Artists of all skill levels use soft pastels to create works of art that have a painterly quality—but without the mess of paint. Unlike watercolor paints or acrylic paints, which require brushes, solvents, and cleanup every time you use them, soft pastels have a low barrier to entry. All you need to make art is a set of the best soft pastels and a surface to work on. Painting with pastels is as spontaneous as drawing in a sketchbook.
Soft pastels are the most popular type of pastel because they produce rich color. They’re made from pure pigment in a gum or resin binder that gives soft pastels a buttery texture, which lends itself to painterly effects. Molded into a stick form for controlled application, artists can use soft pastels in a variety of techniques to create striking works of art.
Read on to learn more about pastels and get the top picks for the best soft pastels in a range of categories.
- BEST OVERALL: Mungyo Soft Pastel 64 Color Set Square Chalk
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Faber-Castell FC128224 Creative Studio Soft Pastel
- BEST FOR STUDENTS: HASHI Non Toxic Soft Pastels Set (64 Colors)
- BEST FOR PROFESSIONALS: Honsell Gallery Artists 4400030 Handmade Soft Pastels
- BEST FOR SMALL DETAILS: Faber-Castell FC128272 Creative Studio Soft Pastel
- BEST FOR KIDS: Sargent Art 22-4124 Colored Square Chalk Pastels
- ALSO CONSIDER: Colour Block 100pc Soft Pastel Art Set
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Soft Pastels
Here’s what to keep in mind when shopping for soft pastels.
There are two grades of soft pastels: professional grade and student grade. The main difference between the two types is the quality and amount of pigment in the pastel.
Professional-grade pastels have as much pigment as possible. With more pigment and less filler, these sticks cost more but they produce incredibly intense color on the page. Pro-grade pastels have higher color permanence, so art made with them doesn’t fade over time (as long as it’s protected by glass and a fixative spray).
Student-grade pastels have less pigment and more filler and binder than pro-grade pastels. They usually contain cheaper pigments that aren’t as intense, making them more affordable. Student-grade soft pastels are harder, so they don’t crumble as easily as artist-quality pastels. Artwork made with student-grade pastels is more likely to fade over time because cheaper pigments have less color permanence.
Soft pastels come in a wide range of hues, and some manufacturers sell sets with up to 500 colors. While this may be an overwhelming number of color choices, the benefit of buying soft pastels in a set is getting a wide spectrum of hues. For beginners, buying a small set of pastels in basic colors is a good option. As their skills improve, they can buy individual pastel sticks in specific hues to augment the set.
Some pigments are more expensive, either because they’re rare or expensive to produce. Student-quality colors may use stand-in pigments to imitate the color of more expensive natural pigments. The telltale sign of a cheaper pigment in student-quality pastels is the word “hue” following the pigment’s name.
Some pigments used in pastels are toxic because they contain heavy metals. Before worrying, though, know that most pastel pigment is nontoxic, and pigments that are toxic are used in a small, safe amount. Many soft pastels have an Approved Product (AP) label certifying the product as safe based on a toxicological evaluation.
All soft pastels produce fine-particle dust when in use. If inhaled, the dust can potentially trigger a health issue. Work in a well-ventilated area, or wear a respirator mask. Hand-washing is essential after using pastels, to remove residue.
There are different sizes and shapes for soft pastels. In general, pastels are small enough to fit in one’s fingertips for precise control. Each size of pastel offers a variety of lines and color densities:
- Whole sticks, or full-size pastels, are about 2.5 inches long. Whole sticks are versatile and come in cylindrical and rectangular shapes. Their sides and edges can be used for different techniques. For example, the edges can be used for drawing lines and the wider sides for filling in larger areas and blending.
- Half sticks are approximately 1.25 inches long. Some artists break their whole stick pastels into smaller, workable pieces to produce finer details, broad marks, and more.
- Thick sticks have a wider circumference, making them a helpful tool for creating large sweeping marks, thick lines, and smudges.
Our Top Picks
With the above shopping considerations in mind, here are some of the top picks for soft pastels in a range of categories.
Nontoxic and fade-resistant, these mini pastels are about an inch long, small enough to maneuver for fine detail or to turn on their side for shading in a broad area. This set has 64 vibrant hues, including artist staples like cadmium red, cobalt blue, and burnt umber. Artists can handle skin tones in a portrait or the earthy hues of a landscape.
These pastels are harder than some other brands, and they can withstand pressure without breaking. Priced for beginners, they deliver a good amount of quality at an affordable price for those who are learning the medium.
For those new to pastels, a small set of mid-grade sticks provides a better introduction to the soft pastel medium than a large set of low-quality sticks. Faber-Castell’s FC128224 set is money well spent, delivering 24 vibrant, fade-resistant colors at an entry-level price. Soft but not too soft, these pastels can be blended into additional colors.
These rectangular half sticks are about 1-¾ inches long, so they’re easy to hold and offer a shape conducive to many pastel techniques. The small size of this kit makes it a good choice for traveling artists or plein air painters who need a portable set of all-purpose colors.
HASHI’s soft pastel set is billed as being for professionals but may actually be better suited to those learning the medium. Fade-resistant and nontoxic, this 64-piece set gives beginners the hues and features they need to experiment. Each stick is an inch long, so it’s like getting a sampler of colors.
The pastels’ square shape allows artists to draw fine lines with the edges or cover broad areas by turning the pastel on its side. The short length makes it easy to do delicate details. Hashi pastels have a smooth consistency and vibrant colors, and they deliver a lot of value for the price.
Honsell Gallery’s 100-piece pastel set delivers top quality for experienced artists. Each stick is made by hand and has a buttery texture that glides across paper with ease. The artist-quality pigments are vibrant and fade-resistant, featuring staples like cobalt blue, viridian, phthalo green, and vermillion. The colors can be blended to create additional hues.
The 2-inch-long, cylinder-shaped sticks are a bit thicker and heavier than other pastels, so they stand up to heavy use. Their consistency is soft enough for dusting; minimal scratching loosens the chalk for brush applications when needed. Honsell also offers a 60-piece set and a 30-piece set in hues specific to portraits.
Faber-Castell’s 72-color pack of pastels is a good choice for both hobbyists and students. The set has a wide range of hues, good for creating portraits or landscapes. The half-stick pastels fit in the hand and deposit a smooth flow of color onto the page. They’re equal parts vibrant and velvety. They’re easy to mix and blend and are suited to different types of paper.
The sticks are rectangular-shaped, so artists can use the square edges to sketch or create fine details. Turn the stick on its flat side to shade larger areas. They’re certified nontoxic by the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI).
Sargent’s set of chalk pastels includes 24 vibrant colors and packs a lot of quality at a low price. Their nontoxic composition makes them safe for kids, and their smooth, dry texture makes it easy for beginners to control the marks they make and blend colors. The set has primary and secondary colors and includes artist staples like cobalt blue, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, ochre, and carmine.
They’re 2.5 inches long, big enough to be handled by little hands that might not be dexterous enough for mini sticks. They’re also harder and more durable than many other pastels, so they won’t break as easily. Each set comes in a lift-lid box for easy storage and access.
Creatives who want a big, professional-grade set of pastels with a lot of color options should check out Colour Block’s 100-piece pastel set. There’s a range of colors from viridian to vermilion, meaning the user gets the right colors out of the box without having to blend them. These rich pigment sticks are housed in a luxurious wooden case that prevents breakage and keeps them organized.
Made of nontoxic materials pressed into the standard 2.5-inch length, these rectangular pastels can create sharp details, bold lines, and broad coverage. The quality and color selection make this set a bit more expensive than others, but it’s for experienced artists wanting to elevate the tools of their craft.
FAQs About Soft Pastels
After buying new pastels, it’s time to make art. Here’s what’s important to know to get the most out of these new art supplies.
Q. Are soft pastels the same as chalk pastels?
Not exactly. Even though some soft pastels are labeled as chalk pastels due to their texture, soft pastels are better quality than true chalk pastels. Chalk pastels are made with cheap pigments and temporary binders, and they’re intended for uses like writing the menu on a chalkboard in a restaurant, not making art. Soft pastels feel like chalk, but they’re held together with a gum binder and richer pigment, so they can be used to make art that’s meant to last.
Q. What are soft pastels used for?
Soft pastels are a versatile medium for making art that’s a cross between drawing and painting. The pastels are held in the hand like a pencil, enabling color manipulation in a manner similar to what artists can do with paint. Think of soft pastels as a paint stick, providing the user a range of techniques to make marks on paper that give depth, vibrancy, and detail to art.
Q. How do I clean soft pastels?
Because pastels are handheld, they get smudges of other colors on them. To clean them, put pastels in a plastic container that’s half-full of a light abrasive, like dry rice. Place a lid on the container and shake it for a few seconds. The rice gently scrubs off the mixed color on the pastel’s surface. Some artists use a paper towel to wipe off the sides of the pastel.