What to consider before buying or using a second-hand set.
Finding a set of pastels at a second-hand sale, or inheriting an old set is sometimes an artist's first introduction to pastels. Buying a used set can be a budget friendly way of getting started with pastel, or adding more sticks to your collection. I also have a lot of students who are new to pastel ask about 20, 30, even 40+ year old sets they've acquired. (Once you start painting with pastel, it can seem like used sets somehow find their way to you.) No matter the reason a used or vintage set comes your way, before purchasing or painting with them there are some things to understand and consider.
A beautiful vintage set that a student asked me about.
One of the first things to determine is if the sticks are soft pastel or oil pastel. Soft pastel is crumbly and oil pastel has a waxy texture. Another way to tell, is to test how easily a swatch of the pastel can be liquefied and dissolved with water. Soft pastel is water based so if the pigment is easily dissolved, it's soft pastel.
Another thing to figure out is if the pastels are older or newer. The age of a set matters because older pastel sticks can contain pigments that are different from the pigments used in modern sticks. Certain issues, such as poor light-fastness (colors that change or fade with exposure to sunlight) can come up with older pigments. Luckily, with some time and a little patience, you can tell if colors are light-fast by doing a simple sunlight test. Find out how to do a sunlight test here. Another potential issue is that some pigments are no longer used because they've been replaced with safer alternatives. If you're working with an older set, it might be a good idea to minimize contact with pastel dust by taking extra safety precautions.
Something else to think about when looking at a second-hand set is the brand. If the box has a label, do some research. Check to see if the pastels are considered artist grade (which means they're higher quality) or student grade. Student grade sticks have cheaper pigments and more binders so they won't blend as well or have the color intensity of artist grade sticks. They also cost less than artist grade and some manufactures produce both grades, so make sure you're not paying a higher price for a lower quality stick. Simply looking at the box's label might not be enough, since sometimes artists store pastels in a different box or mix sets together. If there's a picture online compare it with the set to see if it appears complete and the sticks are the same size and shape.
Pastels in an unmarked box without labels can be a bit of a mystery. In this case, it can be helpful to ask questions when trying to figure out out what type of pastels they might be. Was the previous owner a professional artist? Were these pastels recently used or have they been sitting unused for a decade or more? Were they used frequently, or do they appear more like a set that was only dabbled with? Any information you can gain might help you figure out the mystery box. Also, how have they been stored? If the pastels aren't in their original box but appear to be organized neatly by color and value, chances are high that they're good quality.
If you can't figure out anything about a mystery box, the last thing to consider is how you're intending to use the set. If you just want to try pastel and aren't concerned with the longevity of the art you make with them, buying an inexpensive mystery box might be fine. If however, you're looking for a set that will allow you to make artwork you intend to keep, frame, or sell, if you don't have enough experience to guess at their quality by how the pastels handle, or if the mystery pastels are expensive... you may want to skip the mystery box.