If you have no pastels at all and you want to dip your toe into this dusty medium, a starter set would be a great place to get you going. Almost all pastel brands offer a starter set, but do these actually contain useful colours for the beginning pastel artist?
I wrote about which colours a total beginner needs in an earlier blog post. I think that a good place to start are the primary colours. With primary colours you can mix a huge range of new colours. To be able to lighten and darken your colours and create a range of values, you will need a dark brown (like burnt umber), a black and a white as well. I believe these are the minimum colours you need to get your started in soft pastels.
So if you are not sure about buying loose pastel sticks and you are just starting out, and you see hundreds of colours in front of you in the shop, where to do you start?
With a starter set of course!
Most good starter sets will have the colours described above in them: reds, yellows, blues, white, black and brown. Many also include some greens and pinks for those floral pieces, landscapes and portraits. But it is worth double checking what is in starter sets! Not all sets are as well balanced.
As a total beginner, you don't need many pastel colours, but you do need a good range.
Not all pastel starter sets are actually a good starting point
Let's have a look at a few starter sets available. I'll be commenting on the colour selection only, not the quality of the pastels. Obviously I don't own all of these sets so I am going off the information and photos online. I have chosen to look at some sets from popular and well established brands. These are just examples and will hopefully help you choose a starter set from your favourite brand.
Pastel Starter Sets
Unison 18 Starter Set
This is a nice set of colours. There are 3 reds, 4 blues, 2 yellows and 3 greens, all in light and dark versions. There is a white (super light grey), a black and a couple of grey tones, as well as 2 purples. There is a good range of very light and very dark colours. I find most of the colours fairly cool though. There is no ochre, and there are no browns. In fact there are no earth tones at all. Browns and ochres are my staple colours, but obviously that doesn't apply to everyone. Would I recommend it as a starter set. Mwah, maybe.
Unison 8 Starter set
This small set features a nice neutral yellow, read and green. There's a white and a black (near white and nearly black), a dark blue, a grey-ish blue and a bright blue. I would have preferred to see a brown in there and am not quite sure why a small set of 8 needs no less than 3 blues but lacks a medium value neutral blue. Not a great starter.
Jackson's 14 Basic Starter Set
I have yet to try Jackson's own handmade pastels but I hear good things about them. They have a starter set that looks pretty good. It contains 3 yellows 3 reds, 2 blues, a brown, 2 greens, a grey a white and a black. Again I would have liked to see a burnt sienna or yellow ochre but at least we have some earth tones in here. Looks like a good set. They also have an option to pick your own set, which is a nice touch but probably a bit difficult for total beginners.
Sennelier 24 Introductory Set
Sennelier offers a good introductory set that includes a nice basic blue, yellow and red, a black, and a white. In total there are around 3 reds, 4 greens, 1 pinks, 5 browns, 4 blues, 4 yellows, a white, grey, and black. Although with such a range it could have done with skin tone (the reds are all rather loud) and a pale blue, I really like this range. It is varied and well thought out.
Talens Rembrandt 15 Assorted Set
This set includes a good neutral yellow, and blue, and a fairly dark nice red. A lighter red would have been good, but it's a nice colour anyway. It contains black, 2 browns and a white. So the basics are covered pretty well. There are 2 yellows, an orange and a red, a purple and 2 blues, 3 greens, 2 browns and an ochre, and a black. I really like the range of these colours. There is very little missing, perhaps a lighter red, as mentioned and a more neutral normal green, but otherwise I like it.
Talens Rembrandt 30 Assorted Half Stick Set
This set features double the colours over the 15 set, but you only get half sticks. So more colours but smaller sticks. You get a great range of colours with a slight lean towards the green with no less than 6 greens, 5 blues, 4 yellows, a skin tone, orange, 2 reds, a fuschia and a purple. A good range of earth tones, a couple of greys and a black. This is an excellent starter set.
Many brands also do half stick sets, which gives you the opportunity to have more colours. These are definitely worth checking out.
Premium or Budget Brands?
Many premium and expensive brands have starter sets too, but if you are a total beginner in soft pastel I would not recommend starting with the most expensive of brands.
Some of the cheapest brands have no starter sets but only do small and larger sets. You can start out with a small set of these pastels. You usually do not have the options to buy these pastels individually so there is little choice for a beginner. But they are certainly a good and affordable place to dip your toes into pastel for the first time.
Best Pastels For Beginners
So if you have never painted in soft pastel before and want to give it a go? I would recommend going for a medium soft pastel, like Talens Rembrandt; these pastels are not hard nor too soft to handle for a beginner and they offer excellent value for money in well thought out starter kits.
No I don't work for them, they don't pay me. I just like their pastels.
Obviously this doesn't mean the other brands are no good, in fact many of them are excellent. I have not tried all them so my opinion is totally biased on my own experience. So take it for what it's worth.
If you would like to use your new pastel starter set and give them a real good workout, then why not join my pastel painting online course The Pastel Place? You'll learn everything from basic mark making, to fundamentals like edges and colour theory. We'd love to have you join!
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Photos are and prices are taken from Jackson’s Art Supplies Store.