Cathi Dixon, our packing manager, began working for Unison Colour in August 1990. She shares with us a wealth of experience and knowledge of the business.
What was the company like in the early days?
Everything was quite simple in those days. When I first came here I was a pastel maker. I remember making Green 10 on my first day, and it was a complete and utter disaster. I tried again and again, but my pastels were never up to John's standard, and I gave up and started packing pastels instead.
What was wrong with Green 10?
Well I think I just misjudged the time to roll it and they just cracked up on me. It was the right colour. Most people struggle when the first start making pastels, and they have to regrind them again and again and keep practising. It's a skill some people have and obviously I don't.
What was John like to work for?
He was quite a task master. The pastels had to be perfect. If they weren't right, you had to do them again. What have been the main changes in the 25 years you have been here? The biggest change has been the number of pastels we make. When I first came, there were only 127 colours which were quite easy to keep track of. Now we do more than 400, more by the minute. We are still inventing new colours today.
What were the colours when there was 127?
Instead of Red, we had the Red-Crimson set. The Red-earths were originals. The Yellows were known as Yellow-gold. There were only 18 Brown-earths and 18 Greens. There was a set called Green-earth, which was a combination of Blue and Yellow-green-earths. John expanded this to make two sets as he felt there weren't enough Green-earth in the range. Bluegreen and Blue-violets are originals too. There were only 18 Greys. He expanded these to include colours he called "Drawing Greys". The Additional colours didn't exist but we had a small set called the Basics. These were made using very bright pigments that were hugely popular. We gradually expanded these to meet the demand for bright colours. I remember looking at them at first and thinking, "What kind of painting do you do with those? " because they really were quite garish. Additional Colours 19-54 were the result of collaborations with Christopher Assherton-Stones of Cumbria. He wanted some dark greens, browns and bluey-greys. We called them Assherton-Stones Greys for some time, but when we started exporting to America, we had to think of a name that would make sense.
Grey 21 is not grey, why is that?
The Grey 19-36 were John's "Drawing set" or "Chiaroscuro" for sketching. Essentially tonal contrasts, both cool and warm, from white (Grey 28) through to black (Grey 36). Any other stories about colours? Quite a lot of colours have been modified over time. Some not through choice, but mainly because we use traditional natural pigments and manufacturers sometimes change their formulations, and we have to try and keep up with that. Sometimes it works beautifully, and sometimes we don't have any choice but to change. John used the say that some colours were in a constant state of flux, especially the Brown-earths. He was always trying to alter the recipes to get it back to the intended colour. But you can't argue with a natural product. Sometimes it is going to be that tiny bit warmer or cooler because of where the natural pigment has come from.
As packing manager, what do you really enjoy about your job?
I really enjoy seeing what artists choose. When we have visitors at Unison colour, seeing what colours they choose for themselves, is always fascinating. You can try and second guess, depending on whether they are a portrait or landscape artist, or draw flowers. You can usually get some kind of clue, but we do get some who come and ask you to choose the colours for them. That is even more fascinating because you have to try and work out what it is that they need. I like working as part of a team even though the team has changed over time. Hazel has been here nearly as long as me. Although we regret when someone leaves, a new person brings something fresh. The location of Unison Colour speaks for itself! There are not many people working in manufacturing who get to work in the middle of nowhere, especially such a beautiful middle of nowhere!
Is there anything that would make your job easier?
If everything went right all of the time and nobody ever made any mistakes!!. But we are human and the whole process is "hand made", so human error is inevitable. If you tried to mechanise it, you'd spoil the product. Some mistakes are happy mistakes, we have often had new colours come out of mistakes.
Would you like to try making again?
Well, I once tried to help Hazel make some pastels and she asked me not to anymore! I think I murdered a few of them. It's quite a skill, and as I said, some people have it and some people don't. You need to have a lot of patience. I like the idea of making the colour, weighing out the pigments and mixing it, but the rolling I'd prefer to leave to someone else who knows what they are doing!!
You have a visual memory of all the colours now don't you?
Yes I know green 10 off by heart! Most of the ones I do know, I have a relationship with, I can remember something particular about each colour. Some of them it's because they are in a particular set, and I know it will be a useful colour for say portrait, or landscape. Some of the colours are hard to get to know. The Lights are a good example. It's taken me a long time to get to know them, but I know them well enough now having used them myself. I can see how useful they are, even if at first glance they look too pale. They actually have a lot of punch, and are not as pale as they first seem. I think the new Ocean-blues will be an easy set to remember. They are fabulous colours and every time I look at them I think of Scotland. I know many people might be reminded of a Mediterranean holiday looking at them, but to me they are the colours of a Scottish coastline.