another.
The company, now run by John’s wife Kate and their son Dan Hersey, employs a small team from the local community. They roll, label, and pack half a million soft pastels each year. Despite this growth, Unison Colour still make their pastels according to John Hersey’s original approach to colour relationships and harmony.
Watch our On Location film to see soft pastels being made at Unison Colour: