Choosing Your First Soft Pastels

Choosing Your First Soft Pastels

Probably the question I get asked the most is: “What pastels would you suggest I start with? And by the way, I have a limited budget.” Choosing your first soft pastels should be easy but with all the choices we have, the decisions become more difficult. This week I answer the question!

So as you can see, I recommend half-stick sets by Unison and Sennelier. I also think that Mount Vision pastels are a super value. Other brands I love but think may be toooooo soft for a beginner are Schmincke, Great American, and Terry Ludwig. Branch out to these once you get your pastelling feet wet!

Once you know the brands to look for, keep an eye out for them in alternative retail venues such as your local thrift shop, eBay, or Craigslist for example.

Don’t be tempted by cheaper student grade pastels – they’ll only lead to frustration – in colour, in application, in vibrancy. Instead, buy a few good soft pastels. Quality pastels are primarily pigment with a bit of binder to keep them together in stick form. Cheap ‘pastels’ have a much greater ratio of binder to pigment which is why when using them, you just can’t get the look and feel that comes with a better brand. Frustration!

Once you have your first soft pastels, use them up! Don’t think of them as precious, or be tentative with them. Set a date – say six months, a year max – when you will have used them up. And tell someone who will hold you accountable. And then by golly, pastel away!!

Choosing your first soft pastels

One thing I’d like to suggest once you have your box of first pastels is to work on small pieces of paper. In the early days of your pastelling adventures, working on large pieces can lead to the idea of “wasting” the pastels (and the paper!) as you try to fill the spaces. And so there’s a tendency to stop painting. Using small pieces (6 x 8 in for example) gets you out of this negative mindset, and means you will produce more work and thus grow faster in your knowledge of pastels. And I suggest using sanded paper as soon as you can!

What do you think of my choices for first soft pastels? Agree? Disagree? What were your first pastels? Did you like them? Hate them? I’d love to get a conversation going around this topic so please leave a comment. And do share this post with anyone who is at the beginning of their pastel journey!

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. The pastels I recommended in the video:

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47 thoughts on “Choosing Your First Soft Pastels”

  1. Thanks for the video on choosing pastels. I have done a lot of colored pencil but really starting to do more pastel because of the ease of laying down color and blending- I am most definately in the beginner category.
    I started with Rembrandt because they were left over from my daughters art class. They are listed as soft, but I don’t think they are as soft as Sennelier. I’m buying a few sticks at a time of the Sennelier and I really like them.

    1. Nancy I agree with you about Rembrandt pastels. They were the first pastels I used and they were fine but once I discovered the softer pastels, wow, there was no looking back! I like your idea of adding a few sticks at a time.

    2. I am very excited to receive all your inspiration and information. I am an oil painter and have also work with pastels. I do not have any of the difficulties you describe and I am very motivated to get into my studio daily. I am well educated with oil painting yet self taught with pastels. I love all the soft pastes, especially sennelier. I used Wallis paper and I loved it. When Wallis no longer existed my work in pastels also stopped cause I did not like any of the surfaces. So, I need help with my pastel paper and since I am self taught, I would like some direction.

      1. Thanks Joanne! Great to hear you are a keen painter and motivated to get into your studio!

        It was a sad day when Wallis was no longer available and we learned how much we relied on it. It sounds like you’ve tried many of the many surfaces now available, ones like UART, Pastel Premier, La Carte, PastelMat and LuxArchival. If non suit you, maybe you can experiment creating your own? Keep us posted!

  2. First of all, thanks for another terrific video! Had I seen it in time, I wouldn’t have started with one of the super-cheap student sets. But that I did–Mungyo Non Toxic Square Chalk, Soft Pastel, 64 Pack, cost $6.97 at Amazon. (In fact, that set was recommended for our art class here at the retirement community where I live.) I’m still using that set, but have now acquired a few VINTAGE sets from eBay and two small Terry Ludwig sets: Intense Darks and True Lights (both were a gift). You can buy them online from Dick Blick cheaper than from Terry Ludwig’s website.

    On one of the message boards, someone said that new Grumbacher pastels are not to be desired, but that the old ones are good. I found a small set of vintage Grumbachers. I thought some of the colors were rather odd, but I like the softness/hardness ratio. They’re not nearly as soft as the Terry Ludwigs.

    I enjoy using pastels that someone else painted with many years ago, imagining a connection with that other artist, noticing which colors he or she nearly used up, etc., wondering if they belonged to an accomplished artist or to a beginner like me. The vintage pastels usually come bundled with other sets–maybe all that some artist was using when he or she stopped painting. (I even have one tiny set from 1941–it’s as old as me!)

    That’s another good thing about soft pastels: the old ones are as good as (or better than) the new ones. They never dry up, separate, or spoil!

    1. Thanks Ruth!! I love your story and feelings about Vintage sets. And lucky you ending up with some 🙂 One thing to be a bit aware of is that older pastels may have more toxic ingredients than those made today. As always with pastels, be wary of breathing the dust. I love that you remind us about the fact that old pastels don’t spoil!!

  3. Great post and great video, Gail! (I like your bloopers! 😉
    I like to recommend the pastel sampler sets available from Dakotapastels.com ( http://www.dakotapastels.com/pages/softpastels-dakota-samplers.aspx ), and fineartstore.com ( http://www.fineartstore.com/s-1396-samplers.aspx ) They each sell sampler sets that include individual sticks from each brand that they carry, so a person can try every brand in one set. It’s a great way to experiment and find out which brands you will like better! (I fell in love with Diane Townsend Terrage this way!)

    1. Thanks Rita. And thank you for the Dakota sampler reminder. I had made a note to include it but somehow forgot. I didn’t know FineArtStore had samplers so thanks too for that link. I still haven’t tried any Diane Townsend pastels….one of these days!

  4. The finest pastels I know are made by Paul deMarrais – pauldemarrais.com

    He might still offer his luscious hand rolled pastels though he is now making oil pastels.

  5. Hi Gail! A great question and a wise answer! When I started with pastels I started with some cheap ones I got in Spain…really soft but no pigment…they were so frustrating because I had no real reds and no real darks….so “pastel “was an apt description. I abandoned pastels then ,for another twenty years. Then I bought a large-ish set of nupastels…they were nicer in colour quality but again I became frustrated because I couldn’t blend them successfully without using up all the tooth in the paper. Again I abandoned the medium and returned to oils. Then one day I happened upon a box of schminkes…and so began the obsession with pastels!!! I agree that beginners should buy the best quality pastels they can afford to truly realize the potential of this beautiful medium! Yum!

    1. Wow what a journey back to pastels you’ve had Teri!! I was thinking of your find when I wrote about alternative retail venues 🙂 And thanks for confirming that beginners should start out with the best materials they can afford.

  6. Hi Gail!
    Thanks for this useful post.
    Actually my first ones were Blockx (sp?), mid way between hard and soft. Then I discovered Sennelier (easily available here in Paris), then Schmincke, then those fabulous Art Works, both carried in the Sennelier store.. Ludwig doesn’t export to Europe but anyway they are out of my price range!
    I think hard ones like Rembrandt are good for doing the first layer, and then I use softer and softer as I go along. Sort of like the same rule for oil paintings–oily on thin.
    Happy trails to you!

    1. Thanks for sharing your pastel journey Nancy. Yes Sennelier in Paris of course! And then Schmincke and Great American for very soft. And yes, it’s nice to have some harder ones when you get into super soft!!

  7. Hi Gail,
    I started with student quality pastels as I work in a school and that’s all we could order in for the art class. I think they were the UK eqivalent of Mungo as the packaging looks the same. They aren’t bad quality, but harder and scratchier. Since exploring more myself and learning to enjoy working in pastels i’ve bought a few other sets, i enjoy doing animals so I bought a half stick set of Unison (16 Animal set specially selected by Emma Colbert a local animal Pastel artist) more appropriate for doing animals. Although small, i’m finding they don’t wear down overly fast which was a worry when spending the extra money. I also use pastel pencils and invested in the 36 and then the 60 set of Faber Castell Pastel Pitt pencils which are also expensive. My understanding is that pencils are harder than the pastel sticks? Lately i’ve realised that hard pastels should go underneath soft pastels rather than on top and therefore i’ve purchasd some hard pastels to do underpaintings…. I’ve recently bought FC Polychromos sticks (12), but colour range wasn’t great for animals (too many brights) amd most recently i bought a set of Koh-i-noor hard pastels (48) which have a much better range of colours. I’d be interested to hear you explain about how and when to use hard pastels/pencils in conjunction with soft pastels.
    Thank you, Elaine.

    1. Elaine, wow thanks for this! I haven’t ever tried Mungo, Faber Castell Pastel Pencils, Polychromas, or Koh-i-noor. You talked about how your Unison pastels don’t wear down as fast and that’s I think because they are so loaded with pigment, the pastels discharge a lot of colour in a swipe. I know Emma’s work (I featured one of her pieces in a recent monthly round-up).
      As to when I use hard pastels, basically now I don’t. I used to work from a harder pastel (Rembrandt, FaberCastell, Holbein at different times) to soft but because I really like the soft pastels, now that’s all I work with. It really is a lot to do with pressure and being able to work lightly at the beginning. Every now and again, I may feather over the soft pastels with a Holbein to soften an edge or bring some unity, but this is very rare. Hope that helps a bit!

  8. I like your selections Gail…..Unison are hugely popular here in the UK (so they should be…..we make them! 🙂 ). I haven’t used many Sennelier myself but the fact that they make half-sticks is an attractive offer for those just starting out.
    Would I still buy the same pastels that I selected when first starting? There weren’t as many to choose from thirty years ago! I bought Daler-Rowney ones, in the days when they were made in the smaller size…they are larger now. Today, as a beginner, I’d be tempted by the Unison half-sticks, I think….their colours are great.
    I’m sure any UK readers will know that Jackson’s UK online store offers a wide range of pastels, including American products such as Mount Vision and Terry Ludwig, so there is a lot available to us (too many! and I want them all!). And sanded paper….virtually non-existent when I started but what a difference it makes!

    1. Thanks for your input Chris. The choice now is, as you say, almost too much! But aren’t we the happier for it 🙂
      I have vaguely heard about Jackson’s and I know some Canadians have ordered from there as the exchange rate is better than ordering from the USA at the moment. Great that they have Mount Vision and Terry Ludwig – good for them!!
      Yes Daler Rowney are also an option (and larger these days than they were) but I find them slightly on the hard side.
      And yes, sanded paper – what a difference it makes!!

  9. I agree you need to begin with quality pastels. I began with Rembrandt, and it was great to begin. I also use Lukas pastels and I love them.
    For Christmas, I received a great box of Sennelier pastels; the Colors are wonderfull, but they are very weak.
    Be happy painting!

    1. Hi Chantal, I started with Rembrandt too and they were fine. But today I find they can be a little “waxy”at times so I hesitate to recommend them. And it’s personal – I just like the softer pastels!
      I’ve never used Lukas pastels, didn’t even know they existed! I loved there gouache.
      When you say Sennelier pastels are weak, do you mean they are brittle? The full sticks can be a bit that way especially as you peel the paper. I find the half sticks much firmer.

  10. Wow!! Thank you so much for this!! I am actually STILL using my Prismacolor NuPastel sticks that I got from my mother in 1987, and stumbled upon in 2014. I do use Carb Othello pastel pencils for detail work, and I actually own TWO soft pastels. I bought a stark white and a deep purple from an art shop. I have been wanting to work with soft pastels but wasn’t sure what to try as a beginner set, since they ARE so expensive, and I’m doing well with the sticks. This is a great help!

    1. Wow Tiffany, you are welcome! I laughed when you said you had TWO soft pastels 😀
      Love that you are using pastels you received in 1987 from your Mum and recently rediscovered it sounds like.
      Hoping this post will encourage you to buy a small set of half sticks. Sennelier makes a smaller set than the one I mention if you prefer to try those. And don’t forget the Mount Vision!!

  11. A few Holbeins and NuPastels mixed in there with the softer brands will introduce a beginner to the ideas of working harder to softer, under-painting, and expand the their experience of mark making. I agree the sample sets are a super way to explore various brands.

    I too started with Grumbacher and Rembrandts YEARS ago before the advent of sanded surfaces, and I remember the frustration of trying to leave enough pastel on the paper without pressing so hard that I ruined the tooth! But, I sometimes still use them sometimes for the first layer I put down.

    And yes, ALWAYS purchase the best quality you can afford – you won’t be sorry!

    1. Thanks Michele! I love Holbein pastels for hard version and will mention those to my students. You are right that harder pastels will expand a beginner’s mark-making repertoire. Thanks for adding that.

      Yes such frustration in the days before sanded paper and with cheaper harder pastels. How lucky we are now.
      And thanks for confirming that purchasing quality is always best!!

  12. I have been painting with pastels for five or six years now and I’m ready for a Pastels Anonymous group! Seriously, I love them and use all the brands. I do feel sad when I see beginners using cheap pastels. The experience and the results are totally different with good pastels and sanded paper. It’s hard to tell if you will enjoy the medium when using inferior products. I’ve researched all the brands and prices and feel that the Sennelier set of 120
    half sticks is the best value, lots of colors and good handling. I might disagree with you on the Terry Ludwigs. I started with them (with Nupastels and Rembrandt for underpainting). They are very popular with artists in this area, and though they are soft, they are not as soft as Schminke, Blue Earth or Great American, and their shape is so versatile. I have recently started using Diane Townsend soft form pastels and I have fallen in love with them. Lots of dust, yes, but oh those colors! The smokey blue set, damp earth, misty mauve and the darks. Yummy.
    Just started getting your blog and enjoy it.

    1. Hi Betsey,

      I’m so glad you agree with me about the need to start with good quality. There’s no way to get a true feeling of the medium otherwise. Thanks for your input and your recommendation of the Sennelier 120 set. It may be a financial stretch for some but I appreciate your research into its value.

      When you say you disagree with me on Terry Ludwig, do you mean that they aren’t as soft as those you mention? I can agree with that. I’m just not sure they are best for a beginner. But certainly, if a beginner came to class with a box of TLs, I’d be totally happy!

      I’ve never used Diane Townsend pastels and look forward to the day I do since I’ve heard such good things about them.

      Thanks for the laugh about being ready for Pastels Anonymous!! I think there are many of us who are in this category!

  13. Gail you have made some excellent recommendations. I would like to add two brands that for the money provide very good quality at a reasonable price.The first brand would be Mungyo Gallery Artists Extra Fine Soft Pastels & Mungyo Artists Handmade Soft Pastels. I find that these pastels have rich color and lay down beautifully. They are from South Korea. The next brand would be Jack Richeson Soft Pastels or Handmade Soft Pastels. This brand is easy to lay down color and I prefer them over Rembrandt. I have been finding Rembrandt to be harder than Mungyo and Richeson. Although I still purchase Rembrandt I find that laying a broad side stroke is easier with the other two brands. Though Richeson pastels are made in China I have found the quality to be consistent. Additionally it is easy to remove the label since they are not glued on thus leaving no hard glue residue. I truly enjoySennelier soft pastels. The range of rich colors and overall softness makes them a pleasure to paint with. They may crumble a bit more than the others but what a wonderful pastel. BTW- Mungyo is available from Jerry’s and sets can be found on eBay. If anyone is interested in oil pastels the Mungyo Gallery Soft Artists oil pastels are excellent. Richeson can be ordered from either Jerry’s or Blick.

    1. Hey Dennis,
      Thanks for your input on recommendations for beginner sets! I haven’t tried Mungyo pastels and certainly want to get my hands on some to try out. I do have a small set of Richeson pastels but haven’t got around to using them so I appreciate the reminder. I know they have some fabulous colours in their selection!

  14. How have I not found this site in the time I have been working up to eligibility for Pastels Annonymous? I have gained so much in the last hour of glancing through and reading these comments. I wonder why no one has mentioned Pan Pastels? I have the set and I love them. I am a beginner, although one of my earliest Pastels is a tiger cub laying in a fall meadow by a felled tree. This I did on a sheet of velour paper. I did this over fifty years ago and gave it to my Mom as a gift. She had it beautifully framed and it came back to me when she passed away. It hangs in our home. I do not know what Pastels I used as life continued with art interests taking a back seat. After retirement, I once again took up my dream. I use Rembrandt, Pan Pastels, Senneliers and I have invested in a three Ludwig sets. Most recently I purchased a Mungyo set and am happy with them. I have many questions and appreciate the wonderful tips. Maybe I can now quit being afraid to take the risk and to use them all! Thank you for the boat!

    1. Hi Irma! Happy you have discovered this site and enjoying it.
      Thanks so much for letting us know a bit about your history with pastels (there’s a familiar sound to it!) and for sharing the pastels you use.
      I don’t use Pan Pastels. I think it’s because I like the combination of drawing and painting that a pastel stick brings to me. One of these days I will try Mungyo as a number of people mention it.
      Take the risk – use them all. Doing that will help you grow as an artist. Truly!!

  15. I started out drawing portraits with Faber-Castell years ago along with the Faber-Castell and Carb Othello pastel pencils for details and first sketch. I had a very hard grip on my chalks and anything softer would have turned to dust before it reached the paper! I was quite happy with the F.-C.s because I have their other products and all the colors match and have the same numbers: you know what you have and how to use them. I had a stick of white pastel from Schmincke so my finishing highlights wouldn’t scrape off whatever was already on the paper.

    One day it occured to me pastels might be a heath hazard because of the pigment dust and I wrote F.-C. a mail asking them if it was okay if I let children draw with my pastels too. Their reply was kind of evasive so I went online to find another brand that might be safer and ended up with Rembrandt. I like it they sell half-sticks so you get more colors to try out before you decide which to go on with. Also, I had to break my F.-C.s in half anyway before I used them.

    I have a small tin of 12 Schmincke soft pastels I never dared to open because they look awfully soft and might not even survive me tearing the plastic wrapper off and also I know Schmincke uses a lot of dangerous pigments. I also have a few Senneliers I’d like to try out if only I knew if they are safe. I have Sennelier watercolors and love them so I expect their pastels to be wonderful too.

    Have you heard of the brand Jaxell? They are fairly cheap so they might be student grade, somebody I know uses them, they are very soft. As their oil pastels (Jaxon) are fit for children (non-toxic) I wonder if the soft pastels are also safe.

    As I tend to think in tonal values Schmincke seems to be the best choice but maybe I just need to get my Rembrandts into a different order. In watercolors it’s easier to change the tonal value of a color so it takes some getting used to every time I pick up my pastel chalks again. I draw in my living-room so I don’t want to produce a lot of mess, maybe the few Schmincke I have would be better for plein air anyway.

    1. Hi Pamela, thanks for sharing a bit about your pastel journey and frustrations. I think most pastel manufacturers these days are very aware of health hazards and try to use safe pigments. But sometimes, as with paints (for example cadmiums), to get the colours we want, they need to use pigments that have some toxicity. Basically though, I think pastels are safe as long as you don’t ingest them or breathe the dust. I wouldn’t let children use them because of those problems. Also, good pastels are expensive and well, as we know, children aren’t the most careful or dextrous of creatures and so the pastels might not last too long! 🙂

      I love Schmincke pastels! And they will survive the taking off of the wrapper. (Sennelier is another story.) They are VERY soft though and so I don’t usually recommend them for beginners or those used to using a harder pastel. Rembrandts are fairly hard pastels compared to the ones I mention and certainly compared to Schmincke and also Great American and Terry Ludwig pastels.

      All the brands have colours ranging from light to dark so your tonal range will depend on the colours you have.

      I haven’t heard of Jaxell before so I can’t answer your question as to whether they are safe.

      Hope that helps somewhat!

  16. Excellent advice. Wish I had found your site before I wasted so much time and money on cheap sets of
    pastels. I started with Prismas but didn’t care for them, bought a sampler set of Rembrandt, didn’t care for them at all. Tried a sampler of Jack Richeson – came with 3 different hardnesses, didn’t care for those either,
    Inscribe was terrible.
    I found Fine Arts store and purchased a Sampler with 7 different top brands, they also have a 14 sampler.
    Included were Unison, Great American, Sennelier, Diane Townsend, Girault, Art Spectrum, Schmincke.
    I have to say I absolutely loved the Schmincke, also liked the Great American andSennelier. The Diane Townsend was gritty, so was Art Spectrum. Girault was very hard and Unison was in between not hard but not creamy soft.
    I am torn between Unison and Great American. Schmincke is out of my price range. Maybe as I progress
    I will add some Schmincke singles to my collection. Hope that helps.

    1. Wow Hazel this is awesome! I am sorry you had to go through all the various brands (and spend money on them) but wow! you sure know what’s out there and, even better, you know what you like! Just slowly build as you go.

      1. Thank you Gail, I purchased a landscape set of Great American 78 colors along with one Mount Vision to give them a try. I like Mount Vision very much so I ordered 4 shades of gray being the Great American set came with only one shade of gray. Also purchased a sampler set of pastel paper and decided to create 5×7’s on all the samplers, of my favorite landscapes and seascapes. Just as you said, they take about an hour to do and are fun to pop out. Good practice and a nice way to settle on a favorite pastel paper. I also subscribed to your beginners art course as I have no idea of techniques and basics. I just copy what I see.

        So thank you for your commitment to help others.

        1. Hi Hazel, glad this was helpful. Love that you are trying out different pastels and papers. As you say, that’s the best way to settle on what work’s for you. I love Great American pastels but for those like yourself just starting out, they can tend to be frustrating because of their super softness! On the other hand, you may love them right away! Just keep at it 😀

          And thank you for purchasing the Pastels 101 course! I am sure you will find it a good foundation for working in soft pastels.

  17. It’s great to find your website I am looking for a soft pastel. I really like the way you say, easy to understand for everyone. I know what I should buy. Thanks for your sharing

  18. I’m new again with pastels, for the 3rd time in probably 45 years as I tend to stop for 20 years at a time. But these old sets are just beautiful and lure me back in now. My two Grumbacher sets say 00/C on one and 00/1 on the other. Does anyone know what that means? I’m wondering about softness. I guess I’d like to go as soft as possible so I can layer most easily – if that makes sense. The third set seems harder and probably was cheaper – Alphacolor by Weber Costello. Comments?

    1. Hi Betsy, Old sets are wonderful aren’t they? I think the Grumbacher numbers refer to their Catalogue numbering system eg 30 half-sticks or 20 sticks. Grumbacher pastels are lovely but on the harder side. Alphacolour pastels are inexpensive with little pigment. If you want softness, I suggest Unison (I have a set of 36 coming out sooooon!!!) or Sennelier half sticks or Mount Vision. There are also softer pastels but I think these are good pastels to transition you into soooffffft pastel world!

  19. Hi Gail,

    What a challenge – use them up? That is a struggle when the budget is in mind. But I do agree that using supplies is education and not waste.
    I am drawn to painting animals so I invested in myself and bought Unison Colour Emma Colbert Animal collection which has been a good fit for me. I must say if you can afford a set it helps with colour choices initially.
    Another set worth mentioning that is on my wishlist for the future is Unison Colour Gail Sibley paint anything set. What delicious looking bright clean colours.

    1. Ahh Melanie, you’re so sweet!
      And yes, the thought of using up supplies is, well, dreadful to consider hah hah…but at the same time, how ridiculous to save and hang on to them. It’s in the DOING that we move forward and that means, yes, using our supplies!

  20. Hi Gail, I’m very new to pastels, in fact I placed my order for my first ever pastels yesterday, so I’m now waiting for the mailman. That’s about as new as you can get! lol I chose Sennelier’s Paris set for my soft pastels and Prismacolor NuPastel Color Sticks for my hard ones. Budget was a definite concern and hopefully I chose wisely. I’ve watercolored for years and definitely agree, buy the best you can afford. After spending all that I couldn’t spend much on paper (that’s for next month) and plan on using some older watercolor paper I have which I didn’t like for watercolor and plan to pick up a pack of wet/dry at the hardware store. I can also use some of my multimedia sketchbooks. Should get me to playing anyway. I really enjoyed reading all the posts here and learned a lot! Thank you!

    1. Hi Carol Ann, a great start to your pastel journey! And yes, paper next!
      I’m glad that you are of the mind to buy the best you can afford. Smaller amounts of good quality are a much better investment than many pastels of lesser quality.
      And love that you are PLAYING – that’s peeeeerfect!
      Glad to hear the blog posts are helpful 😊

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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