Tarset’s Thorneyburn Rectory is home to a world of colour with international renown. The soft pastels created at Unison Colour have been handmade according to an original recipe for over 30 years, and have winged their way into the hands of talented artists across the world.
Founded by John Hersey, a graduate of Byam Shaw School of Art in London, who then spent two years painting and studying art in Rome, on his return to England, John became even more intrigued by colour and set up a photography business specialising in coloured slides of painting and sculpture. He moved to Northumberland with his wife Kate and their four children in 1980, where the clarity of light and subtlety of colour of the surrounding landscape reignited his passion for painting, and he discovered that pastels were the perfect medium for his ‘plein air’ landscapes.
‘En plein air’ is the French expression for ‘in the open air’, and usually involves the artist creating a landscape while in the landscape itself. Understandably, this entails carting a number of painting supplies outdoors, and pastels are the most convenient medium for this particular artistic technique.
However, while he had found the medium he wanted to work in, John found he was unhappy with the colours and textures available to him. Taking matters into his own hands, he then devoted his time to mixing and creating new colours, and Unison Colour pastels were born.
But what exactly are soft pastels? ‘They’re basically pigment with a binder added to it to hold the shape,’ explains Kate Hersey. ’The first examples of “pastels” were probably made from coloured earth, and were used in cave paintings.’
Although they may look a bit like chalk pastels, there is actually no chalk present in soft pastels. A binder is the material used to keep the loose powder together so sticks of pastel can be rolled and held, without damaging the pigment. Although the official recipe is kept under wraps, Unison Colour often use no binder at all (or a gentle one if needed), just adding water to the powder, and believe in keeping their process as simple as possible.
They also continue to make their pastels by hand. ‘We use ingredients gathered as per the recipes created by John, with most of them not being altered much over the 30 years of manufacture,’ explains Kate.
‘We use over 60 pigments in our recipes – a lot are natural earths and the others are traditional, inorganic pigments,’ she continues. ‘Once the mixture is thoroughly combined, water and a gentle binder are added if needed. From this stage, “dollops” are created by the spoonful which are later rolled by hand. There is no machinery involved, and we use only the lightest touch possible to create a genuinely soft pastel.’
Currently Unison Colour produce a staggering 380 different coloured pastels, in three sizes. ‘Despite the almost uniform technique used, the texture does vary between colours,’ explains Kate. ‘This is entirely due to the different pigment consistencies and is to be expected with the unadulterated, pure pigments we use.
‘Once they’ve been cut to length, each pastel is air-dried gently over time or in an airing cupboard overnight. Overall, the total time of manufacture can be anywhere from 24 hours to a week,’ says Kate.
With 380 colours available to them, Unison have to decide each day which colours to make, which is dependent on demand and time available. ‘There are no two days alike here,’ laughs Kate. ‘Some pastels take longer to process, and as every aspect is done by hand, careful consideration is needed to ensure each working day is well spent.’
Although the business was first set up in 1987 international success came when they met an arts materials distributor from America who happened to be in Northumberland. ‘Things really took off from there, and now our pastels are shipped all over the world and sold in countries including New Zealand, South Africa and Russia,’ says Kate.
But despite their pastels making trips around the world, Unison Colour themselves have no intention of leaving their home in Northumberland. ‘Being at the heart of the Northumbrian National Park means we are constantly inspired by everything around us – the hills, the fells, the forests, the rivers and, of course, the people. Why would we move?’
Even though Fiona discovered Unison Pastels through her mother-in-law, an artist herself who lives in Southern France, Fiona herself is a North East local. Based in County Durham, her work explores ecological themes, featuring landscapes of trees and rocky shorelines, as well as still life pieces focused on the shifting relationships between humans and Earth.
‘I enjoy experimenting with different ways of using pastel within my work, using wet and dry techniques as well as occasionally combining pastel with other media,’ explains Fiona. ‘The colour bonds well to a wide variety of surfaces, from paper to heavier sanded card, which means the colour remains vibrant.’
As Fiona’s work is inspired by the outside world, she often paints with her pastels out of doors, made easy by the fact they require minimal equipment.
While still an art student, Denise used to covet Unison Colour pastels when she saw them in a local art shop. Now an influential Scottish portrait artist, Denise has used their pastels for years. ‘I love their creamy consistency and gorgeous pigments; the colours are perfect for skin tones and the needs of a portrait artist,’ she explains.
Michelle found Unison Colour through another of their associates, American artist Zaria Forman. ‘The colours are so dense and vivid,’ she says. ‘I picked out several pastels from the blue green, the blue violet and the green range and painted my first ever pastel painting – a turquoise seascape with a dramatic deep blue sky and stormy clouds. I was utterly hooked.’
‘There’s an immediacy about working in such a powdery dry medium – there's no drying time and the colours are so pure. You know that what you apply to the paper will remain exactly that way. Even more perfect is the tactile nature of pastels – you have to work with your fingers and your hands to blends and smooth them. You have to touch your work continually and in that sense it feels organic – as the image literally grows under your fingers.’
Unison Pastels go down under, with Australian artist Tricia Taylor. Tricia’s art is all about capturing the magic of light, and pastels are a fantastic medium for achieving this. She started using them in the ‘90s, but the choice in Australia back then was rather limited; she discovered Unison Pastels at a demonstration run by The Pastel Society of Australia, and was immediately hooked.
‘Being a seascape artist, it’s the clarity in their deep blue and green pastels that I find so useful in reflecting the deep translucency of the ocean,’ explains Tricia. ‘Their range of soft light shades for the white water is so varied that I can bring life to the scene and capture the colour of light and shade.’
Having previously only worked in charcoal, Sandra Orme found Unison Pastels in a former local art supplies shop when she decided it was time to add a splash of colour to her work. Sandra focuses on land and sky in her work, and discovered that the tones of these pastels were ideal for the tones she wanted to introduce.
‘I love working in layers and mixing colour on the paper, and these pastels let me achieve this,’ explains Sandra. ‘I find pastels a very hands-on medium – when I’m trying to create pieces of art that communicate how I feel about a place then they’re ideal.’
‘I’m also inspired by the grand landscape tradition, from J. M. W. Turner to Alexander Nasmyth, and the writings of John Ruskin. These pastels allow me to create my own epic landscapes which really push the boundaries of what can be achieved with pastel – many people don’t even realise that my large pieces are done in pastel,’ she says.