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Yarka Soft Pastels, A Bargain Artist Grade Pastel

#29 of 100

#29 of 100 for my 100 Hubs Challenge

#29 of 100 for my 100 Hubs Challenge

About Yarka

 Yarka is a Russian art supply company with a very long history. For over a century they have provided very high quality art supplies both to Russian people and other areas of Eastern Europe but also to Western Europe and the United States. They make a good variety of supplies and pride themselves on workmanship and quality.

They may be best known in the USA either for fine quality canvas to stretch for yourself, or for their watercolors. Yarka Professional pan watercolor sets of 24 are moderately expensive but have twice the amount of paint than most good artist grade 24 color sets -- and the price is at the low end of the artist grade range because it usually runs about $40 for 24 colors on sale. They are full pans -- big pans twice the size of the half pans Sennelier or Winsor & Newton provide.

The colors are wonderful, pigments are genuine and the watercolors respond in a way no other brand does. They dry as dark as they looked when they were wet, which makes Yarka Professional pan watercolors an immense convenience -- and a solution for watercolorists who always wind up mysteriously getting pale washed-out looking paintings even when they try to make them bolder.

I had already tried a set of these awesome watercolors when I decided to get myself a big box of soft pastels and move up from things like Alphacolor to using real Cadmiums and Cobalts in my pastel painting. I had a set of Alphacolor and two sets of Grumbacher back in my street painter years and the Grumbachers lasted a good long time -- but I only had 60 colors total and 30 of them were earth tones in a portrait set. I wanted more colors!

I like doing flowers. I like doing landscapes. I like doing animals and blue glass bottles in still lifes and I'm always finding something cool that I want to paint and do not have that exact color, let alone that exact color in four shades from really pale to super dark. I run into this with colored pencils too, but I had lots of colored pencils already in 2004 when I bought these. I had never had more than 84 different pastels at a time even when I was doing pastels every day and selling them to tourists.

So I looked at the big wood box sets with a small windfall I had from a back payment of some benefits I was waiting for, and needed to find one under the $100 that I had.

I could get 48 Winsor & Newton or I could get 185 Yarka in a big wood box that had 55 extra spares in colors that get used all the time, like white and sky blue. I figured I could use up the spares and add individual sticks of Sennelier and other brands even if the set had colors I didn't like -- the box appealed to me.

All my street art years I'd drooled after the big wood box sets the established pastelists had. I dreamed of the 525 color full range Sennelier set, which even on sale runs $1,000 ... and many of those Jackson Square pastelists in New Orleans owned it, which made it worse. I could see it in action every day and really wanted more than 100 colors.

So I ordered the big 185 stick box with 130 unique colors and felt good about it... right up to the day it arrived.

That's when I found out there were no bright reds, no deep purples, few bright pinks, no screaming bright greens, that the colors I took for granted in cheap sets were absent and it had a lot of very light tints of colors. Sometimes four or five light tints of the same pigment. Ow. Greens looked grayed out and muted. Lots of browns and earth tones -- it was better than my Grumbacher Skin Tones box for those, but I was no longer into doing people.

So I had mixed feelings and eventually bought other pastels... but I kept the set.

Somewhere at the back of my mind, I thought that its muted colors with lots of blues and greens and earth tones might make for really good landscapes. I just didn't get an opportunity to go paint outdoors with it to find out.

Waves On Rocks -- After Five Years, Inspiration...

"Waves On Rocks" 8" x 10" in Yarka soft pastels on sanded pastel paper, by Robert A. Sloan

"Waves On Rocks" 8" x 10" in Yarka soft pastels on sanded pastel paper, by Robert A. Sloan

It Took Five Years To Understand These Yarkas

 I put away the ugly but huge and interesting set for years. I dragged it through a couple of interstate moves. It survived -- that wood box is tough and came with foam pads to hold the sticks in place. I did other things. I did other mediums. I eventually bought other pastels. I found out Loew-Cornell soft pastels were listed as Artist Grade by Dick Blick and got the 72 color wood box of those, which was good for quite a few pastel sketches and paintings.

The Yarkas still bugged me.

Too good to get rid of, they really are hand rolled by real people in a factory in Russia from genuine local mineral pigments and have fine kaolin clay in the binder -- including a grayish clay in the muted colors in order to bring the hues down to those soft muted hues. Blick relisted the set as Student Grade.

I emailed them, told them I bought it and asked why it was listed as Student Grade. They said it was because American artists did not like the Eastern European palette where artists prefer muted colors and softer hues. Well, it made sense. After all, that was why I had been disappointed. So they really are Artist Grade -- it just isn't a complete universal set if you want to anchor your collection of soft pastels with them.

But it is and can be very, very useful if you do buy a few others to go with it.

Then in 2008 I started taking pastel classes at in the Soft Pastels Forum. There's a new class up almost every month. They are very good classes, taught by professionals. I learned much more about soft pastels than I even knew there was to learn.

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I was self taught and my pastel portraits sold great when I lived in New Orleans. I went in thinking of myself as an expert and a week into the first class I felt like a beginner again. I made new discoveries every day.

One of them was why I really did need four different super light shades of the same color in pasteling. They help! They are useful in ways having just white and a bunch of pure color "masstone" sticks can't reach. They are extremely convenient when you're doing shimmering subtle colors in a white cloud or a white napkin or a white cat's fur. I used to just use white for that.

I could get the likeness well. I could draw well -- but that was just the beginning. Painting with soft pastels is very, very different.

A complete setup has some Hard (dry) pastels like Sanford NuPastels, some medium ones like Art Spectrum, Rembrandt, or Yarka, and some super soft ones like Schminke or Sennelier. It helps to have a full range in all those different hardnesses. It also helps to have at least a few pastel pencils for details, and the newest invention, Pan Pastels, became indispensable once I got used to them.

I found out there were better things than fingers to smudge them with too, and that I could get much more sparkling color if I went at it with a chamois or some Colour Shapers and didn't break every crystalline pigment particle with my greasy skin-oil-saturated fingers.

These are Colour Shapers. They're like paint brushes with rubber tips shaped like the hair part of a brush. They are wonderful for use with any dusty dry pastels because you can move color around and "paint" with it moving it from one area to another. You can get wonderful effects with them and the Soft ones with white tips are usually the best with dry pastels.

Don't ever call them Chalk Pastels even if they handle like chalk. They are pure pigment ground with a very little bit of binder. Serious pastelists get bent out of shape if you call them Chalk Pastels. There is one exception -- in an airport security check, tell the security people they are Artist Chalks and they won't mess with them. Those folks get really scared if you say "toxic" even though there is no earthly way that a terrorist could run up to the cockpit with a stick of Cadmium Yellow and threaten to stick it up the pilot's nose unless he flies to Cuba. He would get laughed out of the air -- and a professional artist would probably be the first one to wrestle him for it and get it on pure lust for that beautiful color.

I used Colour Shapers to move color around in Waves on Blocks and it kept the painting from getting muddy and overblended. It gave my soft transitions a layered brilliance I never expected from such muted colors.

Colour Shapers by Royal Sovereign

Yet another weird art supply that's essential once you try it.

Yet another weird art supply that's essential once you try it.

Colour Shapers and Blending With Sticks, Uses of Hardness

 Above you can see a photo of my collection of Royal Sovereign Colour Shapers. The two big ones with white tips came in a set of Pastel Tools that I bought, it also included a pony hair blunt brush for sweeping dust out of the way or cleaning off small areas to rework, and a fan brush for blending. They're all useful. Those are the ones I use with dry pastels. The big white ones are Size 6, a medium size. They can go up to size 16 which are honking big and suitable for doing very large paintings that take standing at an easel or bending over a huge table, things I don't do with my back trouble.

The gray "Firm" one is size 2. This is a good size for getting details and it's pretty handy, a hair less expensive than Size 6. Size 2 ones and Firm are good with both dry pastels and oil pastels, I bought it to use with oil pastels but have detailed with it in soft pastels too. Generally when you say "soft pastels" it means all the dry kinds, including Yarka.

The black-tipped little ones are a set of five Size 0 "Extra Firm" Clay Shapers, used by sculptors to shape potters' clay or sculpey or other polymer clays, and by oil pastelists because they work much better to push the stiff oil pastels into place. I can and have used soft Colour Shapers with oil pastels, but they don't work as well as the Firm and the Clay Shapers worked even better than Firm. So the black ones are part of my oil pastels kit and you can find out more about them at -- this Hub is about Yarka Soft Pastels, which have a medium texture and very high quality in a muted, limited palette.

If you want to save a lot of money on medium soft pastels, then get the giant Yarka set that I did, and go looking at open stock in Rembrandt and Art Spectrum after it arrives for all the colors you don't have. Purchase the specific bright hues you want either loose in open stock or in the handy Art Spectrum six-packs like "Moody Blues" or "Fiery Warms." Definitely the Fiery Warms set would be useful because in the yellows you don't get a bright Cadmium Yellow mass tone (pure color) stick, there's a little white in the darkest of them till you get into the yellow ochres.

However, if you hate the super bright colors, the Yarka set may be just right for you. I bought a set of Derwent Drawing Pencils that has the same "soft nature colors" and use it constantly for painting animals and landscapes, because the muted nature palette gives its own charm to any nature scene I create. You need the brights if you're doing florals and you want to render bright clothes on people or urban scenes with neon signs. For nature, the Yarka palette may actually be more useful and for portraits it excels, with loads of subtle hue differences in earth tones all the way up to very light tints of the dark colors.

You won't find deep dark purples and reds. Those can be had from Terry Ludwig, that brand has deep darks like no others, so the 30 or 60 color Darks set from Ludwig is good too. Also the Art Spectrum Darks may be handy and fill some gaps.

Now... why hardness matters.

In soft pastels painting, as distinct from drawing where the background paper forms a whole lot of the picture, you're going to try to put many layers of pastel. The less tooth the paper has, the fewer layers you can use. The softer the sticks, the fewer layers you can use. Go hard with a Sennelier (very soft) pastel stick and you can't put anything over it -- the new color either pushes the old out of the way or falls off in wads of dust.

What you can do is go lightly and put Soft Over Hard.

Start by sketching in the basic colors with NuPastels or other very hard pastels. Conte color is my favorite hard pastel at the moment, they're more lightfast and the 48 colors mix very very well. Hard pastels are usually skinny square sticks anyway that are easy to draw with or turn on their sides to cover broad areas. Smudge those broad areas with a flat brush or chamois (get the chamois at an auto shop, it's the same thing as artist chamois but lots bigger, cut it into 5" x 7" pieces and you get lots for the cost of one). Then go over that with layers of medium pastels, like Yarka or Art Spectrum or Rembrandt.

Then when you can't put any more Yarka on, get out the Senneliers and add the last details in super soft opaque Sennelier, where you can dab on a white highlight on a shiny apple even over a dark part without planning for it and manage to cover it.

Also, when you start getting serious about pastel painting, leave Fabriano Tiziano and Canson Mi-Tientes behind. I used reams of Canson Mi-Tientes for my portrait sketches in New Orleans -- it is a valid and gorgeous sketching paper, if you use a middle value gray or beige or tan and then sketch a person on it with earth tones they really pop out. You can vignette the clothing and edges of hair off into the background color too to make a pretty finish around the detailed fully covered face and have a good effect.

But for paintings where you may  be putting up to 20 or 25 layers of pastel on, get either Art Spectrum Colourfix, my favorite, which comes in 20 colors including Clear, or the Art Spectrum primer in any of those colors to put on watercolor paper. I love the clear primer because I can do a watercolor underpainting or a charcoal sketch under the primer, put the primer on and have no black or graphite coming up through the primer into the dust layer to dull the colors. I can even completely cover black lines in the underpainting if I change my mind on where the line goes -- but I can see it just fine till it's covered without smudging it into the painting.

If you want more layering, like 20 or 25 layers, which I have yet to get to, most I ever really did was a dozen, then Kitty Wallis created Wallis Professional and Wallis Museum sanded pastel paper. Professional comes in white and Belgian Gray, a misty light gray color. It's not waterproof and you can't wash over it with water. Wallis Museum is on 100% rag watercolor paper and will stand up to being scrubbed clean with a sponge and used again, so Museum is worth a bit extra to have practice paper you can reuse nine or ten times without hurting it till you do a really good painting.

I tried Professional first and did this on a piece of white Wallis Professional. Oh boy did it take a lot of layers. It is also the perfect cure for Finger Blending because if you try that on Wallis, you'll make a good start at removing your fingerprints so the FBI can never find you in addition to bleeding for your art and doing some fine new punk paintings with blood smears in them. Colourfix can be finger blended, the grit is more rounded. Wallis has a texture like trying to rub broken glass and it will wear down anything you scrub it with, especially bare skin.

It chews up pastels more than less gritty papers but you can keep adding more and more and more layers without filling the tooth, which allows a luminous effect impossible to achieve on anything else. I did most of my blending on Waves On Rocks with the sticks, just going over areas I'd done before and using lighter or bluer or greener or yellower colors.

The result in person is incredible. The particles did not get crushed by the process so the whole thing shimmers with light. The colors that don't show directly do affect and change the colors, so when you move the colors shift around subtly and give it a prismatic brilliance you can't do by just getting the colors right on the first go and blending them together like I did on the street sketches. I'd get maybe three or four layers tops on a street painting, and that was around the eyes and mouth, the focal points.

They looked good. They were worth the $30 my tourists bought them for. But if I did something with this depth at 16" x 20" I could probably go for a four-figure price in a gallery and no one would lift an eyebrow at it, because I'd have put those hours of work into its layered depth and brilliance and I've gotten better at composition over the years and color mixing and color theory. My skills improved in directions I could not imagine.

I grew into the Yarka set and now I love it. I recommend it for students with the caveat that if you need bright colors, especially reds, pinks, oranges, purples and greens, you need to buy some extra sticks. You can always store the spares in the box those came in and build the wood box set up till you have a self chosen palette of 185 colors between Art Spectrum and Rembrandt, both of which are also reasonably priced.

So I've come full circle and recommend it as a bargain again. There are also smaller sets of Yarka available on Blick if you want to try them first. For super soft ones, I recommend a Sennelier half stick set, the general ones or the Plein Air depending on tastes. I got the 80 color half stick Assorted, and am very happy with it.


Tolovaj on March 01, 2014:

I am not a painter, but very much enjoyed reading about your experience with Yarka. It's interesting to find Russian company on so demanding and competitive market in strong, although not best position (yet).

I know several painters who did their share of pastels and understand how much is needed to find the right results after all layers with different hardness and changes after drying, but nobody mentioned rag watercolor paper which an be cleaned and reused. We live and learn!


Marg on January 12, 2011:

Thank you, enjoyed it!

Skinyou from Pacific Northwest on July 03, 2009:

Thanks for sharing.....Check my site if you have time.

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