The pastel market is exploding. That includes the tools of the pastelist: sticks, paper, and accessories. The assortment of different brands available to the artist is mind-boggling. I want to start a series detailing the brands that I favor, with a review of each and some insight into how they effect my technique.
Pastel Review. First, we will explore my favorite brand which is Diane Townsend Artist's Pastels. These handmade jewels come in three styles: Soft Form, Terrages and Thin Line. By way of explanation, consider the Soft Form to be a classic shape, Terrage ("Earth Gesture") to be a large rectangular shape, and Thin Line to be as described by their name.
The DT website lists the sizes of the handmade pastels as follows:
Terrages, approx. 1 and 1/2" long and 1" across , and 6/8" thickI attended a workshop taught by Diane a couple of years ago. I consider her a master of the medium, and an artist whose work I respect tremendously. She is an academic whose grasp of art history and of Modern Art makes her a pleasure to learn from. The workshop covered abstract pastel work, and was certainly a watershed for my own expression in the medium. She is a friend as well as a teacher.
Soft Form approx. 1 and 3/4" long and 3/4"thick
Thin Line approx. 2"long and 1/2" thick
The reasons why I favor the DT pastel line has as much to do with my own style and palette choices as anything else. Aesthetically, there is no pastel tool on the market that comes close to her pastels. They are a joy to hold and to use, with properties that appeal to me such as their large size (even the Soft Form is a fine size), their softness and their ability to cover well when I wish to be bold with my gestures.
Diane has been making her own pastels since 1971. The backstory is that she learned her formula from an Italian conservationist who had translated a Renaissance-era recipe for pastels. The emphasis for Townsend's pastels is on the color, which is true of only a few lines of pastels available. Other biases of pastel manufacturers can emphasize consistency of hand and thoroughness of palette, and some make a technical decision to produce sticks with greater hardness.
The Thin Line product compliments Judah Catalan's gestural style, and the Terrages were created to suit Wolf Kahn's expressionistic style.
Hand. DT pastels are as consistent as Unison (the king of consistent handmade pastels) and are in the middle of the pack for softness. Dakota Art Pastels has rated them with five major brands being softer. One reason they are relatively hard (for a soft pastel) is the addition of some pumice in the three lines. Pumice allows the pigment to invade the tooth of the artist's paper. I find them to work just fine on my sanded papers, as well. The relative hardness works for me and steers me towards using DT pastels for much of the painting, as compared to Schmincke, which are too soft for heavy usage.
Another review has DT Pastels as inconsistent, but I haven't found that to be the case at all. The only instances I have had of crumbling have been mechanically caused, and not spontaneous like a certain other well-known line. I reform them by spraying the crumbled pieces with water and hand rolling.
I favor the emphasis on color first. That alone will bring out the intensity that I value in my palette, and seems truer to both my expressionist and my natural leanings. Very dark tones that are clear and true to their hue are essential to my own style. They are dark enough that I have to record the numbers of the darks on my palette so that I can get them back to their hue family properly. These are the best dark darks I know of on the market.
Scroll to the middle of this Dakota Pastels page for a softness comparison of major pastel brands