Same old problem, there’s too much choice, so how do you choose the right pastel pencils? If you are struggling, this guide will help you choose the best pastel pencils for beginners
- Stabilo CarbOthello Pastel Pencils
- Faber-Castell Pitt Pastel Pencils
- Derwent Pastel Pencils
- Caran D’ache Pastel Pencils
- Koh-I-Noor Gioconda Pastel Pencils
- Conté À Paris Pastel Pencils
- Cretacolor Pastel Pencils
ALL lists are subjective, we all favor our own brands for our own reasons, not the least of which is familiarity. You get to know the quirks of a brand and adapt to them.
Bearing that in mind, these are the 7 of the best pencil pastels readily available. Choose one from the list and buy a set. As you experiment you can always mix and match colors from other brands as you go along.
The Best Pastel Pencil Brands
Stabilo Carbothello Pastel Pencils
Talking of personal bias, these are my favorite pastel pencils. Why? Because they were the first pencils I ever bought!
There are 60 in a full set and they will cost you about £80 in the UK or as low as $92 in the US. (currency converter). These pastel pencils are middle of the range when it comes to hardness. Not too brittle and not too soft. They sharpen well using both electric and crank sharpeners and their own dedicated hand sharpeners.
They are soft enough to mix with chalk pastels and that’s exactly why I bought them in the first place. You can draw over a thin layer of pastel and still maintain a clean line.
Harder pastel pencils like Faber-Castells Pitt Range are sharper if you need finer detail but in all honesty, I am a realist painter and it has never been an issue for me. Don’t forget you need less finesse when you paint larger pieces.
Carbothello pastel pencils have a good range of colors but they are nowhere near comprehensive. No pastel pencil range can cover all the demands of every painter. They perform best when you use a tinted paper or combined with an underpainting of pan pastels or gouache.
Lightfastness might worry some people. All pigments vary in their stability. Carbothello pastel pencils have a light grading so if you are concerned you might replace the rogue color with another more stable brand.
Personally, I don’t worry about it. Some colors might fade in direct sunlight over time but in most cases, artwork is displayed well away from the sun. And besides, you can always frame a painting with UV protected glass.
These are the right pastel pencils for me and if you are unsure where to start, you can’t go far wrong. These pencils are a safe choice.
Faber-Castell Pitt Pastel Pencils
There are 60 pastel pencils in this range and after a search online they average about £123 for a full set for $90 from Jerry’s Artarama in the States. (currency converter). Otherwise, expect to pay about $140 for a set.
Pitt pencils are hard pastels and they are great for finer details. They will not draw over a layer of soft pastel so easily as Carbothello pencils but they will sharpen to a fine point. They can be sharpened with an electric or crank sharpener without worry.
The color range is fairly good, they wear well, and the color pigments are strong and vibrant. They are hard enough to block shade and draw with a satisfying buttery feel.
Pitt pastel pencils are made with a water-based binder which means you have the scope to experiment with washes.
Like Carbothello the limited range of 60 colors can be augmented using mixed media.
These are the best pastel pencils for artists who strive for fine detail.
Further Reading: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways and Save Time
Caran D’ache Pastel Pencils
If you want a huge choice of colors out of the box then choose Caran D’ache pastel pencils. There are 84 colors in a tin, the best selection of any leading brand.
These are top of the range when it comes to quality but that comes with a hefty price tag. How does £300 ($350) for a box set sound? Ouch. (currency converter).
Well they come highly recommended should you choose to spend 3x as much money.
The colors are rich, vibrant, and lightfast. They blend well, with a soft creamy feel, and lie somewhere below Carbothello pastel pencils in hardness.
They don’t sharpen well with mechanical sharpeners and they are too expensive to risk breaking the points too often. These are pencils that should be sharpened with a blade and kept sharp with sandpaper.
For presentation, they win hands down, but at this price, I should think so. They come in a beautiful wooden box with 3 cushioned trays. They are a joy to look at but it’s a luxury I could easily live without for a cheaper deal.
The best pastel pencils for color choice.
Further Reading: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? Folly or Game-Changer?
Derwent Pastel Pencils
There are 72 colors in the Derwent range and they come in a fancy wooden box just like the Caran D’ache Pencils, and similarly, they are expensive. A boxed set of Derwent pencils can be found for £149 here in the UK and $150 in the States, again at Jerry’s Artarama (currency converter).
You pay far less for a tinned set. If you want a wooden box you will have to pay the premium. Usually about £20 ($30)
The colors are strong and rich, and handily, you can download their color chart from their website.
They also have color charts for lightfastness covering their entire pencil range which is amazing. Most colors stand up well but why bother making Magenta with a rating of only 2? I was disappointed that Ultramarine had a rating of 3.
Derwent pastel pencils do have a tendency to crumble in use. That’s pretty standard for most pastel pencils but it is a pain in the arse. Use a blade and sandpaper to sharpen them, or a Derwent sharpener.
My issue with Derwent, and I have used their products for many years, is availability. I bought my box set of pastel pencils many years ago and I know Derwent still makes them. However, it is disconcerting when you can’t find a set of 72 pastel pencils in stock on their own website, and none on Amazon either.
You can find sets of 48 easily and you could always top up individually but how many people are going to buy a whole set from scratch that way?
Further Reading: Why Art Competitions and Juried Shows Are Not Worth the Effort
Cretacolor Pastel Pencils
There are 72 colors in the Cretacolor pastel pencil range and the full set will cost you about £75 or $119 give or take. (currency converter).
Arguably not the most vibrant of colors. The darks are fine but the lighter colors can be insipid. Landscape painters might wish for more greens.
They sharpen well with a blade but are too brittle to use with a mechanical sharpener. These pencils crack and crumble easily. You can sharpen them to a nice point but the tip will chip if you apply any pressure and that’s frustrating.
You shouldn’t judge by appearances but they do have a ‘budget’ feel. The packaging is cheap and they certainly do not match the quality of Pitt and Caran D’ache pencils.
They are OK, the color range is pretty good and you can add water for new effects.
Strangely I cannot find any information regarding lightfastness. Even their official website ignores this issue, and their accompanying video is cheap and nasty. Not inspiring at all. It puts me off.
Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?
Conté à Paris Pastel Pencils
With only 48 colors to choose from, these pencils will leave you wanting more. I suspect that they are designed to complement their other pastel ranges and not intended to be used alone.
You can buy a full set for about £57 or $92. (currency converter).
These are soft pastels and have a creamy smooth consistency, perfect for blending and complimenting chalk pastels.
These pastel pencils are not designed for fine detail, especially on smaller works. They have a whopping 5mm ‘lead’ which encourages broad strokes and bolder marks. If you need pinpoint control use Pitt Pencils instead.
Considering this is a post to help you choose the best pastel pencils and not the best complimentary pencils to use with other pastels, these wouldn’t be an obvious choice for me.
Further Reading: How Do You Price Your Art? (And Increase Your Profits)
Koh-i-Noor Gioconda Pastel Pencils
With another selection of only 48 pencils, this brand falls flat for me, that’s not enough for a standalone brand. Not only that, they are not generally sold as singles. That’s a thumbs down.
Do you want to risk buying a whole set just to replace one color? No, these aren’t the right pastel pencils for most serious artists.
The colors are however very rich, you might even say neon, and for that reason, they do have their fans.
In my opinion, they are handy for adding some intense color when needed. In other words, very sparingly.
Rich pigments go hand in hand with softness and that means they are difficult to sharpen. You’ll have to use a blade and accept that these pencils are going to crumble easily as you use them.
These are not pencils I would use for detail, but they are very slim so that compensates slightly.
In my opinion, these are good pencils if you prefer a bright palette. They are cheap but that’s irrelevant if you run out of your favorite color and have to buy another set.
They retail for about £40 for a full set in the UK, and more in the US, about $90 (currency converter).
Further Reading: How to Draw Pet Portraits for Money and Start a Business
Related to Buying Pastel Pencils
Sharpening Pastel Pencils
I hate sharpening pastel pencils. They invariably crumble before your eyes. Faber-Castell Pitt Pastels are the hardest pencils with the least wastage.
I sharpen my pencils with a dedicated sharpener or with a craft knife. I keep the tips sharp, as best I can, with a sheet of super fine sandpaper. But even when you do that, some pencils disintegrate.
It doesn’t take much to shatter the leads inside. A careless drop or rough handling and you are in trouble. It’s very frustrating and I will, on occasion, superglue the tips back in. Desperate admittedly, but it works.
Some people use hand-cranked and electric sharpeners, it’s a matter of preference. It’s so instinctive for me to twist the tip of any pencil over sandpaper that I don’t even think to do it another way.
Others prefer a sharpening device, but they will only work with the harder brands.
If you use their branded sharpeners just be aware that they are only as good as the sharpness of the blade. All blades lose their edge over time. They have to be razor-sharp to work.
Will The Colors Fade?
There’s a problem with comparing the brands for lightfastness. There is no universal lightfast standard so you have no real idea how each brand calculates its scales.
Caran D’ache and Derwent both use the Blue Wool Scale but even this is not a true indicator of color permanence. A pigment can be lightfast in perfect conditions but not in combination with other chemicals.
Don’t lose sleep over this one. If a brand scores its own color as not lightfast, swap the color for another brand. It’s all you can do.
And don’t think this problem is unique to pastel , it’s not. Watercolor has similar issues.
Pastel Papers Are Just as Important
The surface of your paper will determine how well your pastels adhere to the paper. Your paper stock must have a ‘tooth’.
Some papers are more textured than others and some will wear down your pastels fast.
I learned to paint on white illustration board which was a mistake. You really need a tinted paper to maintain some color harmony easily, and plenty of texture to hold multiple layers of pastel.
Most people use Pastelmat Pastel Paper but it’s bloody expensive. Or you might choose Canson Mi-Teintes Paper which is also excellent.
If you are a beginner, try Canson Ingres Pastel paper. it’s thinner with a different texture but very good paper. It was my paper of choice for many years when I did pastel portraits. I liked the mid-grey.
Should You Use Fixative?
Fixative is not as important as some artists would have you believe. It has its uses, but I’ve painted plenty of pastel paintings without it.
Most amateurs think it’s essential to spray the finished artwork. Let me assure you that this is not a good idea. In my experience all brands of fixative darken the tone. They can ruin all your hard work. Be very cautious how you spray your work.
I use fixative to deliberately darken and bind my underpaintings before I carry on painting over the top. That’s all.
Frame your pastel paintings under ant-static glass if you are worried.
Further Reading: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster
What I love about pastel is its immediacy. It’s a drawing medium, and I’m much more at home with a pencil, but make no mistake this is painting. They are the same pigments as paint but held together in a dry binder.
Yes, it can be messy but there is no drying time to hold you back, no stinking turps, and no varnish. Nor is there the problem you get with watercolor always drying lighter than you intended.
The mark you make is the mark you get. and it’s all instant.
Check out these posts too, I think you will enjoy them:
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- How to Draw Water in Pencil: Ripples, Reflections, Splashes, and More
- How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All The Best Secrets)
- How to Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging. (5 Good Tips, Especially Number 3)
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