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When it comes to pastels, there are a lot of options: First, you have to consider if you want to use oil, chalk, or pencil pastels. Then there’s the question of what types of colors you’d prefer, along with how many you want in your kit, and so on,—not to mention the eternal question of your budget.
Read on for the best options for a number of categories and price points.
Best Oil: Sennelier Oil Pastel Set - Universal Colors, Set of 48
Sennelier is one of the standout brands when it comes to pastels—after all, these oil pastels are descendants of the set originally created for Pablo Picasso (and have also been used by artists like Gaugin, Monet, and Kandinsky).
There’s a reason they’re so beloved by artists: These pastels have powerful pigmentation and go on surfaces smoothly. They’re great for blending, and their soft texture means they’re unlikely to crumble.
While these high-quality pastels can be used on their own (and blended and layered to your needs), they can also be used with other mediums, such as oils or watercolors. They’re suitable for use on wood, paper, canvas, and metal, according to the manufacturer.
Best Chalk: Prismacolor NuPastel Artists Pastels, Assorted Colors, Pack of 12
If you’re looking for bright, vibrant colors, the Prismacolor chalk pastels are an ideal option. What people tend to appreciate about them is their texture: stronger than many other soft pastels, you won’t find yourself dealing with a dry, crumbly mess.
Each stick measures just over three inches, and these pastels can be used wet or dry. They can be sharpened, making them ideal for detail work (or just use the edges for shading). These pastels are easy enough for beginners to use but are a professional quality that’s suitable for more experienced artists as well. That is, these chalks are appropriate if you’re coloring in an adult coloring book, but also ideal for crafting original works.
Best for Beginners: Rembrandt® Pastel 30 Color Set
Rembrandt is another marquis name when it comes to pastels. This set of high-quality pastels comes with 30 tantalizing colors, which will draw in new and experienced artists alike.
While these aren’t the cheapest of options, the price is reasonable enough, particularly considering the high quality of the pastels. This set is ideal for blending.
Wrappers on the pastels will protect your hands, and molded foam inserts within the box will keep the pastels from rattling around—that’s convenient if you’re bringing them to class or taking them outside to do work.
Best for Kids: Pentel Oil Pastel Set With Carrying Case
This Pentel set of 50 pastels is extremely budget-friendly but has a grown-up feel to it. These acid-free pastels are a big step up from chalk pastels or simple crayons—although they do bear some resemblance to both. They blend easily and are smooth to apply, making them ideal for artists of any age (including kids). The Pentel oil pastels offering more vivid hues than chalks, and a creamier, more luscious texture than crayons. Plus, they come with a carrying case that will help ensure that the pastels don’t wind up scattered throughout your home.
Best Pencils: Stabilo Carbothello Pastel Pencil, 60-Color Set
If you prefer using pencil pastels, consider this 60-color set from Stabilo. Each of the highly pigmented colors can be used wet or dry and smudged to your liking using your fingers, a Q-tip, or pastel blender. They’re ideal for detail drawing as well as layering and have the added bonus of limiting smears on your hands.
Best for Portraits: PanPastel 30203 Ultra Soft Artist Pastel 20 Color Set
This set of 20 pastels comes with cake-like pans, which can then be applied in a paint-like fashion. The colors in this set are designed for making portraits, with a wide range of hues. They’re easy to work with, and because they're mixable, they can provide a wide palette of options, fit for many skin tones.
You’ll find that the pastels are quite soft and creamy, which makes for excellent blending. These highly pigmented colors can be used on their own, but also mix well with colored pencils, inks, other types of pastels, and other mediums. The set comes with tools for using the pans, including special knives, mini applicators, a selection of larger sponges, and storage containers.
Best Black: Quartet Alphacolor Soft Pastels, Charcoal
For black-and-white studies, you might want to work solely with black pastels. This set from Quartet can be used on paper, cloth, or ceramics, according to the manufacturer. They’re soft, smooth, and blend well, so you can get the tones you want (from pale to deep black). You’ll find them dense and highly versatile.
Best Large Set: Sennelier Soft Pastel Set - Set of 50, Assorted Colors, Wood Box
If you're looking for a larger set, you’ll want an option from a trusted brand like Sennelier. This set offers 50 vibrant colors of soft pastels, which have a creamy, beautiful texture that’s ideal for blending. Everything's stored in an attractive wooden box, which is lined with foam to ensure that the pastels stay intact.
Sennelier also offers sets of half-and full-sticks in light, medium, and dark tones (as well as sets focused on creating landscapes, portraits, or florals).