As I strolled down the charming streets of the Marais district in Paris, my excitement piqued as I approached a quaint little shop known as La Maison du Pastel. (I had wanted to visit it for years but had never found the time). Its vintage facade exuded an air of mystery and artistic allure. It is said to be a haven for artists who seek the true essence of colours in their purest form. A place where pastels are crafted by hand with an alchemical precision. Founded by a young pharmacist Henri Roché, it is now run by Isabelle Roché and Margaret Zayer, having been taken taken over by the former in 2000. It boasts has a rich history as a favourite of artists such as Edgar Degas, Édouard Vuillard and even Winston Churchill.
Above & Below: Pastel hues of Pink Sapphires
The shop transports you into a world where time stands still. The air is infused with a musky aroma of pigments; the old tables and shelves are adorned with worn and smooth wooden trays containing row upon row of coloured cylindrical sticks, graduating delicately from light to dark tones within their respective hues. They currently have some 1800 colours and are always seeking to create new ones.
Above: Pastel hues of Sapphires & Amethysts
As we talked, their passion for their craft became powerfully evident. They spoke of the delicate balance between pure pigments and the bare minimum of binder, itself a closely guarded secret, to create an intense colour. Each pastel hue, they explained, was created from natural sources, using an traditional technique that requires immense skill and patience. Just like a jeweller cannot blend two gemstones to create a desired hue, these artisan pastel makers faced a similar challenge-colours could not be mixed to create the desired hue (quite different to watercolour or oils). Each had to be blended itself from original pure ingredients, and then lightened or darkened using varying amounts of black or white.
Listening to them, I could not help but draw parallels between their art and that of mine. Both pursuits demand a deep understanding of the raw materials, a keen eye for detail and compatibility, and an unwavering respect for nature, its harmony, and its creations. The range of colour captivated me, and in my mind I connected each with a different gemstone. From sapphires, both pale pink and deep blues, to seeing amethysts in the purple shades as well as tourmalines, peridots and emeralds in green shades. As the conversation unfolded, I realised that visiting La Maison du Pastel was not just about witnessing the creation of exquisite materials-it was a journey into the philosophy of creativity itself, of creating brilliance from simplicity.
Below: Pastel hues of Blue Sapphires
Above: Gemstone 'pastels' of Green Tourmaline & Teal Sapphire; Below: Peridot & Emerald gemstone 'pastels'.
Leaving the shop that day, well past the 6pm closing time I felt truly inspired. My encounter with Isabelle and Margaret reminded me that the creative process, whether in crafting pastels or designing jewellery, is a delicate dance between artistry and resourcefulness.
Discover La Maison du Pastel at the National Gallery this winter. The Liotard & The Lavergne Family Breakfast exhibition will feature old pastel boxes and drawing tools, as well a short film shot at the atelier. Book tickets here.