Monday, November 27, 2017

Product Review: Stabilo CarbOthello Chalk Pastel Pencils

Stabilo CarbOthello chalk pastel pencils
When I was in London last year, I made a brief stop at the L. Cornelissen “artists’ colourment” shop, a very old store crammed from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with brushes, paints and paper. I didn’t need any paints, I already owned all the colored pencils they carried, and I didn’t want anything heavy to pack like sketchbooks, but I couldn’t leave a London institution like Cornelissen without buying something, could I? The only thing I bought was a small set of Stabilo CarbOthello chalk pastel pencils, which I wasn’t overly interested in. Chalk pastels were not really my thing – I tend to shy away from anything that smears easily, creates dust or is otherwise messy – so I put them aside as a lovely souvenir from London.

Stabilo CarbOthello
At the Chicago symposium, my swag bag contained a few General’s chalk pastel pencils (which I reviewed at the Well-Appointed Desk) and some samples of Stillman & Birn’s toned Nova paper, so I put the two together and experimented with a few small sketches in Chicago. As expected, I didn’t care for the way chalk pastel smeared and transferred to whatever was next to it, but I did like how opaque it is on toned paper. I didn’t do much with the pencils after that, but a mental note had been filed.

Fast-forward to the many continuous days of rain we’ve been having this month, and I started thinking about chalk pastels again. Something I read recently reminded me that chalk pastels are partially water-soluble, and that gave me an idea. I decided to give them another try, this time using water with the Stabilo set I bought at Cornelissen.

Compared to the General’s chalk pastels, the CarbOthellos have richer and more intense hues, but they also produce quite a bit more dust. (Cough, cough – that can’t be good to breathe!) I found myself working somewhat carefully to avoid producing too much dust, and I tapped the excess off into my waste basket.

11/25/17 CarbOthello with water applied (Stillman & Birn Alpha)

Compared to colored pencils, the chalk pastels are very quick to apply to Stillman & Birn’s toothy Beta paper (above). I left some of the paper’s tooth showing, and then I took a blending stump to blend the pastels and work them in further, easily covering most of the surface. Their blendable opacity is really fun – whatever you put on top covers most of what’s underneath, but when that’s blended, the pigments underneath are still on the surface, so they return as part of the mix. (I find colored pencils to be much more transparent, so colors tend to mix optically rather than blending like paints.)

CarbOthello test swatches with water applied.

As expected, chalk pastels smudge and smear easily, so I was eager to get to the next step: water application. (I meant to scan the apple sketch before applying water to show the difference in appearance, but I forgot. And truth be told, I was skittish about putting that mess on the scan bed.) Chalk pastels don’t dissolve completely or as vibrantly as water-soluble colored pencils, but they do blur just enough with water to get similar blended effects. The larger benefit, though, is that they hardly smudge at all once the paper is dry. In my test swatch on S&B Beta paper, water was applied with a waterbrush to the lower half of the swatch (below). After the paper dried completely, I gave the whole swatch a smear with a paper towel. The top half, which had no water applied to it, still smeared, but the lower half hardly smeared at all.

Application of water stops much of the pigment from smudging.

Hmmm, this interesting discovery encouraged me to keep experimenting – maybe I could grow to like chalk pastels after all, if water tames their smudge and dust factors! I pushed on, this time with black S&B Nova paper, which I figured would really show off CarbOthello’s opaque hues.

As I’d hoped, the colors really pop on black paper. I deliberately left some of the paper’s texture showing through because I intended to apply water to blend the chalk pastel further. Before I did that, though, I made a test swatch just as I did on the white Beta paper – with a very different result. On black, the dissolved pigment on the bottom half of the swatch was much less intense than the dry chalk pastel. As before, although applying water did keep smudging at bay, I didn’t like the way the color became less vibrant. Well, that was disappointing!

11/25/17 CarbOthello left dry (Stillman & Birn Nova)
Application of water prevented smudging but also
took away much of the hue's vibrancy.

I decided to leave the sketch on black paper dry (and despite my trepidations, I put it on the scan bed, then cleaned the glass furiously afterwards. Yuck, what a mess). 

I don’t think I’m ever going to be a huge fan of using chalk pastels – not only because of the inherent mess, but also the potential for inhaling pigment particles. But they kept me busy on another rainy day.


  1. Looks like you had fun experimenting. Too bad they didn't stay more vibrant on the dark paper.

  2. Hi, that’s funny: I was just trying out the same box of Carbothellos that I’ve owned for years! See my post in the USK weekly theme on Flickr. Before going any further I thought I’d google reviews and stumbled on yours. It’s no fun having a powdery sketch in a sketchbook so my next step is to try water. Maybe fixative would work too. Have you tried that?

    1. Yes, I've tried some fixatives, but the aerosol kinds that work best are also toxic to breathe. I tried SpectraFix (my review: ), which is non-aerosol, and it's OK, I guess. I'm going to stick with non-messy media! ;-)


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