Updated: Sep 20, 2022
There are two things I see over and over again when someone is new to the pastel medium. These two traps (as I like to call them)
are understandable, but unfortunately end up holding the artist (and their artwork) back. If you fall into these traps, you may even feel so frustrated that you give up on pastel. So what are they, and more importantly how do you avoid them?
Trap 1- Not buying quality pastels.
Trap 2- Not giving yourself enough pastels to work with.
I understand not wanting to break the bank when you're trying a new medium. People often worry about the "what if's": What if I don't love it? What if I don't continue with the medium? But here's the thing... not having good quality pastels and a realistic quantity to work with when you're start out, may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lack of materials will hold you back and can prevent you from succeeding, which feels frustrating. Without enough good quality pastels you may even be so frustrated that you end up not continuing with the medium. Worst of all, you may not even realize that this frustration comes from lack of materials.
How to avoid falling into these traps.
When I say invest in quantity and quality, that doesn't mean you need to buy the complete collection from a high-end brand. There are strategies for building a collection. If you buy smart and strategic, you can find the happy medium between too much and too little.
Lets talk about quality first:
Get artist-grade, not student-grade pastels (even if you're a student).
When I was in college I had a professor that said "never by student-grade art supplies" and they were right, the difference between the two is noticeable in every medium. When it comes to pastel, student-grade sticks have more binders and less pigment. Student-grade pastels typically feel waxy, and don't lay down color as readily or vividly as artist-grade. They can also have such a hard texture that they can be difficult to work with.
Avoid any brand that's sold at a craft store
Go to an art store or find an online pastel retailer and buy from them. The brands sold in craft stores are typically student-grade or lower-quality. These stores do carry a limited amount of artist-grade pastels, but as a beginner it's hard to know which ones those are.
Try sticks from a few different brands.
Buying individual sticks from a few different pastel brands can be a nice way of seeing what you like. The per-stick cost of individual pastels is slightly higher than the per-stick cost when pastels are purchased as a set, but knowing if you like a brand before investing in a set is well worth it!
To avoid trap 2, sometimes quantity is better than quality:
When you're just starting out, having enough pastels is really important. I tell my new students that they should have a minimum of 50-100 sticks, and that their palette should have enough color variation to represent the entire color wheel. If your painting needs a dark blue-green, and you only have a light yellow-green, you can't make the color you need by mixing colors together the way you can with other mediums, so an ample variety of colors is really important. If you're on a budget and purchasing pastels, look for less-expensive artist's quality brands in the art store. I'd rather have a student come to class with 80 less-expensive artist-grade pastels, than 30 of the most expensive brand. Half-stick sets are also a great option to consider, the smaller sticks let you get more colors for less money. For more buying tips read my posts about how to stretch your pastel budget and deciding which pastels to buy.
About those "what if's":
If you're concerned about spending money on a medium that you won't end up continuing with, keep in mind that you can always sell a pastel set. Knowing that you can recoup some of the investment if you don't end up loving a particular brand of pastel (or even want to continue with the medium) can take some of that concern away. That being said, I've never had a student that hasn't fallen in love with pastels and wanted to continue using them!
If you're a new painter, buying second-hand sets can be a good way to affordably build your collection, as long as you're careful about what you buy! Read my post about buying used and vintage pastels, which is full of tips about what to consider when looking for second-hand sets.
Remember, not setting yourself up for success with pastel can end up hindering you to the point where it becomes really hard to succeed with the medium, and that's a really frustrating position to be in. I hope these tips help!