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Buttery and vibrant, soft pastels are a sheer delight to draw with. But these colorful sticks can be pricey. If you’re new to pastels and unsure where to start, uncertain if you’ll like the medium, or on a budget—or perhaps all of the above—try a student-grade product. These pastels are made with more filler and less-expensive pigments, tend to produce more dust, and are not as lightfast, but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce spectacular works with them. Note that unlike professional-grade pastels, these are sold in sets and aren’t available individually.
Faber-Castell Goldfaber Studio Soft Pastel Sets
For a relatively low-cost set of pastels, Faber-Castell’s are formulated with an impressively small amount of filler and chalk. These sticks have strong pigmentation that is subtle rather than blatant, lay down smoothly, and blend effortlessly. The sticks are soft enough to build multiple layers through scumbling but have firm, 90-degree edges that can be used to make hard and fine marks. They’re also not annoyingly dusty. The Goldfaber line is available in assortments of 24, 48, and 72 hues, with each set offering a satisfying variety of color values.
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Lyra Polycrayons Soft Pastel Sets
This German brand’s pastels have great working characteristics when applied directly, but the rectangular sticks truly excel when used in tandem with a wet brush. Pigments mix thoroughly with water rather than floating on top, and colors don’t get muddied or lose their vibrancy. This wet technique allows you to cover larger areas relatively quickly or create watercolor effects. Used dry, these vibrant pastels move smoothly over paper and show excellent adhesion between layers. They are available in sets of 12 or 24.
Blick Studio Pastel Sets
Blick’s pastels may be the least expensive set on this list, but they are a fierce competitor in terms of performance. These pastels exhibit impressive blendability, color intensity, and consistency of texture. Semisoft, with enough integrity to be used to color sidewalks, they are an excellent starter option that helps beginners get a good understanding of and feel for the medium’s unique nature. They’re an especially smart choice for classrooms or group settings, as you can purchase a bulk pack of 144 assorted colors. Since these are intended for learning, sets are also available in palettes like earth tones and gray tones and in colors intended for landscapes or portraiture.
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Conté Soft Pastel Sets
Shaped like chalk pieces, with rounded sides and defined bases, these soft-medium pastels have a 10-millimeter diameter and are the thickest on our list. Some artists might find them a little more comfortable than rectangular sticks to grip and control, especially when gesturing with speed and spontaneity. Manufactured with artist-grade pigments, Conté’s pastels leave strong and clean marks, and the creamy texture makes smooth blending a breeze. The brand offers a decent range of 50 colors, available in sets of 10 sticks and up.
Alphacolor Soft Pastels
Alphacolor’s pastels seem to have the highest ratio of chalk to pigment in their class. These sticks are certainly on the crumblier side and don’t exhibit the same color strength as a top contender like Goldfaber’s. But they’re still surprisingly soft, lay down smoothly, and are pretty inexpensive. The rectangular shape of each stick also gives you a harder edge to produce nice, fine lines. We like that Alphacolor doesn’t just offer dozens of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors but also specially grouped sets of earth tones, fluorescents, and hi-fi grays. If you want a bulk set of whites for a low price, it offers that, too.
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