Soooo many questions and experiences......
I'm chiming in a bit late, but if someone new to pastels is really researching the medium, they will make it this far into the thread. I believe I can offer some thoughts to RooGal, Life of Art and some others also along the way....
The Pastels I use and how I built my collection:
My first pastel purchase was Rembrandt's 90 pc. Landscape set. Ninety sticks of pigment sounded like a lot at the time, but very quickly you find it is only a foundation. Be assured, RooGal, that the landscape set is highly versatile. In fact, if you compare many landscape and portrait sets, you will find very similar colors. And if you compare landscape paintings with portrait paintings, you will often find the same earth tones used in landscapes are used in the human figure, as well. I personally find that exciting!
I elected to buy individual sticks over a period of 2 years. I did this after reading about the many different pastel producers, the hardness of some brands and the buttery texture of others. I needed to experiment and find what worked best for me. Rembrandts are a staple in my stable. Both Rembrandts and Unisons are my workhorses, used to complete at least 80% of a painting. I also have a full set (90 pc.) of the NuPastel for drawing and underpainting.
I use Sennelier for the remainder of my painting layers -- the last 15-20% of the painting. While Sennelier are inconsistent in hardness/softness, I have yet to find another brand that offers such lucious colors.
I have a smattering of Diane Townsend's, Schmienke's, and Mount Vision. All nice brands. I just haven't found a reason to buy more of them.
I did splurge and buy myself the Richard Dawson Workshop Companion from Great American Artworks
-- I wanted to try them out. Very buttery; the set will probably last me years as I'll only use it for highlights and final layers. But I can appreciate why many people love the brand.
[b]Getting started with pastels:B]
I started by taking a continuing education class at the local community collage for 4 weeks. It was a good start and piqued my interest enough to get going. The artist who taught the class was talented and extremely supportive. He did not have a wealth of knowledge regarding pastels, but that did not hinder the class (keep in mind it was only a beginner's class).
Then I began reading and researching. THIS is what made a difference! There is a wealth of information out there -- only after doing some reading about the medium did I discover all the types of pastels, various approaches, the papers and other materials used. That's when I began experimenting!!!!
Just a personal note on purchasing materials. I decided early on that to make great art I had to have the correct materials. I began by using a limited palette and Canson papers, which worked fine. But I decided to expand my options, and I saw a significant difference in the quality of work I was able to produce.
The potential outcomes were worth the financial investment.
It took me about 6 months to choke down the expense of a workshop. In hindsight, workshops by professional artists are worth every penny!!!
I would still suggest researching the artist, seeing what others say about their workshops, and see what they will be emphasizing in a particular workshop.
Thus far, I have taken 3 professional workshops, 2 of them specifically in pastel. My instructors were Elizabeth "Betsy" Apgar-Smith, Margaret Evans, and Orazaio Salati (acrylics). Each was an absolutely incredible experience. The richness of knowledge and skill that they possess and convey was inspiring. I planned to take a workshop with Maggie Price this summer, but I could not rework my schedule to fit it in and had to cancel (very disappointing).
So, there it is, a very, very, very brief glimpse into how I became a pastel artist.