Rexel Derwent pastel pencils are good ones. Rembrandt pastels are good ones. They're both excellent supplies. Semi-hard pastels come in many different brands, most are pretty good.
Elementary school big chalky pastels probably fade in the sun about as fast as construction paper, but they may be fun for when you feel like going outside to paint on the sidewalk. Don't knock that, it's a lot of fun and you can get some good practice that way. Also I use kid supplies in sketchbooks where it doesn't matter that they're not lightfast.
Generally only people who don't use real pastels, dry pastels, call them chalks. The only time this rule is suspended is when you're explaining to airport security that these sticks of color run over $5 each so if they want to look under them, you should be the one to move them carefully out of the box so they can look and then put them back yourself.
Cheap sets like Mont Marte, Alphacolor and so forth are good for painting on sidewalks. Loew Cornell is a cheap set.
The good ones come in several groups. Deciding which one's the best is something that you have to decide for yourself based on how they perform in your hands. I love all of them so I sorted them into categories.
1) Hard or Semi-Hard - these are firm, usually rectangular sticks that as a range cost less than the other types of pastels. They have more binder and they're easy to control, good for fine details, edges, sketching and using for first layers because of their cost. I just reviewed a set of 48 for only $10.99 on sale at Jerry's Artarama, Masters Pastels, they weren't too bad but the sticks were rather short, they cut corners on package printing too to keep the price down. Better brands are Cretacolor Pastels Carre, Sanford NuPastel, Derwent Pastels, Mungyo Artist Semi-Hard, most expensive and probably the most lightfast are Faber-Castell Polychromos.
2) Soft pastels - medium-soft ones. They still have some firmness, may be round or square sticks but usually round wrapped sticks. Blick Artists pastels, Mungyo Artists Soft Rounds, Rembrandt, Art Spectrum, Winsor & Newton, a lot of brands fall in this category. They're firm enough to give a fair amount of control and soft enough for blending, scumbling and layering. They're good all around workhorse pastels. Recently I got a small set of Girault, which now heads my list in this category as possibly the very best medium-soft pastel for its ability to do hard pastel things like cat whiskers over heavy layers of pastel and still be used like a soft pastel.
3) Super Soft pastels, either round wrapped sticks or square short ones wrapped or not. Schimnke, Sennelier and Terry Ludwig head up this category. I really like them all and don't have a special favorite between them but the Terry Ludwigs are great for being able to put in tiny details with the corner of a super soft stick. Senneliers have inexpensive half sticks sets that are a good bargain for someone kitting up to start with good ones.
For a beginner I'd recommend getting the largest set of semi-hard/hard pastels you can afford, a good big set of medium soft "workhorse" pastels and a small set of finishing pastels, either Super Soft or Hand Rolled.
4) Hand Rolled pastels have a fluffy, sparkling texture that's different from all the above. They are beautiful. They are generally more costly. They're sort of cigar shaped usually but may be larger or smaller, it varies. Unisons are my top favorite and one of the more costly ones. Mount Vision are a great bargain because the sticks are gigantic, if you want to paint very large, go for Mount Visions. Mungyo Gallery Artist Hand-Rolled is a new brand with a good color range that's balanced around the spectrum. Richeson Hand Rolled are quite large like the Mount Visions but the range has some gaps and some near-duplicates if you get all of them.
6) Pumice in them - Diane Townsend Soft Form and Terrages pastels have pumice in the binder. They're hand rolled. So are the Roche' pastels which you can find out more about in the Roche' thread in this forum. These are specialists, good for using on unsanded paper. Roche' is the most expensive pastel made anywhere, it's a formula that dates back to Degas and it's most powerful in techniques Degas used such as layering with lots of fixative layers to give non sanded paper more tooth. They have glowing color and very pure pigments, in my opinion Roche' is worth the money. Roche' recently started to make half stick sets bringing small ranges of their colors into the reach of artists with a low or normal income.
Because of the intensity of color, Roche' would be very good for final accents used over other pastels. At $16-$19 a stick, using them with other pastels is cost effective. Some people love them, others don't, like many of the more expensive pastels they have a strong personality and give special effects to the experienced user.
6) Pan Pastels are softer than the softest pastels in stick form, reasonably priced and applied with special Sofft micropore sponges. These are great for underpainting and create transparent, filmy layers of color. They mix like paint so you don't need many colors - all 20 of the pigments available are included in the Painters Set of 20, but you can get a good result with the 10 Painters as a plein air or basic set. Even the 5 color Painters starter - primaries, black and white - is useful in the hands of someone who's used to mixing paint.
All 60 of the other colors are premixed tints and shades of the 20 Painters pigments - they are very useful convenience colors. I bought the full range and love them, use them often, if you are used to painting in oils or acrylics these will be a good form of pastels for you. They work well with sticks or by themselves.
7) Pastel Pencils are a formula similar to hard pastels but formed into the core of a pencil. They're clean to use, good for details and sketching, good for linear marks. They don't go well over heavy applications of soft pastels but most artists like to have at least a few pastel pencils. Brands include Derwent, Cretacolor, Koh-I-Noor Gioconda, Carb-Othello Stabilo. I have the Carb-Othellos in a full range and had the Cretacolor set but haven't had that shipped yet.
Pastel pencils should be handled like the most delicate colored pencils. Dropping them and banging them around in the box can break the core and result in total frustration - you try to sharpen them and the point keeps falling out just as it gets sharp. I recommend an elastic band easel case or book style case to protect pastel pencils, something like the Global Classic leather pastel case or Derwent pencils rolls are good to keep them safe. I keep my Carb-Othellos in their original tin but I'm careful not to bang it around or tilt it.
Since you've painted before in oils and acrylics, you might be interested in the Pan Pastels. They do handle a lot like paint and mix like paint. With most pastels, it helps to have tints and shades around the spectrum as well as muted colors and neutrals. The larger the range, the easier it is for a beginner to find the color needed.
In pastels, optical mixing is very common. Experts can handle a limited palette easier than beginners. I'd say a 60-72 color assortment of "workhorse" pastels would be good with a hard pastels set that's full range for its brand and a smaller range of finishing pastels - Super Soft or Hand Rolled.
The middle priced and less expensive artist grade pastels tend to have similar working characteristics. Watch for sales. The more expensive ones will have more character and take special handling but produce wonderful special effects if they fit your hand - or become an expensive mistake if they don't.
Favorites In Category:
Faber-Castell Polychromos hard pastels or Color Conte for hard sticks.
Winsor & Newton (now discontinued), Girault or Art Spectrum for medium-soft.
Terry Ludwig or Sennelier for Super Soft.
Unisons for Hand Rolled
Roche' or Townsend Terrages for Pumice (both are handmade)
Pan Pastels are their own category and I love them
Any good brand of pastel pencils.
I'm a bit of a materials nut and have been merrily exploring most of the major brands, finding out what each of them does. I've heard good things about Great American pastels too. Everyone has favorites. I'm horrible this way, my favorite is really "all of them" because each brand has enough character to influence how the painting comes out. Some brands are strong in some color ranges but weak in others.
Online prices are usually lower than in brick and mortar shops unless they're giving out deep discount coupons. Watch for sales that last sometimes as short as 24 hours, it's good to keep window shopping the websites till you see a 10%-20% off coupon and watch for what products are already at rock bottom (sale coupons don't apply) prices. Also keep an eye on the Swap Shop, sometimes people change mediums or decide they don't like a brand after trying it and you can get some great deals.
One of the best ways to find out which textures really grab you is to get a sampler from Dakota Pastels or Fine Art Store. The bigger sampler at Fine Art Store includes a Roche' half stick. Dakota doesn't have Roche' but has most of the major brands and their samplers are organized by color - you can fill out your range in a most-used color like green or blue easily with the sampler.
Also, Dick Blick and Jerry's Artarama will mail samples of artist grade brands they have in stock including their good quality house brands on request. Email them and tell them what pastels you want to try. The Sennelier sample is a great little primary triad, three good strong brights you can test optical mixing with or use later on to accent more muted passages.
Girault is another specialty pastel - it acts like a soft stick and a hard stick in the same stick, a bit expensive but well worth the money. There's a thread on Girault pastels on the front page or second page right now. Also a thread on Roche' where you can see many comparisons with other pastels.
Pan Pastel Show & Tell
was buried a few pages back, but here's the link. You can see many examples of how these look in paintings and how they handle, by many different painters. My best waterfall painting is in Pan Pastels with stick accents in the tumbling water.
You can also see videos on how to use them at the Pan Pastels site
, including a gorgeous landscape demonstration by our own Deborah Secor.