There are 2 main types of pastels: “Soft” and “Oil”. Oil pastels are a completely different animal. Although I have tried them, I do not use oil pastels. Most shows designated for “Pastels” do not include oil pastels. So let’s talk about the other kind.
Some people refer to pastels as chalk. They are NOT chalk, and we are highly insulted! Pastels contain the very same pigments as every other type of paint. Each type of paint — oils, acrylics, watercolors — just have a different type of binder. Pastels are the purest pigment, with just enough binder added to form them into a stick. The great thing about pastels is that you don’t need any brushes — you just use your fingers. I love that direct contact between the pastel and the surface.
Pastels come in stick form, other than the relatively new Panpastels, which (duh!) come in a pan. I have a few of those, but I don’t really use them either.
Pastel sticks come in various degrees of hardness. The hardest ones I use are Nupastels. They are a thin stick and are easy to use much like a pencil, but the side of the stick can be used also. The softest pastels are Schmincke and Great American Art Works. Somewhere in between are many others, such as Rembrandt and Girault. Pastels come in collections of various sizes and you can buy them in open stock as well. I buy most of my pastels from Dakota Art Pastels. They are very nice and they carry just about anything you could want — at a good price. They also have a helpful list of all the pastel lines rated by how soft they are.
I have a variety of brands of pastels, but my favorites are Great American and Terry Ludwig. These are both square sticks, which I really like, and they are both relatively soft. I like the square sticks because you can get a nice broad stroke on the side and a nice line with the edge. I use Nupastels for my underpaintings, and they are great for detail work (if you like a lot of detail, which I don’t.). I also use Sennelier, Unison, Diane Townsend, Girault, Roche and Rembrandt. Diane Townsend’s are interesting because they have a lot of pumice or grit in them. They give a little different stroke and feel than the others.
I have purchased my pastels both in sets and in open stock. I think I started with a small set of Rembrandts because they are readily available at local art stores and Michael’s. But anyone interested in working with pastels should buy, beg or borrow some softer pastels. They are very different from the harder ones, and you won’t get a true taste of pastel without them. I have added many colors from open stock, but I have also purchased sets from Great American, Terry Ludwig, Unison, Townsend, Girault (they have a really nice set of darks, as does Townsend).
One of my favorite activities in the world, and I think most pastelists would agree, is the Terry Ludwig booth at IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies) convention. All the colors are laid out in front of you , you get an empty box, and you go through the line and fill your box with whatever yummy colors you want. It’s called the Candy Store. Love it!