Soft Pastels Guide
Professional Quality Soft Pastels
As is the case with professional quality oil colour, acrylic colour or watercolour paints, the very finest soft pastels will have a higher pigment to binder concentration. Although this means that the pastel sticks deposit brighter, more saturated hues, it also means that the characteristics of the individual pigments will be more apparent, and the sticks are more likely to break or crumble as less is holding them together. Less experienced pastel painters will complain of pastels that accumulate more dust when used, but in fact many of the superior pastel ranges will cause dust because that is the nature of a highly pigmented soft pastel. The softest pastels are achieved using manufacturing processes that use the smallest quantities of binder, hand-rolling the sticks of pastel in such a way as to not compress the ingredients too much; this allows for both subtle and bold expressions of mark making in colour.
In our view, the highest quality professional soft pastels are made by Unison, Schmincke and Sennelier.
Unison Soft Pastels
Unison Soft Pastels were originally developed by artist John Hersey, who was keen to find a way of producing pastels that did not feel mass produced, mechanical, and lack the essential qualities of a professional standard soft pastel. The brand is world renowned, and generally thought to be the best available.
Consistency: Generally considered to be the least soft professional range, after Sennelier and Schmincke
Range: There are nearly 400 shades in the full range, with an excellent choice of different ‘themed’ sets, which are an especially good gift idea for a pastellist, as well as a good way of upgrading or trying out the very best pastels for the first time. Themed sets include a set of Turquoises, Heavenly colours, Portrait colours, Natural Earth colours, Dark Jewel colours, Landscape colours, and special artist selection sets including one selected by Heather Harmann.
Particularly good for: The natural hues available, and for that reason particularly favourable among artists who paint landscapes or botanical studies. Some artists say that the colours are less saturated than other ranges, but this means that blending and layering colour is a lot easier, and the hues are sympathetic to the colours of the world in which we inhabit.
Unison are recommended because: They are relatively easy to use without being overly-crumbly and delicate, they have the best colour range and consistently perform well. We highly recommend Unison Soft Pastels!
Sennelier Soft Pastels
Softer than Unison Soft Pastels, these pastels are so soft and crumbly they feel creamy, and the colour glides on to any surface, although they are particularly well suited to a cork grained surface that can hold the colour in place. Their consistency enables the most skilled pastellists to deposit subtle and even colour.
Consistency: Incredibly soft and crumbly; less experienced pastel painters may need to get used to how delicate they are.
Range: There are 522 shades in the range as well as an excellent selection of sets which make for a real treat for any pastel painting enthusiast.
Particularly good for: Strong saturated colour. These pastels are intensely pigmented and so despite their softness, can be used sparingly to create delicate colour blends – a small Sennelier soft pastel stick can last a surprisingly long time!
Sennelier are recommended because: They have a luxurious traditional feel to them, they are expressive, wonderful consistency, and can create the most stunning results when in the right hands!
Schmincke Soft Pastels
Schmincke Soft pastels are very similar to Sennlier pastels in their consistency. They are thought to be so soft they feel creamy, and possess the highest levels of pigment concentration.
Consistency: Very soft, crumbly and creamy in its consistency
Range: There are 400 colours in the range as well as 10 selection sets, ranging for the set of 10 for around £10 to the full set at £875! As with the other highest quality pastels available on the market, these pastels have a handmade feel about them which allows their natural characteristics to shine through and optimise the appearance of your work.
Particularly good for: Strong saturated colour; the dark shades are particularly strong and an asset to any collection of soft pastels.
Schmincke are recommended because: They have a gorgeous colour range and consistently perform well. They are made with the highest imaginable levels of care, leaving you with a genuinely impressive product. Wonderful!
Artist Grade Soft Pastels
Artist grade soft pastels are often used by professional artists as well as advanced students and some beginners, but I am referring to them as artist grade to differentiate from the highest quality pastels. Some professional painters actually prefer the qualities of the lesser pastels – a firmer pastel will be easier to control, and will be easier to use for drawing fine lines and intricate detail. The firmness of the pastel however will actually be attributed to less sensitive production methods, which compress the ingredients to such a degree as to make the sticks of colour less crumbly. It can also be attributed to a greater amount of binder in the pigment to binder ratio. Pastels that I consider to fall into this category include Rembrandt, Art Spectrum and the newly reformulated Conte Soft Pastels.
Rembrandt Soft Pastels
Consistency: A medium soft consistency that will not get eaten up as quickly as Sennelier, Schmincke or Unison soft pastels on abrasive, cork grained pastel card surfaces. The medium soft consistency also enables easy layering and blending of colour.
Range: 203 colours comprising of 44 pure colours, each with 4 tints linked to it. A good sized palette with which to get started.
Saturation: Exceptional pigment concentration that closely follows the likes of Sennelier and Schmincke soft pastels.
Particularly good for: Using as an underpainting medium, over which you could use oil colour, acrylic colour, or softer higher grade pastel colour. Also recommended for beginners who want to use a pastel that has excellent pigment concentration – the medium is very forgiving and will take rougher handling without completely falling apart in your fingers.
I was lucky enough to start pastel painting with Rembrandt pastels, and learned to use the medium-soft pastel to good effect. An excellent pastel for line work and early layering in of colour: these are my pastel of choice for starting off a painting. If you are beginning pastels, this brand is very forgiving, and will take rougher handling than those mentioned above. Not quite as large a range as my other suggestions, with only 203 sticks covering a range 44 pure colours (each with an additional four tones), but still more than enough to get you started.
Art Spectrum Soft Pastels
Consistency: Comparable with Rembrandt for its medium – softness consistency, but slightly more gritty in their feel.
Range: 154 shades of pure, brilliant and intense colour, many of which are unique to Art Spectrum and inspired by the colours found in their native Australia.
Saturation: Very highly pigmented
Particularly good for: Very fine deposits of rich and even colour.
Conte a Paris Soft Pastels
Consistency: A rich and creamy, soft, crumbly texture that trails only marginally behind the leading soft pastel ranges.
Range: A limited range of 50 colours,available in sets of 10, 20, 40 and 50.
Saturation: Highly pigmented with strong, clean colours. A tendency to crumble easily when used with pressure.
Particularly good for: Using with water, layering and blending. A highly versatile medium, the sets that they come in are a convenient and cost effective way of acquiring a good palette of colours for underpainting and quick preparatory sketches.
Student Grade Pastels
Student grade pastels are more affordable than artist or professional grade pastels and will offer a cost effective means of acquiring a good palette for experimenting with this exciting medium. Pigment saturation will be a little weaker and the consistency of the sticks will tend towards being firmer, but this is a more forgiving medium with which to work as the pastels will last for a considerably longer amount of time. The firmness is attributed to the greater amount of binder. Some use chalk in their binder which has some influence over the way that the colours appear and the general behaviour of the pastel. Student Grade pastels include the ranges by Daler Rowney, Faber Castell, Jacksons and Arch Art Manet. Perfect to buy for college or an art class.
Daler Rowney Soft Pastels
Consistency: Smooth velvet texture, on the harder end of the spectrum
Range: Almost 200 tints including a number of colours that are unique to the Daler Rowney range including Pansy Violet.
Saturation: Reasonably well pigmented, as expected for a student grade
Particularly good for: Experiments and quick studies as well as underpaintings
Faber Castell Sets of Half Stick Pastels
Consistency: Firm to withstand heavy pressure, but yet still maintaining the ability to easily deposit even colour
Range: 72 colours which all feature in the set of 72; there is also a selection set of 24 colours.
Saturation: Reasonable saturation, not the highest level as these pastels are designed to be part of the ‘Creative Studio’ range – so they are really only for getting ideas down on paper quickly and effectively, and not for exhibition standard work.
Particularly good for: Blending but not layering.
Jackson’s Soft Pastels
Consistency: Firm – will not crumble but as perfect of beginners as they are very easy to have full control over, and very easy to apply fine lines with. Some of our customers choose Jackson’s pastels over other for hair chalking, as they do not crumble so easily.
Range: The full range consists of 64 colours – the pastels are available in sets only, of 12, 24, 48 and 64.
Saturation: Reasonable saturation but again, not really designed for exhibition standard work
Particularly good for: Hair chalking or working with water to create stains. Non toxic and easy to clean.
Arch Art Manet
Consistency: Firm yet smooth and not likely to crumble. Colour does glide on. There are occasional inconsistencies in the texture of pastels for batch to batch.
Range: 120 colours available individually and 15 different sets (although some of these include firmer, drawing pastels)
Saturation: Not well saturated but good for layering colour so saturated blends can be achieved.
Particularly good for: Value for money, a very affordable way into the world of pastel painting. Good sized pastels, so even if you need to use a lot in order to achieve the colour intensity that you are looking for, there is plenty to stop you from running out too soon!
Pastels for Children/ Cheap and Cheerful Pastels
In addition to the pastels discussed above, we also offer the Reeves and Jakar ranges of pastels. These are very inexpensive and offer the cheapest way of experimenting with pastel painting. Reeves and Jakar soft pastels are ideal for children at school as well as those who just need a small set of pastels to make quick sketches or paintings with. They are water soluble and incredibly versatile. If you are not a passionate pastel painter yet you like the idea of having a quick go, these are the ones we recommend to you.
To view the Jackson's Art Supplies Pastel Painting Playlist on YouTube please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAfGtSvzeK8&list=PLi86B3jOHkDYZDFtHgV9TEFHv-s16DxuG