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Best Overall: Unison Soft Pastels at Amazon
"With almost 400 different pastels, sold individually or as color-coordinated sets (as well as portrait and landscape sets) you can add colors as you need them."
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Schmincke Soft Artists' Pastels at Amazon
"With the range now at 400 different sticks, there is an ample choice for the pastel painter."
Best Variety: Sennelier Pastels at Amazon
"Sennelier provides the widest range of tones for their colors, which is ideal for those artists who hate blending to create intermediate shades."
Best Medium-Soft: Rembrandt Soft Pastels at Amazon
"If you are beginning pastels, this brand is very forgiving, and will take rougher handling than those mentioned above."
Best Back-Up: Daler-Rowney Soft Pastels at Amazon
"Daler Rowney consider themselves to be 'the world masters in the making of artists' pastels."
Best for Travel: Conté a Paris Soft Pastels at Amazon
"This small plastic box, barely half-an-inch thick, is a perfect traveling set if you are going anywhere by plane."
Best Overall: Unison Soft Pastels
John Hersey's handmade Unison pastels are as close to perfection as you are going to get. With almost 400 different pastels, sold individually or as color-coordinated sets (as well as portrait and landscape sets) you can add colors as you need them. My only problem with Unison is the lack of pigment information, but since the selection of pigments is what makes these so good (along with minimal binder) it is only a minor problem. Just be warned, if you make the move to Unison pastels, nothing else is ever going to feel as good, and you will have to deal with the urgent desire to replace your entire pastel collection.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Schmincke Soft Artists' Pastels
Schmincke make the most beautifully soft pastels available: with an almost buttery texture they glide onto the surface of the paper, even over already heavily worked areas. With the range now at 400 different sticks, there is an ample choice for the pastel painter. Schmincke darks (which I obtained as set of 15) are a must when you start to expand your collection, nothing else works quite as well for adding those final flourishes to a painting as a Schmincke pastel.
Best Variety: Sennelier Pastels
A medium soft pastel which comes in a delicious range of 525 tones/colors – enough to please even the most particular pastel painter. Sennelier provides the widest range of tones (up to eight in some cases) for their colors, which is ideal for those artists who hate blending to create intermediate shades. And if you want to create some special effects there is a great range of metallic and iridescent colors. Available as full-length or half-length pastels.
Best Medium-Soft: Rembrandt Soft Pastels
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 color: 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 colors (each with an additional four tones), but still more than enough to get you started.
Best Back-Up: Daler-Rowney Soft Pastels
Whilst Daler Rowney has one of the smallest range of pastels for the alternatives listed here, just trailing Rembrandt with around 190 tints, and were traditionally quite tiny in size (1/4 inch diameter), they have reintroduced the range at a more standard pastel size (the old tiny ones used to be great for a traveling set). Daler Rowney consider themselves to be "the world masters in the making of artists' pastels", and whilst I wouldn't go that far, they are a good back up pastel and have a few quirky colors you may not find elsewhere (lizard green and pansy violet come to mind).
Best for Travel: Conté a Paris Soft Pastels
I once bought a box of 48 assorted Conté soft pastels, each the same shape and size as the old Daler Rowneys. Whilst not my favorite pastels to use, and not quite the same quality as the others listed here, this small plastic box, barely half-an-inch thick, is a perfect traveling set if you are going anywhere by plane. The range of colors was perfect for landscape (actually seascape in Venice) pastel painting, and the slightly harder pastel was forgiving and perfect for smaller sketches to be developed later in the studio. (Think of Conté pastel pencils remade as a stick.)
Additional: Other Pastel Brands
There are a number of other brands of artist quality pastel available: Art Spectrum, (which are on my 'to-try' list), Diane Townsend (which have a nice feel, but I can't get used to the shape), as well as Terry Ludwig, Great American, and Mount Vision. The bottom line is try out those artist quality pastels you can obtain easily (replacing a favorite color will otherwise be impossible) and remember you will ultimately be using a range of pastels with different softness, may require a range of tones, and you may want a particular color to match something in nature.