Masters Water-Soluble Pastel Painting Sticks are another of the many items I picked up from Jerry’s Artarama when the Australian dollar was high. At the time, Jerry’s had a sale on where you got a discount on your order depending on how much you spent. At about $12, this box of pastels was just enough to push me up into the next discount bracket, essentially making the pastels free. Since I didn’t have a lot of pastels at the time, I was looking forward to having a cheap set of pastels to play around with. When it arrived, I opened up the elegant yet simple packaging to examine my new ‘toys’.
Though there’s a colour chart on the back of the box, there is no pigment information listed. I haven’t tested these for lightfastness yet, but the insanely low price tells me that these are not artist grade materials and are therefore almost certainly fugitive, even though the packaging claims otherwise. The 48 colours in the box are well-chosen and include a good number of dark colours (one complaint I often have about pastel sets is the lack of deep greens, browns and blues). If you enjoy drawing portraits, there are plenty of earthy and fleshy tones, while if you’re into landscapes or florals, you’ll be well-served by the variety of greens, blues, reds and yellows.
The fact that Masters pastels are water-soluble is one of their main selling points, but this seems a bit superfluous to me; given the powdery nature of pastels in general, I’d imagine any brand would wash and blend if you applied water to it. Then again, even within other categories of water-soluble media (like watercolour pencils), some varieties do dissolve and wash easier than others. I haven’t really tried that with many pastels at this point as usually when I draw in pastel, it’s because I want to blend and layer the sticks for that ‘fluffy’ look; if I want to paint with water media, I use water media.
I used these pastels for an underpainting I did for a piece I did with the Rembrandt pastels, but I also wanted to see how much I could do with them on their own and how they compared with other soft pastels. Masters pastels are definitely in the firm range of soft pastels, and for this reason I think they’d work better on a sanded or at least slightly rougher paper than regular sketching paper, especially if you’re intending to wash them. Getting solid coverage with them does require a bit more pressure than if you’re using softer pastels, but they do create a nice scumbling effect, and the pigment load is pretty good considering the price; they’re a lot more concentrated than most soft pastels you buy for $10 a box at the newsagent or whatever, but not on the level of proper artist grade materials.
After I scribbled a layer of colour with the pastels, I got out my brush and water and washed over the colour, and found that it does dissolve quite easily (though I’m still not convinced it does so better than other soft pastels). It’s quite fun to put down a layer, wash it and then work more dry layers over the top. Like most pastels, they also blend easily if you smudge them gently with your finger. The fact that the sticks are square instead of round means it’s easier to draw fine lines or details with the corners or sharp edges. If you’ve used Derwent Inktense blocks, you’ll find that the Masters water-soluble pastels handle in a similar way (though, unlike the Masters pastels, Inktense is permanent once it has been washed and the colour can’t be lifted again).
I mentioned the box earlier because I liked the design, but I think it’s worth noting that the packaging seems to do a pretty good job of protecting the pastels. My black pastel was broken when it arrived, but the others were unscathed, and I have dropped the box a number of times while rearranging my art supplies and the other pastels have remained unharmed. The box’s small size and sturdy design would make this a good field pastel sketching set to take along with a small sketch book.
Even with the questionable lightfastness claims, these pastels are still worth having for playing around in your sketchbook, to experiment with new ideas before committing to them in artist grade pastel or even for blocking out an underpainting before going over it in artist grade pastels or some other medium. If you live outside the US, postage and currency conversion mean these probably aren’t worth buying (unless you’re already putting through a large order for other supplies), but if you do live in America, I’d recommend getting a set of these just for fun.