I should begin by clarifying that in this particular blog i will discuss only professional “dry” pastels (not oil pastels, not student-grade pastels).
Ever since i started the path of pastels more than 10 years ago, i have been very serious about having an in depth knowledge of “all things pastel-related”, and if there is one thing to which i have dedicated significant time (and money!) is my pastels.
When i started painting i realized there was a fair number of professional-quality pastel brands out there in the market (not in Panama, though, but in art stores in countries like the U.S.) I remember that i bought two or three brands first to try out, and i could see that each manufacturer produced a pastel stick with particular characteristics. The curiosity to know what other textures were out there made me want to try more brands, and one day i learned that some art stores offered sampler packs of pastel sticks, precisely to try out different brands.
After trying many brands, i realized that there is no such thing as “the best brand” or “the brand that everyone is using”… Like many other things in the world of art, what pastel brand to use is a matter of strict personal preference, and in my case, it just so happened that I fell in love with various brands to the point that I’ve always worked with a palette of mixed brands in my studio.
Until this day, i can say that i have used and know very well the textures and possibilities of all these brands: Sennelier, Unison, Terry Ludwig, Mount Vision, Gallery, Great American Artworks, Holbein, Caran D’Ache, Blockx, Jack Richeson, Diane Townsend, Schmincke, Blick, Faber-Castell, Rembrandt, Daler Rowney, Art Spectrum, Girault, and the ultra costly french pastels, Henri Roche (they say it’s the same pastels that Degas used). Each Roche stick costs US$20.00 delivered in Panama, compared to US$5.00, which is the cost of the most expensive pastel stick in the other brand group. You can tell Roche’s are very high quality pastels just by making a mark on paper with one of them, but the other brands hold their own quite well too.
Of all the above mentioned brands, the ones that use most in my studio are Sennelier (french), Unison (english), Schmincke (german) and Great American (american). And I have been buying lately many reds from Mount Vision, they are gorgeous. In Mount Vision the relation size-price of the pastel stick is excellent, and they have become popular among many pastel artists for it.
What differentiates pastel sticks when you compare brands to one another?
First: texture. Some dry pastels may feel “sandy” when you make traces with them, while others may feel more “creamy” or “velvety” … And between these two ends, other intermediate textures can be found.
Second: compaction. That is, softness or hardness. Schmincke pastels, for example, are the softest of the soft. They work great in final layers of the painting. I always say that when the tooth of the paper is full, it’s the time to bring a Schmincke. And it always gets the work done! In the opposite extreme there are the hard pastels like Holbein, Rembrandt or Faber-Castell (polychromos). And between these two extremes other intermediate degrees of hardness/softness appear. What pastel brand better fits a pastel artist depends on the style of the artist. That’s why i say it’s a matter of personal preference. For example, for me, it would be difficult to Paint with Holbeins, because their hardness do not go well with my personal painting style, but other pastel artists work perfectly with them.
Third: size. Each manfacturer has its own standard size of pastel stick. Some are round, some are square, some are small and some are jumbo size. There are small square sticks like Holbeins; others are round but slim, like Girault; Unison has sticks that are somewhat wider than others; and Mount Vision sticks are the largest I have seen so far. Sennelier, for example, offers an extra large “jumbo” size in some colores and packs with “half-sticks”. I like in Townsend that they have an option of standard stick or larger rectangular sticks. I use the latter sometimes for backgrounds or large paintings.
Fourth: color palette. Brands like Great American Artworks and Sennelier have a large color palette, while brands like Faber-Castell are more limited.
My recommendation: Take your time to try different pastel brands to determine which one (o ones) better fit your personal painting style. If you use the right pastels “for you”, you will see the positive impact on the quality of your work, you will be able to paint with more confidence and you will feel comfortable when painting too.
Happy to answer questions on materials through my email firstname.lastname@example.org.