It was a dream to be asked to curate several new soft pastel sets from the 200 colour range of Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastels. Jackson’s Soft Pastels are high quality, artist grade pastels, they are carefully made by hand which makes them very soft with a smooth buttery consistency. They have a low binder to pigment ratio which makes them rich and luminous, allowing for both subtle and bold mark making. Jackson’s have some themed sets already which are popular so it was great to be able to think how these new sets I was curating would work alongside them.
All 200 colours of the Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastels were sent to me to test in my studio – they turned up in boxes of 14 and when I laid them out in front of me they looked like little jewels of colour. Their excellent lightfast qualities mean that pastel paintings created with them will not deteriorate over time. The three fluorescent colours are the only exception; like all fluorescent colours they are not lightfast. The pastels are made solely from pigments, a bentonite clay binder, and calcium carbonate (chalk). Each pastel measures approximately 55 mm in length and 15 mm in diameter.
I started by swatching each box and labelling the numbers and colour names of each underneath. I swatched on a Clairefontaine PaintOn Multi-Technique Pads with 250 gsm 100% cellulose paper made from raw materials from sustainably managed forests. It’s a white paper with a very slight texture. The texture is useful in holding more colour on the page, and while it’s not my preferred paper to work on, I do think it gives the best representation of the true colour of the pastels and I didn’t want to be confused by cream or off white paper in my sketchbook.
I referred back to these colour swatches in making my choices. All the swatches I pinned up on my studio wall so I could see at a quick glance the range available. I wanted to intuitively choose colours based partly on what I like to draw, colours I’m naturally drawn to and also thinking about other small soft pastel sets I already own and frequently reach for. I recently went on the Colour Workshop course run by Juliet Docherty and found that gave me great confidence in being able to select for the sets.
Landscape Set of 28 Handmade Soft Pastels
I started with the Landscape Set of 28 as I felt it would be the hardest set to decide on. I wanted the landscape set to cover more than just foliage landscape – particularly to be useful in urban environments too. I’ve included more muted tones in this set compared to say the starter set, but whilst also making sure I have enough light and dark shades too. Sometimes after swatching a group of colours I’d take a photo on my phone and switch it to black and white mode so I could double check the values of the colours chosen. I had to leave the landscape 28 set and come back to it at the end as I was finding it too tricky to narrow down!
Portrait Set of 56 Handmade Soft Pastels
I decided to move on to the Portrait 56 set. I felt more comfortable choosing this set. It’s a subject matter I like to draw a lot and so I felt confident knowing what I and hopefully others would want out of a bigger set. I based my decisions on the 28 Portrait set that Jackson’s already have available. I felt that there were colours missing suitable for shadows so I added in some blue hues to the set and some muted greys and beiges too. I find if the model is against a white wall having these colours is so useful in describing a background, or shadow. I also included a few pops of colour I thought might be helpful for cheeks and lips – Vermillion Orange and Apricot Pink particular favourites. I also added in some other darks, Dark Umber for very dark hair or skin tones and also Burnt Umber to provide another dark choice but also a warmer brown for skin tone too. The other colours, greens, burgundy reds and yellows feel like good all round useful colours to have if doing a portrait with some clothing or props. I’ve hopefully covered enough bases so this 56 set would have all you needed.
Starter Sets of 28 and 56 Handmade Soft Pastels
In choosing the Starter set of 28 I took the original 14 set Jackson’s already has and thought about where there were potential missing hues or values. The 14 starter set is generally a brighter collection of colours and so I wanted to keep that in mind but also bring in complementary hues alongside the brights. I’ve included more muted greens and a lighter and darker blue as well as including pale peach and warm browns for landscape or simple portraits.
Making this starter set into a set of 56 then became easier as I added in-between the colours already chosen slight varieties in tone. Increasing the range of blues, greens, reds and yellows available to try and cover all bases. I have also included both whites, a cool and a warm and a handful of muted greys which I hope will be useful set for people starting out as well as experienced artists.
Sea and Sky Set of 28 Handmade Soft Pastels
The Sea and Sky set of 28 was another really lovely one to tackle. I sometimes capture the sea in my drawings as it’s local to me and can appreciate the ever-changing palette of it so wanted to make sure I covered all bases of winter grey British seas through to more tropical climbs! I sometimes hint at a sky in my drawings but it’s not something I tackle often. I consulted a friend that loves to capture skies, and in particular sunsets, about the palette I’d picked so far to make sure I’d included enough peaches and warm tones to be able to create an evening sky through to nighttime too. I’m hoping the warmth and versatility of the Apricot pastel will be able to do those dusky evening skies justice. The pop of colour from having Fluorescent Red in the set will add to sunsets as well as potentially capture the hints of fishing life found on the seas – which is a particular favourite subject matter for me. Then the muted greys will be useful on rainy days when the sky is dull or dramatic, and I hope can also work to add in a hint of landscape, rocks, cliffs etc when out perhaps using the set for observational drawing.
After completing these sets I was feeling more confident in my colour choices having swatched the soft pastels multiple times testing various combinations of colours. I came back to the first Landscape 28 test I did and felt that it was perhaps too safe in colour choices, maybe too similar to soft pastel sets by other brands already out there. I went on to try another couple of possible combinations of the 28. I really wanted it to function as the perfect set for someone after lots of different colours to use in many environments but that was less bright in hue to the Starter 28 set. This Landscape Set I hope has enough natural colours to be able to capture fields, foliage, through to warmer landscapes, rocks, and beaches, whilst also being useful in urban settings. The inclusion of a few colours may seem surprising – particularly Blue Violet and Fluorescent pink. However when placed among the very muted palette of the colours I’d chosen I just felt they brought it all to life. I see this set working really well for someone that perhaps enjoys mixed media – a lovely addition to add texture over the top of paint, brush pens or working alongside colour pencil.
Landscape Set of 56 Handmade Soft Pastels
The Landscape 56 set was much easier to put together once I’d committed to the 28 set of pastels. It felt really nice to be able to add in the extra colours and I feel this set is a really good all rounder now. Again able to tackle a multitude of environments, so if you were a pure pastel painter you would not need for anything else on location. I think this set and the Portrait 56 are my favourite sets.
It was hard to remain totally unbiased in curating the Jackson’s Handmade Soft Pastels sets. I definitely found I leant towards certain colours – I think naturally as artists we have our own colour palettes, colours we choose to use regularly and colours that bring strong emotions. There also seemed to be colours I’d reach for over and over again from the selection of 200 and that just seemed to work so well next to lots of other colours. Hopefully these colours will prove to be really versatile in the sets. In particular Smalt Blue White seems to be in almost every set as well as Pale Peach and Light Grey Green being another couple of colours I just couldn’t help but go back to. I really hope people enjoy the sets I’ve put together and find them a welcome addition to their art practice.