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Soft pastels not only are more powdery than hard pastels but because they contain less binder they also contain more pigment. The very best of them are formulated with an incredibly high ratio of pigment to binder to offer unmatched color richness, all while leaving less dust in their wake. Professional-grade pastels also have excellent lightfastness. While these colorful sticks can be costly, a set of reliable and beautiful ones is a worthwhile investment, especially if you sell your work. Unlike student-grade pastels, these higher-end ones are often available by the piece, so you can gradually fill your arsenal with different brands if you find yourself drawn to certain colors by different makers. Here are five of our favorites.
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Rembrandt Soft Pastels
Rembrandt’s pastels lean soft but are versatile enough to take you through an artwork from start to finish. In other words, these are great go-to pastels: You can use them for underlayers, then gradually build solid coats or glazes of color while blending and scumbling with ease. Still, they’re sturdy enough to use for crisp, detailed strokes, and they aren’t as prone to breaking as softer brands like Schmincke (more on that below). Each stick is made of pure pigments mixed with high-quality kaolin clay, which gives the paste a velvet consistency. Rembrandt’s line is also excellent in its color offerings, with 42 pure colors available in 40 shades and 121 tints—and they’re sold in half-sticks, too, so you can buy more shades while spending less. In addition to individual sticks, you can purchase thoughtfully grouped sets of similar color values, from reds to violets to greens.
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Schmincke Soft Pastels
Schmincke likely makes the softest pastels on the market—and the most fragile—but with individual sticks costing more than $5, they’re too pricey to be our top pick. Combining strong saturation with an almost fluffy, smooth consistency, these pastels excel when used for multilayered techniques, allowing different value ranges to come through even on dark papers. They are also particularly well suited for creating highlights. Artists can enjoy an impressive range of 400 colors—specifically, 75 pure colors in five grades as well as dozens of neutrals, darks, and whites. Those who want to treat themselves can purchase large assortments of 60 colors and up that come display-ready in gorgeous maple boxes.
PanPastel Ultra Soft Artists’ Painting Pastels
This product offers a fun and different way to use and experiment with pastels. Soft pastels are compressed into little disks rather than sticks, which means they can be used almost like paints. You can apply them with special applicators or sponges to cover large areas in uniform color blocks, cutting down on time compared with traditional coloring, or use the edges and pointed tips of these tools to create fine details. The pan format also reduces the need for binders and fillers, so these pastels are less dusty than their handheld counterparts while still being perfectly compatible with traditional pastels.
TOP OF THE LINE
Unison Colour Handmade Pastel Sets
Developed for artists by an artist, Unison’s pastels are the absolute best you can get, although be warned that they will set you back a bit. They come from Northumberland, England, where the late John Hersey spent decades refining a recipe for very soft pastels with impressive consistency. Each is rolled lightly by hand and cut; the process eliminates extrusion by machine, which can compress pastel pastes to yield inconsistent textures within individual sticks. Hersey paid acute attention to the colors of nature and the effects of light and shadow, so colors are made by mixing related hues rather than adding black or white. The result: some of the best pastels you’ll find for landscape drawing with painterly effects. Unison offers nearly 400 colors, sold only in sets of palettes such as “natural earth,” “landscape,” and “midnight” colors.
Richeson Handmade Soft Pastels and Sets
If you find that very soft pastels break too easily in your hand, consider going with a medium-soft option like Richeson’s, which are sturdier than others on this list but are still pigment heavy. They are hand-rolled into relatively large chunks—in fact, with a 5/8-inch diameter, these are the thickest sticks on our list. This makes them especially great for covering large expanses in little time and for making big, bold strokes. Richeson’s color range is smaller than that of other brands in its class, offering a total of 120 colors.