Find the best soft pastels for professional and beginner artists in this brand review. There are multiple brands that make soft pastels, ranging in quality and price point.
Use this guide to find out more about the working properties of the colours, how they perform and appear on paper to find the best soft pastel for your drawing practice.
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Sennelier Soft Pastels
Attributes: Extra soft, archival (professional) quality, brilliant and bright colours, large colour range, pricier than other pastels
These extra soft pastels come in 525 shades, including a large range of mid tone and iridescent colours. They have a large chromatic range, larger than most other brands of pastel and a larger range than the Sennelier oil pastels. This means that you can opt to buy mid tone colours for clean colour gradations, rather than mixing pastels on the paper if you choose.
Most colours have excellent lightfastness and are opaque. So you can’t carry out glazing techniques that you would with their oil pastel range; Sennelier soft pastels give excellent coverage. They use less binder than other pastels and no fillers are used which means that the pigment is highly concentrated.
They are exceptionally smooth, soft and bright and are a real joy to use. The feel of them is buttery and the vibrant colours spread consistently across the surface. They are so soft that you only need a light touch to create wonderful colour marks. Use them expressively for loose, painterly effects, or create fine details with delicate marks and seamless blends. They have a tendency to be more crumbly than other brands due to their softness.
Sennelier pastels are potentially more suitable for professional artists who have more experience pastel painting. Due to the smaller quantity of binding agent used, the individual properties of each pigment shine through, with some pigments being more buttery and others being slightly more grainy and stiff.
The pigments with excellent lightfastness are of archival quality, so they can be used to make work of gallery and collectible standard. These pastels have been used by high profile artists over the last century, such as Cézanne, Monet, Modigliani and Gauguin.
Unison Soft Pastels
Attributes: Soft, archival (professional) quality, highly pigmented, use only the finest pigments, great for layering, good range of earth tones, 320 colours, more expensive than other pastels
Unison pastels are handmade in Northumberland in the UK. They are of the highest quality, made with only pure pigments and very little binder. This makes them feel incredibly smooth and luxurious to work with. They are soft in texture, but firmer than Schmincke and Sennelier.
They come in a striking range of colours, organised by their related hues, which makes for wonderfully clean colour mixing. Pastels are also grouped based on subject matter, such as their range of portrait colours, their landscape and seascape set. They also stock starter sets for those who haven’t yet bought a range of primaries and essential earth colours. Unison also make have more niche colour sets, such as jewel tones. Choosing the best set for your drawing practice is a fun process in itself!
These pastels layer excellently and quickly cover the tooth of the paper due to their softness. Because these pastels are so soft, it can be tricky working in extra fine detail or making small marks. To make detailed marks, use a harder pastel or a pastel pencil.
If you want to try Unison pastels, but don’t want to pay the prices, their sets of half sticks come at around half the price of their full sticks.
Schmincke Soft Pastels
Attributes: The softest pastel, buttery texture, archival (professional) quality, highly pigmented, 400 colours
These rich, buttery pastels are potentially the softest on the list. They are exceptional quality and would be well suited to artists who want to make expressive painterly marks on the paper.
The buttery texture is due to the high pigment content, less binder is used to create the sticks. Because these pastels are so soft, they tend to crumble and break more than medium soft pastels like Rembrandt. They require a gentle pressure to apply to the paper and they will quickly cover the tooth of the surface. Because the pigment content is so high, the colours will appear bright, vivid and almost glowing on the paper.
The huge range of colours includes a wonderful array of skin tones, earth tones, turquoise and blues, suited for all kinds of subjects.
Dissimilar to many other brands of pastels available to artists, these soft pastels contain no added fillers or additives which extend the body of the binding agent but reduce the pigment concentration.
It can take a bit of practice to master working with super soft pastels like those made by Schmincke, but it’s worth it for the incredible colours. Colours of note are their range of reds, 5 vermilion hues, warm reds such as scarlets and cool reds like rose madder.
Softer pastels like these can actually be very useful for a multilayered drawing, to use in the final layer for finishing touches. They will go on beautifully and adhere over pastels that are slightly harder in texture.
With extra soft pastels like these, make sure to use a paper with an adequate tooth like Pastelmat, as when using velour or smoother paper, the pastels can crumble off.
Terry Ludwig Soft Pastel Sets
Attributes: medium soft, velvety texture, dry, archival (professional) quality, highly pigmented, intense colours, 750 colours
These pastels have a huge colour range of 750 colours, sets can be bought from Blick and Jacksons.
Terry Ludwig soft pastels aren’t the softest on the list, they are a medium softness, softer than mount vision, but harder than Sennelier, Unison and Schmincke. Being firmer in texture has its advantages, however as they are easier to control. They feel drier than Sennelier pastels, which feel more creamy in texture. However, they still feel luxurious to use and their colours are beautiful! They make some interesting colour sets, such as their Intense Darks set and their Sunrise Sunset set. The Darks set is fantastic, with some shadowy blues, rich earth tones and deep purples.
They are square in shape and also smaller than other pastel ranges. The square shape can be useful for making broad marks and filling in backgrounds. Alternatively, use the corners for details and sharp lines. They are an excellent choice for artists who want to create finer details. They can be layered beneath softer pastels like Sennelier or Schmincke, as the Ludwig pastels won’t cover up the tooth of the paper as quickly. The fact that the pastels are on the smaller side, doesn’t matter so much considering they are cheaper, firmer and less crumbly than other brands. Plus there is a lot of colour packed into the smaller size.
A drawback of Ludwigs is that they are on the dusty side, but all pastels will create some dust. However, they don’t crumble as easily as some other pastels due to their relative firmness. This makes them a really great multi-purpose pastel that can be used for a variety of applications.
Art Spectrum Extra Soft Pastels
Attributes: medium soft, intense colours, highly pigmented
These are excellent quality artists’ soft pastels that are firmer in texture than Unison, Sennelier and Schmincke but softer than Rembrandt and Terry Ludwig.
These soft pastels are also rectangular with flat edges but are bigger than Terry Ludwigs. They are most similar in texture to Rembrandt, but slightly grittier and with a higher chroma.
The lightfast ratings of the colours range from very good to average, look at the information on the product packaging or supplier website for more information about the colour permanence.
Girault Soft Pastels
Attributes: Versatile, medium softness, dry texture, thin shape, 300 colours, professional grade, unique properties, highly pigmented
Versatile pastels with a medium firm softness, craftsman made in France. These pastels are not widely available to buy, but they can be bought directly from their website or from Jerry’s Artarama.
The Girault boutique specialises in making dry pastels that are harder than almost all pastels on this list, except from Rembrandt and Mount Vision.
These pastels are especially good for detailed work, due to their firm nature and slim shape. They have a brilliant selection of neutral colours and muted tones. The darker colours are especially rich and can be layered beautifully.
Richeson Handrolled Soft Pastels
Attributes: Rich darks, lightest tints, highly pigmented, small shape, more affordable than other professional grade pastels
Richeson Handrolled soft pastels are incredibly rich and vibrant in colour due to the high pigment load. They are slightly firmer in texture than Sennelier, Unison and Art Spectrum, but softer than Terry Ludwigs.
They manufacture 500 colours with creative sets of pastels for portraits, landscapes and nocturnes. If you’re just starting out, it could be beneficial to look at the colour wheel primary sets for a range of tones and hues.
These pastels are great for beginners who want a more luxurious pastel to use, as they are medium soft and easier to control than other soft pastels. Sets start at $40.94 for 20 pastels, which puts each pastel at around $2 each, which is really great value for such a quality material. Despite their medium softness, they still have a buttery quality about them.
Pastels are hand rolled, so the shapes can be a little irregular, wider and more rounded at the edges. For this reason, they may not be suitable for ultra sharp lines and details. However, they blend beautifully and offer fantastic coverage.
Mount Vision Soft Pastels
Attributes: more affordable than other brands, medium softness, large pastel, bright and vibrant colours, non-toxic
The Mount Vision sticks are hand rolled and contain high quality pigment mixed with a binder of chalk, marble dust talc and clay. Colours feel smooth to apply to paper, with minimum resistance.
The company is small and owned by artist Karl Kelly, who started making pastels in the early 2000s in New York. Kelly used to be a principle paint maker at Williamsburg Handmade Oils, so he transferred his pigment knowledge to pastels and makes a beautifully balanced pastel in terms of pigment to binder ratio.
These pastels are on the firmer end of the softness scale, just a little softer than Rembrandt pastels. They are also much bigger than most other brands of soft pastels, so you will get your money’s worth by buying these.
These pastels would suit a beginner or intermediate artist wanting to try out the medium, due to the value for money and medium softness which makes them easier to control than the softer pastels. Equally, a professional artist would get a lot of enjoyment from using them.
They have a brilliant set called the Chromatic Colours set, which is essentially a rainbow of hues in a box. It gives a great range of pure colours for those who want to mix bright hues on the surface.
Mount Vision avoids using any toxic pigments like cadmiums or cobalts, which is useful as when painting with pastels you are directly handling the stick.
Overall, the colours are excellent and vivid, the texture is smooth and these are incredible value considering the lower price point.
Royal Talens Rembrandt Soft Pastels
Attributes: less dust, most economical, medium softness
These are the firmest pastel on this list. This is great for artists who have not yet trained themselves to have a featherlight touch with the pastel. Rembrandt pastels are great quality and cheaper than most other soft pastels which can be great for covering large areas of the surface and using as underdrawings. They provide a large colour range of pastels that all have great lightfast ratings.
For advanced students, those who like to work on especially large pieces or for those who want a firmer pastel, Rembrandt is a great pastel to use. Or you could use them for outlining and getting compositions mapped out, due to their ability to create sharper edges.
Buy Pan Pastels
Attributes: soft pastel in a pan format, less dust, erasable, vivid colours, softer in appearance
Pan pastels have the same composition as soft pastels in terms of ingredients, but they are presented compacted in a pan format, which leads artists to use them with soft tools, rather than drawing with them directly on the paper.
Use Pan Pastels with a sponge tool and paint across the paper or panel. The effects you can create using pan pastels are incredibly soft, subtle and elegant.
The colours are concentrated with the highest quality pigments and minimal binder is used.
Which are the best soft pastels for beginners?
For artists who aren’t used to using the soft pastel medium, starting out with a budget friendly pastel that can be classified as ‘medium soft’ is a good choice. This is because the softness can be hard to control for people who aren’t used to it. A medium soft pastel like Rembrandt or Art Spectrum can give artists the best of both worlds in terms of the ability to control the pastel better, creating layers and sharper details, but also blend and make expressive marks the same as the softer pastels on this list.
Which soft pastels are best for professional artists?
The best soft pastels will be highly concentrated in pigment. Due to using a larger proportion of pigment, more vivid colours will be deposited on the paper.
Ultra soft pastels of this quality, can be preferable to professional artists who want pastels made with higher contents of pigment, but that can also be trickier to work with for complete beginners who are not used to the soft nature. These higher end ranges can crumble more easily and release more dust over the course of a painting session.
What are the working properties of soft pastel?
Painting with soft pastel is a completely unique experience, one that is different from oil pastel painting. Soft pastels are drier, more crumbly and it feels like painting with pigment. This medium lends itself to expressive and painterly techniques and movements. To learn more about the differences between different types of pastels, check our oil pastel vs soft pastels guide.
What kinds of techniques can you use with soft pastel?
Soft pastel works beautifully with techniques like blending. Smudge colours on the surface using your hand (but wear gloves!) or a molding tool. Soft pastels like Schmincke, Sennelier or Richeson blend wonderfully.
Create subtle marks and elegant colour transitions with a featherlight touch. This is necessary when working with the softest pastels like Schmincke, which require hardly any pressure to release pigment.
Terry Ludwig pastels are a great choice for artists wanting to create fine details, use the corner or edge of the pastel to layer in details and highlights.
Soft pastel drawing: Studio safety tips
Some brands of soft pastels are manufactured with toxic pigments that can cause harm to health if ingested, if they repeatedly come into contact with skin, or if inhaled. If a brand sells genuine cadmiums and cobalts, these are the pigments you should avoid to maintain a safer painting practice.
All soft pastels will create dust, it’s in their nature. To avoid dust pooling on the paper or board, work at a vertical angle. This could mean propping it up against an easel or against a wall.
Wear gloves when painting with pastel, as it prevents any potentially harmful pigments coming into contact with skin.
What supplies do you need for soft pastel painting?
A paper with ‘tooth’ like Pastelmat is necessary for soft pastel to adhere to the surface properly. When painted onto smooth paper, soft pastel can crumble off. If you want paint on panel, I recommend Pastelbord.
Use a fixative between layers to prevent smudging and blending of colours. Bear in mind that fixative dulls colours and decreases saturation. If you want to avoid using it, buy a surface with an adequate tooth like Pastelmat.
What are soft pastels made from?
Soft pastels are made from pigment and a binder which holds the pigment together, and allows artists to apply evenly dispersed colour on the paper. The binder includes white chalk and gum arabic. Some brands add other ingredients like clay and marble dust.
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