Soft pastels can be incredibly satisfying to work with. Containing less binder than hard pastels, they typically feel buttery and lay down bright, pigment-rich color. Still, there’s a good range of firmness within the “soft” category: some sticks have a bit of firmness, while others can seem almost ready to melt in the hand. As our picks below show, there’s also a varied price range. We’ve done the research to help you find the best set for your needs and budget.
1. Mungyo Artists’ Handmade Soft Pastels
These artist-grade pastels provide the best quality at a price that, while high, is not nearly as expensive as the gold standard, Sennelier (more on those later). Each is hand-rolled into elegant, rounded cylinders that feel more organic than a rectangular pastel. Made of kaolin clay and finely ground pigments, they showcase excellent consistency and highly intense colors, and they lay down smoothly without crumbling or leaving dust. Marks blend seamlessly and layer beautifully so you can achieve all the subtleties you desire. This set of 30 offers a range of colors suitable for any subject.
2. Faber-Castell Creative Studio Soft Pastels
These pastels are small but still comfortable in the average adult hand. Because of their size and packaging, they are a perfect pick for outdoor drawing. Each stick has its own separate slot, so the pastels won’t roll around while you’re traveling; the entire box is also incredibly lightweight. The rectangular sticks feature sharp edges so you can achieve crisp lines, and the colors are vibrant. Faber-Castell’s pastels are a smidgen firmer than our top pick, so expect some dust as you work, but it is very easy to achieve even coloring. This set comes with 24 mini pastels in a useful colors for landscape sketches.
3. 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 crumbly side and don’t exhibit the same color strength as a top contender like Mungyo’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, but their weight also allows you to be loose in your gestures. We like that Alphacolor doesn’t just offer dozens of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors but also sells specially grouped sets of earth tones, fluorescents, and hi-fi grays. This 24-piece set is a great basic option.
4. Sennelier Extra Soft Pastels
Easily the creamiest and softest on our list, Sennelier’s pastels will just glide across your paper. The cylindrical sticks have an incredible pigment load and present rich colors that look especially beautiful as top layers or highlights. Lines are easy to blend and smooth out completely, but they are quite smeary, so these sticks might present a learning curve for some artists. The biggest downside to Sennelier’s product is the eyewatering price, which may leave you feeling like you have to use these pastels sparingly. This set of 20 half sticks is a true investment.
5. SoHo Urban Artist Soft Pastels
Like Alphacolor’s pastels, these fall on the firmer side of soft pastels. Still, we’d call them buttery and blendable, and they lay down a lot of pigment in one swipe. What makes them stand out from the competition is their huge color assortment. Whereas many brands offer up to 72 or 100 colors, you can purchase a box of 120 colors from SoHo Urban Artist without breaking the bank. The colors are super vivid, and you get many hues with noticeable variation.