Robert A. Sloan is a San Francisco-based science fiction writer, art writer, art teacher, artist, artisan, and Renaissance man.
Richeson Semi-Hard Square Pastels
In 2009, Richeson, a well-established art supply manufacturer, came out with three new lines of pastels. Experienced pastelists often use several different textures in layers—"hard" pastels or semi-hard pastels for early layers, then a medium-hard product like Art Spectrum pastels or Rembrandt pastels, followed by the softest pastels like hand-rolled Unisons, Terry Ludwig, Sennelier, or Schminke. Their strategy seemed to be to provide products in three different softnesses so that a pastelist using this technique doesn't have to look any farther than their product.
These got some pretty good reviews from my friends on WetCanvas.com and the slick ads in magazines and catalogs impressed me with the color range. There seemed to be plenty of good blues and greens in the full range of 120 color sets. So I decided back in October 2009 to replace my 96 NuPastels with a more lightfast product.
Cost decided me between Caran d'Ache Polychromos hard pastels and Richeson's semi-hard square pastels, the Richeson product was $70 less even at Blick. I got a good coupon so I got them even less than Blick's usual great price and went for the full-range 120 color set. I'm one of those pastelists who likes having all the colors and the 120 color set was under $100 with the coupon I had, so I went for the big one.
Another factor that decided me was convenience. Sometimes having a product come in two or three trays in a large set means finding space to lay out all the trays separately. Richeson's full-range 120 color set comes in a large flat wood box and all the colors were on one level—very simple to flip open the lid and start painting, rather than having to find a place to set the other trays to get at the bottom one.
Most sets like this come with styrene trays to hold each stick firmly. The trouble with the styrene trays is that they're hard to get the sticks out of and prone to getting dented or cracked. Richeson packs these pastels securely in slotted dense foam, even if the photo at Dick Blick looked like a typical black styrene tray. The inside of the lid has a foam pad too, so these are cushioned in all four directions by good foam.
The Pastels Were Worth the Wait!
My set didn't arrive till January 2, 2020, because the big set sold out like crazy over Christmas. It was just too big, too lush and colorful, a full range set of artist-grade pastels for only $105.99—no wonder it sold out!
It was worth the wait.
Sanford NuPastel hard pastels have a wonderful texture and are long, thin, and easy to control. They don't generate as much dust as the softer pastels; the corners of the square sticks make them easy to draw with, and until I became more aware of lightfastness issues, they were my favorites. Unfortunately, many of the colors fade in pretty short order, especially some of the rich reds and violets. Richeson's semi-hard pastels are listed as lightfast, so this was an important issue for me in replacing 96 NuPastels with 120 Richesons.
The Color Range
The range does have beautiful greens. Fully a fifth of those 120 sticks is some shade or other of true brilliant green or dark green. The set is very strong on blues as well, with a lot of good earth tones, a nice range of grays, and good reds and yellows—including those important magentas and purplish reds as well as some striking purples. Good darks are included throughout the spectrum.
Where the range of 120 colors falls short is in the light tints. There isn't a very light blue or green in it at all, no pale mint green or pale cloud blue or anything like it. So I am going to be supplementing this set with some chosen tints in Cretacolor Pastel Carre hard pastels in order to have a full spectrum of light tints.
These are important for establishing value as well as hue. Most often white objects aren't really white—they come up some shade of gray or violet or muted neutral colors, and only the brightest highlights show up as white.
Very light blues are important down at the horizon of skies, and light greens are important for highlights on leaves and a host of other things, including accents and reflected color on clouds of white flowers next to green leaves.
Isn't it just the thing that if you get a huge set of something, the first thing that happens is that you find it lacks some absolutely essential color? Fortunately, a similar texture in the Cretacolor product and color Conte sticks will let me fill this out easily—and the deep darks are better than the ones I had in my NuPastel set.
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Their texture is quite hard. Like NuPastels, when you first use them, you're breaking the seal, and some color may not come off at first. The best way to deal with that is to swipe the stick against a piece of sandpaper to get the coating off the end or the corner. The firmness is exactly what's needed for those early sketch lines and first layers of pastel on a heavily layered painting.
These give better results on sanded paper than ordinary sketchbook paper, but that's true of all pastels. The "toothier" the paper, the more layers you can use and the less pressure you need to deposit pigment.
Underpainting, Smudging, and Drawing
Above is an underpainting for a fruit still life I did in my sketchbook this afternoon, shortly after my Richesons arrived. I was stunned at how gigantic the box was, but once I flipped it open on the bed, I could see why. The sticks are only 1/4" wide square but they are quite long, 3 5/8" long. There are five rows of them in the big flat tray and instead of a more compact box, what you get is a big flat easily handled one-tray box with good padding.
I was able to pull out the sticks easily by squishing the foam, which rebounds right back into shape. The foam's stiff enough to hold a stick up when I propped the ones I was using on an angle so I could grab them again. So this big wood box set really is as convenient as I thought it would be from the picture at Blick.
Some of the colors are very close in hue and value. The good thing about this is that those include colors that get used up fast in large areas, like greens and blues, so as a whole my greens won't wear out in the first few landscapes and I'll have more variety. With time I'll get used to each of the sticks and its particular hardness.
Pigments themselves affect the hardness of sticks. Some of the reds are harder than other sticks, though once I broke through the initial pressed tip like Nupastels, they did go on smoothly.
In the underpainting above you can see how well they smudge to a smooth color or a soft-edged combination like the border between the light table and dark background where I moved it to correct the line. On smooth paper like sketchbook paper, they don't cover each other opaquely, light over dark. They'll plow up and mix with the color that's under them.
That's also a function of softness though—with any pastel painting you get better results covering with a pastel softer than the one you laid down first. That's why the hard pastels are best for underpaintings or for controlled, linear sketching where their hard corners give very sharp lines. These will be great sketching pastels, but I may want a smaller set for carrying them anywhere without a car. The giant box would not fit in a backpack, but a little twelve-color set would be enough for just sketching on the spot somewhere.
I tried continuing this sketch still life with the Richesons, but the light colors didn't go well over dark ones on the underpainting. So I switched to Art Spectrum—and found those not sticking to the paper that well either. Finally, I resorted to Senneliers, the softest pastels I have, and even those gave me a bit of trouble covering the Richesons.
Moral of the story? Use sanded pastel paper or something that has more tooth. Even Canson Mi-Tientes has more tooth than sketchbook paper. Stick to sketching on sketchbook paper. I plan on getting a cheap watercolor pad with 140lb paper, then priming all the pages with Colourfix primer in order to have a pastels sketchbook. It's only $5 for the watercolor pad and $12 for the pint of primer if you want to try something like that for your own pastel sketching.
Meanwhile, stick to lighter single-layer applications when using hard pastels in a sketchbook, and don't try the multilayer painting techniques on the wrong paper!
Hard Pastels Are Great for Small Artworks!
One of the things hard pastels shine for is doing very small pastel paintings and drawings. The painting above took a lot of work to finish and isn't quite as great as it would've been on the Colourfix paper or PastelMat surface. However, I am happy to report that the same Stonehenge paper that's so wonderful with colored pencils rocks for doing small-scale pastel paintings!
The great benefits of semi-hard or hard pastels are control, detail, lines, and edges. They are cleaner than the medium and soft textured pastels; they don't make your hands as messy though they will produce some leftover dust, especially if you keep plowing into heavy applications already on the paper. You can glaze over in layers with a light touch on a toothy paper—and Stonehenge is a much toothier surface than my sketchbook paper.
It just seemed so smooth that I expected my sketchbook to perform better than what it is—when it's not, it's for sketching.
So here's my Garden Gnome, enjoy!
Comparison With Conte Color Sticks
Both Richeson semi-hard square sticks and Conte color sticks are lightfast hard pastels. Conte sticks are narrower, shorter, very dense, and creamy. Richeson's sticks vary a little more in texture by the pigment but come in a much wider range of colors, but Conte's range is more balanced, including tints around the spectrum hues. Richeson's deep darks are wonderful.
Both products would work together well in a sketch or underpainting. You can do a complete pastel painting with either, but if you want multiple layers and depth, use a sanded or coated pastel surface that has plenty of tooth.
Definitely, Richeson comes out as one of the price leaders, and the quality is excellent. It would be easy to fill out the range with open stock Cretacolor Pastel Carre or Caran d'Ache Polychromos pale green and blue sticks, while the deep darks are useful for linear accents and interesting mixed blacks and darks in paintings.
I'm looking forward to trying the other textures of Richeson pastels. The square semi-hard sticks are the least expensive, probably because of the type of binders and forming processes. The most expensive are the softest Richeson Hand-Rolled, but prices are low compared to similar products throughout the range. I needed a big range of hard pastels, so I might not start with full range on the Richeson Soft Round or Handrolled pastels, but I'm sure to try at least a few of those from open stock or a small set sometime soon.
Below is an example of how hard pastels work best in a sketchbook—a pastel drawing with smudged areas that's not very heavily covered or multilayered, using the white paper for lights and choosing the right colors and values in the first stick instead of trying to change the colors from a contrasting or complementary underpainting. If you get the Richeson semi-hard square pastels, either use sanded paper or in your sketchbook, try for a style more like this.
Claudia Smaletz from East Coast on August 13, 2012:
Well written and really thorough, I might buy the Richeson, but I'm a fan of Sennelier and most of all Shminke. Ever think of being a consultant for Richeson?
Ebb Berry on December 29, 2010:
I bought a richeson set of hard pastels based on this review, just the 36 stick set. 7 of the sticks were broken, one in several pieces, appearing to have been too long for the slot in the box. Only 9 of the 36 had the color identifying number on them, the others were blank. I have returned them and ordered another brand.
Cassandra Mantis from UK and Nerujenia on January 25, 2010:
Hy Robert - I love your art hubs and I really felt as though I was reading a Watson-Guptill Art book here looking at your work! The colours are so rich and there is a nice loose quality and tone to each of your art pieces.
You are a fine artist! I wish I could paint and sketch like this! I attend a lot of galleries. I love art! Someone gave me some chalky Faber Castell pastels as a present some years back and they were trying to encourage me to take art classes. I regret not doing them. I never used the pastels.
Sam Parker on January 16, 2010:
Thanks for the great reviews! I tried it and you're right about the Stonehenge - it rocks!
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on January 03, 2010:
Wonderful art! I just enjoy so much looking at your pictures.
robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on January 03, 2010:
Thank you! I love writing and love getting new art supplies, so it's a lot of fun writing these reviews!
qtcat on January 03, 2010:
Thank you for your thoughtfulness, and hard work, to do these product comparisons. Very informative.