As an Associate Artist and a devoted fan of Unison Colour with my own 36-set of pastels, my recent travels to the UK had to include a visit to the Unison Colour headquarters tucked away in the heart of Northumberland. And it was nothing short of magical! The commitment to handcrafting each pastel with consistency and unwavering passion left me in awe. I now have a much deeper understanding of what “handmade” means!
Join me on my journey to Unison Colour HQ where we see the step-by-step process of creating these artistic gems.
My Journey to Unison Colour HQ Begins
My adventure started with a train ride from Newcastle upon Tyne to Hexham, where I was warmly welcomed by Nessie. We then embarked on a beautiful half-hour drive through scenic country roads, heading towards the home of Unison Colour pastels.
Unison Colour’s headquarters is nestled in a serene countryside location and is comprised of Kate Hersey’s charming house, outbuildings with the various stations of creation, and even a picturesque church and churchyard.
A Warm Welcome
Upon arrival, I was met by Liz Reekie, my contact with Unison Colour. (She’s actually the company’s UK Retail Account Manager.) Over coffee and biscuits in Kate Hersey’s home, we discussed the artistry behind the pastels, and pondered the legacy left by her husband John Hersey, the creator and founder of Unison Colour.
Before long, I found myself in the midst of a delightful tour of the premises, meetinga few of the Unison Colour team along the way.
The Start of our Tour
The tour began in Jim’s room. Jim is the chief concocter of the pastel recipes but sadly, he was away at the time of my visit. Each recipe mix he puts together creates a batch of about 200 pastel sticks. Liz and I had a peek into a couple of containers of pigments – bright, saturated ones of course. “Right, you don’t do brown,” says Liz!
Now let’s take a look at the journey a single bowl of pigment mix takes. (These concoctions can have 5-35 different pigments in them!)
From Mixing to Rolling to Drying
Nessie skillfully mixed the bowl of pigment with water before efficiently spooning the mixture onto paper in blobs. To remove excess moisture, used paper is stacked beneath the clean sheets.
Next, Sue took charge, skillfully mushing and then rolling the pastel blobs to form individual sticks. I had the chance to try my hand at it and soon discovered that it wasn’t as easy as it looked!
Once rolled, the sticks are cut with a handy dandy tool created from two palette knives!
The pastel sticks are then moved to a drying rack and then placed in the drying room which strangely enough needs to be kept at a certain moisture level to make sure the pastel sticks dry evenly throughout. Each batch has its own note recording the colour, the date, who made them, and the size. This comes in handy as Hazel does her tests. (I’ll talk about this later.)
The Art of Labeling
After the pastels are dried, the pastels are ready for their labels. Two women, dedicated to the task of labelling each pastel stick, meticulously and dexterously manage this process. Wow. And we all had a good laugh when we talked about the first things some artists do when they get their pastels – rip off the label!
Meanwhile, Hazel, with her 27 years of experience at Unison Colour, ensures the quality of each pastel, testing a couple from each and every batch against the original colours.
Challenges and Perseverance
Unison Colour’s commitment to consistency sometimes brings challenges, especially when dealing with changing pigments. Hazel makes sure that there are no colour shifts between the pastels created using a new shipment of pigment and the originals. Even slight fluctuations require recipe adjustments, a time-consuming task that requires patience, perseverance, and dedication!
A major headache for Hazel is when a pigment is no longer available. When this happens, an alternative pigment must be found. And then, the recipe for every pastel stick that includes the unavailable pigment must be recalculated with the alternate choice. It’s not uncommon for a single pigment to appear in as many as 35 colours! Not a job for the weak of heart (or for someone without the expertise Hazel has!).
The Origin of the name “Unison Colour”
I wondered out loud about the brand name. Liz explained that the name “Unison Colour” itself reflects the philosophy behind their pastels. John Hersey, the creator and founder, chose the name because the colours in each colour set (often 1-18) work “in unison” with one another. He was inspired by how light affects different colours, much like how the colours of an apple change when held up and turned in the light. His artistic vision was not limited to adding white for lightness or black for darkness; he incorporated diverse pigments to create unique hues.
A Rainbow of Possibilities
Unison Colour offers pastels in three different sizes, ensuring that artists have a range of choices to suit their needs. With a vast palette of 380 colours, we artists can explore and experiment to our heart’s content, finding harmonious combinations that resonate with our artistic visions.
My visit to Unison Colour’s home left me with a new respect and love for these pastels. I am deeply inspired by the team’s dedication to handcrafting truly exceptional pastels.
I now look at the pastels in my box with a different appreciation. Each stick has started as a recipe of pigments which are then mixed, divided into about 200 blobs that are then left to dry to a certain consistency. They are then hand rolled and put in the drying room before being labelled, by hand. Finally, they are boxed up and sent out into the world. Wow!! Each and every one! (The packing and shipping area is now in a separate building some 20 minutes away hence the branded van they now have to run between the two locations!)
I loved meeting the people behind this incredible commitment and look forward to returning one day. I also am determined to help them get the word out about the fabulousness of Unison Colour pastels!
The rich history and artistic passion infused into each stick of pastel make them a treasure for artists worldwide. As Unison Colour continues to grow and expand, I know their commitment to creating pastels that work “in unison” will remain steadfast, enriching the art world and artists’ lives one colour at a time. Thank you John Hersey and the team at Unison Colour!!
Until next time,
PS. If you want to see me actually rolling the pastel dough and you’re on Instagram, check it out here!
PPS. I couldn’t resist these photos of the floor!!