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What Pastels Should I Buy?

What pastels should I buy? This is probably the most common question I get from those who are just starting out in soft pastels. And it’s often followed by: I’m so confused! 

It’s a simple question, right?

But, the answer isn’t so simple.

If you put this question of what pastels should I buy out to different people (for example in a Facebook group like HowToPastel), you’ll inevitably get back a variety of recommendations. You’re bound to get similar and conflicting answers which may just cause more confusion!

If that happens, I suggest asking the responders WHY they’ve recommended the brands they have. Knowing this will help you make your choice. 

  • Is it because of the price? 
  • Is it because of the colour range? 
  • Is it because of the softness? 
  • Is it because of the size? 
  • Is it because of the consistency? 
  • Is it because of the range of darks? 
  • Is it because of the easy availability? 
  • Is it because you can buy sticks individually? 

And which of these characteristics are important to you as a beginner?

Price for sure. You may not want to spend hundreds of dollars before discovering if this is your medium. 

And, until you get used to using pastels, ultra-softness may not be a quality you’ll be after. In fact, I suggest you avoid those brands known for their buttery pastels, brands like Schmincke and Great American.

My suggestion is to start with a small starter set. (I wrote a blog that recommends three starter sets.) The idea is to make sure you get started!

starting line!

Begin with one brand, for example, Unison Colour. Try out the pastels in the set. Get to know them. See what you can do with them. A caveat is that the surface you use can influence your experience with using soft pastels. A great idea is to get a sample pack like that offered by Jacksons and Dakota Art Pastels and try out different papers as you try out your pastels.

Once you’ve experimented with one brand, feel free to explore another. Build up your knowledge about how certain pastels feel and work.

From there, you’ll figure out what colours and values are missing. For instance, you may have a lovely dark blue but no middle value or light blue. Some starter sets are full of browns and greyed colours. I’m a believer in buying intense colours as you can always mute them if necessary. (My set of Unison Colour are designed this way.)

What pastels should I buy? Unison Colour Gail Sibley set of soft pastels
Unison Colour pastels – the Gail Sibley set

We all fall in love with certain brands and colours and you need to figure out what works for you. Just because I love x-brand and I’m not too keen about y-brand doesn’t mean that x will work for you. Indeed, y may be the brand you fall in love with because it suits your needs. That’s why it’s important to experiment! And I would say this to any pastellist no matter where they are on their journey.

Some other thoughts:

  • When starting out in pastels (and you haven’t yet made the commitment to the medium), look for soft pastels (good quality, always good quality!) on eBay and other used seller lists. Also, check with local Pastel Societies as often a member may be downsizing their collection. Ask a friend who’s a pastellist if they have a few unwanted colours or even some end pieces that you can try out. If they want to encourage you to join the rest of us passionate users, they will happily give you a few to try!
  • Taking a couple of courses or workshops will help you find your way. For example, my online self-study course Pastels 101 will teach you everything you need to get started!
  • Don’t hoard your stash! If you’re doing this because they were expensive then not using them is costing you more than using them! Think about that! If you’re hoarding because you just haven’t got around to using them (yup – that’s me! 🙋‍♀️), then set aside time to try them out. What good are they doing sitting around in a drawer? Give them a chance to star in your show! Offer them an audition. 
  • Buy the best you possibly can. It’s better to get a few high-quality sticks than a large number of underachievers. Using cheap soft pastels to get to know the medium is like trying out a child’s toy piano to see if you’re going to like playing the piano! 
  • Make sure you list pastels. I’ve been and bought the same colours (which is fine if you want a refill, not so fine if you’d like some new colours!)
  • Are you a more advanced user of soft pastels? You also may be asking, “What pastels should I buy?” I’d suggest picking up some different pastels for experimentation. Getting out of your comfort zone is always a good idea! Sometimes we can get stuck in a rut and trying a new brand of pastel may be just what we need to re-excite us in our art-making process.
  • On the other hand, are you asking the question because you have the itch to buy more pastels? Do you really need more? If the answer is yes (and of course it’s yes! that’s why we call it an addiction lol), you may want to have a look at this article I wrote for Pastel Today about building your collection.

I know if you’re a beginner, you may wish I’d just given you an easy answer: You should buy this brand and this set. But as I explained above, the answer to your question “What pastels should I buy?” isn’t black and white. Commit and start with one brand and then step by step, build from there.

Of course, if pushed, I’d recommend my Unison Colour set lol! But, that’s on the larger side and if you’re brand new to soft pastels, you may want to start with something smaller ie less expensive.

Getting started in something that’s new to you is always a BIG step and getting the right materials feels like it’s crucial. And, for sure, it’s important. But most important is getting over the overwhelm and just diving in! Make a choice and test and grow from there.

Go ahead and leave a comment or question below. I look forward to your thoughts!

Until next time!


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4 thoughts on “What Pastels Should I Buy?”

  1. Try to purchase half stick sets in a few brands. Unisons. Sennelier. Rembrandt. These just a few no half stick sets. Blue Earth. Terry Ludwig Get to feel them. How they work for what you want to do. Only then did I get Unisons and I have your sets too! Unisons are my fav but different brands have different colours so add a few singles in at first also. It took me about a year to finally choose a brand and I bought a set once in a while til I now have over 500 unisons

  2. I started with one small box of Sennelier that was specifically for seascapes. Once I was happy with using them I started adding the small sets of Unisons in other colours, like the box of darks and the landscape set depending on what I was inspired to paint at the time. The urge to paint a particular scene came first to me.

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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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