British artist John Hersey set aside his own easel to make pastels; now he delights in refining the soft, colorful chalk
GREENHAUGH, NORTHUMBERLAND, ENGLAND
John Hersey is an artist. His burning interest is in light. ''Artists are usually interested in things,'' he says. But the charcoal drawings he was making -- a dozen years ago now -- were, he realized, ''all about light. Nothing to do with landscapes, roads, and trees.'' And ''the whole point about light,'' he explains, ''is that it's all-inclusive. There's nothing outside it.''Skip to next paragraph
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His charcoal drawings were only in tones ranging from black to white. But he had arrived at the point where he ''wanted to know, supposing I was to use color instead of black and white, what colors would I use?''
So he decided to buy some pastels to explore ''what color is about -- why there is such a thing, what its meaning is, what is interesting about it if anything.''
Avoiding certain brands he already knew he disliked for their variable hardness, scratchiness, or crumbliness, he bought 130 pounds worth of pastels by the French company Sennellier. This established company is large enough, no doubt, to survive his rather unflattering conclusions about their pastels: ''I found that they were absolutely meaningless in relation to what I saw. They had no cohesion about them.''
And that was when he began to make his own pastels. Today, artist Hersey is also a maker of pastels for other artists. In fact, his only problem now is finding the time to use his own pastels.
He calls them Unison Colour Soft Pastels, and it is not just a good advertising name for them. The idea of unison is crucial to the kinds of colors he makes. The colors he makes are translations of light into pigment (sometimes mixing up to eight pigments to make one subtle color). But more important, he sees the relationship of his colors in musical terms.
He makes standard sets of pastels each consisting of 18 colors. Each set is based on a color. (He will also make additional separate colors specified by a customer when asked.) The ''base'' color, such as ''red earth,'' ''yellow-gold,'' ''blue-green,'' and so on -- he likens to the tonic in harmonic music.
''Every note in the scale,'' he says, ''is only meaningful in relation to the tonic.'' If the tonic changes, so do all the notes relating to it. And Hersey's colors, like musical notes, are continually being changed.
He approaches his pastelmaking as an artist rather than as a chemist or a mass-manufacturer, and his colors are ''in a continuous state of flux.'' It is a disarmingly personal business. His eye tests the colors against the set standards before the pastels are packed and sold. But more importantly, it is his eye that is continually dissatisfied with the standards -- and keeps rethinking them. When Hersey decides to change the base color (which is usually, but not always, No. 9 in a set), all the other colors in the set change, too.
He stores examples of every color he has made over the eight years since Unison Colour began and can always match them if required. But the printed charts buyers are given for reference are ''out-of-date by the time they are printed.'' The inks used in these charts are approximate at best; serious buyers can purchase hand-drawn charts made with the exact colors.
Unison Colour pastels, which are hand-rolled in three sizes (giant, standard, and small) and in about 240 colors, are beginning to encircle the globe from the remote Northumberland rectory and coach house where they are made and marketed by a minute staff: Hersey, his wife, Kate, and, currently, two assistants with occasional help from the Hersey's young son. They can be bought directly from Unison by mail order. They are also sold through distribution centers and shops in Britain, Holland, France, Germany, Norway -- and are arriving in the US this summer courtesy of an agent in Wisconsin.