Review: Henry Roche Pastels

This review is written by Charlotte Herczfeld

Have you heard about the soft (dry) pastels called Roché? Many pastel painters know about them, but are reluctant to try them because they are priced as luxury items. The question we all tend to ask is: are they really worth it?

La Maison du Pastel in Paris has a long and respectable history dating back to 1720. In 1887, M. Henri Roché became the head of the firm, and it has stayed in the family since. Today, Isabelle Roché keeps up the tradition of making these handmade pastels using the old equipment and methods. (Read more about the charming history at http://www.lamaisondupastel.com/history.php)

The sticks are indeed pure and vibrant in colour, indicating that there is more pigment and less filler in them. What immediately strikes me is that although the Roché sticks feels to be on the hard side, they release the pigment very readily, and I must take care to apply only a light pressure.


Picture 1


Picture 2

The pigment is quite granular and rough, as you can see above, where the upper rows of swatches are of the Rochés, with their interesting play of light and shadow, and the lower are of the likewise handmade UK brand Unison. These marks are made on ordinary printer paper.


Picture 3

One of my favourite pastel papers is the Fisher 400, as I layer a lot and normally need the tooth this UK sanded paper provides. I rarely use fixative, as usually it “melts” the pigments together in a way that destroys the shimmering effect of overlapped and adjacent marks. I use paper with a deep tooth instead. So my first sketch was made on this paper (picture 3). The aggressive tooth of the paper really “eats” the pastel sticks at a rate which is frightening with this expensive pastel. When I continued layering with the sides of the sticks, the Roché pastels deposited less and less pigment – it felt as if the sticks were rolling on the granular pigments already down on the paper, as if on ball bearings. That was interesting, and got me thinking about the glow of old oil paintings, when the pigment particles were larger than today’s.


Picture 4

Next sketch is on Clairefontaine-Rhodia Pastelmat (picture 4). This paper normally acts as if one was painting on the sticky side of tape and a pastel mark will not move until there are several layers under it. The Roché pastels are the only ones I have tried (of some 10 different brands) where the first marks actually could be smoothed out and into the paper, and where the second layer could be blended into the first. The marks went down in an uneven way, and if I pressed too hard there was a lot of loose granular dust. Now I’m starting to see a trend for these pastels, and the light bulb turns on!

As Edgar Degas used the Roché pastels, what would happen if I used papers and methods similar to his? He worked on papers without special tooth, used fixative liberally to keep the strokes from blending too much, and laid down the first layers flat and then switched to hatching marks creating an optical blending in the eye.


Picture 5 & 6

The Roché pastels release their pigments beautifully on a simple pastel paper of the Ingres type. I work similarly to how Degas did his first layers, and I stopped sketching at the point of picture 5 as the paper was too full with pigment. I used a very good fixative which I know makes minimal changes to single layer colours, but tends to melt together layered colours of other pastel brands. In other words, this is a tough test. I applied four light layers of fixative, and allowed them to dry completely between applications. The fixated painting is in picture 6. To my surprise, there is no spotting where droplets have fallen. The colours stay pure and separate – even the light yellow marks on top of darker pastel only darken very slightly. I’m deeply impressed!

I mentioned above that these pastels are “gritty” in texture. This is an advantage when fixative is applied, as the fixated layers works beautifully as a toothy ground. There is no visible difference between the fixated layers and the top layers of unfixated pastel pigment.


Picture 7

I find I really like how the Roché pastels make uneven marks, allowing previous layers to peek through without my having to make the marks separated or very small. The marks are similar to scumbled oil paint, which otherwise is difficult to achieve with soft pastels, but the Rochés perform just wonderfully in this respect.

I’m amazed at discovering how Degas made it work for him. It wasn’t his own recipe of fixative, it wasn’t steaming nor resins, it wasn’t secret methods he took with him to the grave – it was the beautiful performance of the Roché pastels working so well with fixative. The “secret” was in the pastel sticks all the time!

The price range for a single full size stick is between €16 and €20 (VAT included) in 2015. That is about seven times more than what my machine-made “workhorse” sticks cost. However, La Maison du Pastel now offer small sets with half-sticks, for half the price, which is a good option for trying them out.

Are the Roché pastels really worth it, then?

That is the question. There are other brands with high pigment content and brilliant colours. I couldn’t in good conscience recommend the Roché pastels to a beginner because of the cost, but the more seasoned painter would get an additional variation of expression in their toolbox. A painting can be started with cheaper pastels, and the top layers can be made with luxurious and luscious Rochés.

Conclusion

What makes the Roché pastels so special are their comparatively temperamental nature in how the strokes go down in a lovely varied way, and how excellently the layers take a high quality fixative, allowing for a truly impressionist manner of painting. The rougher granular texture lets the light and shadow play in every stroke, adding that special sparkle which makes a pastel painting so unique. If that is what you dream of for your paintings, then an investment in Roché pastels is indeed worth it.

Availability

You can find them at www.amazon.com/Henri-Roche-Piece-Intense-Dark/dp/B000A2HGM8 for the 12-stick set.

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