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Used since the Renaissance, pastels are colors in stick form made from pigments mixed with a binder, usually gum Arabic or chalk (chemical binders like methyl cellulose were developed in the 20th century). Derived from the Latin for “paste,” the name pastel was coined in France, where the medium became fashionable for portraiture during the 18th century. Pastels range from hard to soft, depending on the amount of binder (the more, the harder). Hard pastels are dust-free and best for drawing outlines or details; as with all pastels except those with oil-based binders, they require fixative to prevent smudging. If you’re looking for a pastel or color stick in the firm category, check out our list of recommendations below.
1. Prismacolor Premier NuPastel Firm Pastel Color Sticks
This Prismacolor product combines the best characteristics of hard and soft pastels. It’s stronger than regular pastels with less breakage and dust, meaning cleanup is easy. You can sharpen the sticks, making them ideal for illustration and fine line work, yet they’re composed of rich, creamy pigments that blend nicely. You can also wet the sticks with a brush dipped in water or grind them to mix with matte medium for fluid effects.
2. Conté à Paris Carré Crayons Set
If there’s one company whose name is practically synonymous with pastels, it’s Conté à Paris, started in 1795 by Nicolas Jacques Conté. Credited with inventing modern graphite lead pencils, Conté also perfected hard pastels, making this brand the go-to choice for artists doing sketches or underdrawings for paintings. That tradition of quality continues today with these carré (“square”) crayons, so named for their four-sided cross-section. Use the edge of a stick for accurate, energetic strokes, and the flat side for shading. This set comes with 12 of Conté’s 70 vibrant hues, each made with the finest pigments.
3. General Pencil Multi Pastel Sticks
In business since 1889, General Pencil is a family-owned company in Jersey City, New Jersey, that mostly manufactures—you guessed it—pencils, including the pastel variety. The handcrafted hard pastels in this set of 12 come in a stick form made of compressed chalk. Their extra-smooth texture is oil free, blendable, and rich with pigment. If you don’t need lots of colors, the selection here is varied enough to get the job done.
4. Mungyo Gallery Semi-Hard Pastels
As their name suggests, Mungyo Semi-Hard Pastels hit a sweet spot: hard enough to draw details, yet soft enough for blending and covering large areas easily. And they do it with far less dust than regular soft pastels. Deeply pigmented, these pastels use the finest kaolin clay, which is traditionally reserved for delicate porcelains, as a binder. This set of 24 assorted colors come in a tray lined with foam to prevent breakage.
5. Cretacolor Pastel Carré Set
The only Austrian manufacturer of art supplies, Cretacolor was founded in 1863 as the Zeus graphite pencil factory, a name it bore until it was bought out in 1996 by business magnate Hans Wolfgang Hromatka, a noted collector of old pencils. These pastel sticks have some of the same characteristics as Prismacolor NuPastels but take them up a notch with a firmer consistency for less breakage and softer strokes, plus a higher level of pigmentation for brighter colors that can mix easily with water; their square shape produces clean lines and excellent coverage for shading. This set of 72 colors includes brown and gray chalks in 12 shades that can be combined with the hard pastels for special color effects. Easy to use, the set comes in a tin box perfect for traveling.