Thursday, September 10, 2015

Affordable Artist's Pastels Part I: Prismacolor and Mungyo Semi-hard Pastels

image of assorted pastels in boxes
Part of my pastel stash, complete with dusty covers
(that is pastel dust, not home dust, btw)

I was going to break the pastel articles up by brand; however, as I started planning this first post, I realized that it would be better to separate them by hardness since I would be comparing brands in my reviews.  "Apples to apples", as they say. During my research over the past few years, I have learned that it is more beneficial to use different types of pastel when creating a painting with many layers of pigment. I am talking about full-on finished works that look painterly, not quick sketches.

Fat Over Lean, Soft over Hard- Them's the Rules!

I know artists are supposed to be rebels and innovators, but art does have some hard and fast rules when it comes to certain mediums and techniques. We follow them because they are related to physical properties of a medium or ground. You know, oil and water, bleach and ammonia- that sort of thing. If you know that two substances don't work well together, you don't mix them or you mix them in the proper order.

Just as an oil painter follows the "fat over lean" rule, pastel artists use hard pastels for initial layers and move on to softer degrees as they add more layers on top. It is a rule you have to follow because the softest grades will fill the "tooth" of the paper faster, making subsequent layering more difficult. Also, if you have ever tried to use a harder pastel on the top layers, you know that it scratches off or or dulls down previous layers, which is rarely a nice result.

In keeping with the rules, I will start this series of reviews with hard or semi-hard pastel brands and move to the softest pastels for future posts. I consider both Nupastels and Mungyo Gallery to be semi-hard in comparison to classic drawing chalks or crayons, like Conte crayons and Koh-I-Noor or Cretacolor drawing chalks.

Affiliate Disclaimer: For full transparency, you should know that many of my links in my posts are affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers purchase items using my affiliate links. This helps me fund the blog domain costs, and you will not be charged extra if you buy anything using my links. 

Prismacolor Premier Nupastels

No, I do not work for Prismacolor, I swear! I am just a big fan of their products, and I am not alone. I have used pastels off and on for decades, and I always have my Prismacolor Nupastels on hand. I started using them in my life drawing class at college more than twenty years ago, and I still own and use this brand. During recent perusal of certain artist forums, I have read comments from other pastel artists, saying things like "oh, I can't believe people still use these!" There is a snobby air to those comments, and I am always surprised by this. Yet I have to remember that evaluating a brand, like critiquing art itself, involves 99.9% subjectivity.

 Why I Love Nupastels 

Nupastels, like many Prismacolor items, are the easiest artist grade pastels to find in the U.S.A. They are not the cheapest brand, but they are affordable. You can buy them in sets or as open stock. I love open stock because I use certain colors up faster than others. I started with a 24 color set from Office Depot (way overpriced, but it was instant gratification), and then I added the colors I wanted here and there with open stock from Jerry's Artarama, where you can buy individual sticks for $1.19 or boxes of twelve for less than $11. I only buy white by the dozen, but I keep spares on hand for a few other colors.

Additional notes on Nupastels:

  • Prismas are available in sets of 12, 24, 36, 48, and 96. 
  • They leave some dust, but it is not excessive
  • Blend easily, smoothly
  • Not really hard, more semi-hard or "just right" to quote Goldilocks 
  • Versatile- make tight lines or broad strokes using them on their sides
  • Sticks measure 1/4" wide by 3 5/8 " long, or 6 mm by 92 mm 

One note: The pastels in my older set seem harder than the sticks I bought more recently, and I do not know if the formula is different or if age makes them harder. The newer pastels break more easily than the older ones, which is not a big deal, but I get annoyed when they crumble. I also hate that the labels on the open stock items have sticky backs. I have noticed this with a lot of brands, and I suspect that I will have to just deal with it, but I do get grumpy when the stick crumbles as I try to remove the label. 

A Short Digression:

Since this is a blog about art on a budget, I want to encourage others to give their previous "rejects" another go. That is the purpose of the next paragraph- not to rant on reviewers, tempting as it may be. 
I have noticed that some customer reviews reflect unrealistic expectations or inexperience with the medium. You cannot expect a hard pastel to behave like a soft pastel, and sometimes you cannot blame the medium for poor results. I have made that mistake myself, giving up on a medium or a specific brand with the conclusion that it does not work for me. In most cases, I find out later that I was either not using it right, combining it with the wrong ground, or working with a poor understanding of the medium's properties. I want to encourage others to give second chances to those castoffs. Do some research; try it with different types of surfaces. You might find a new favorite medium where you least expected.

image of a box of Mungyo pastels on top of some Prismacolor pastels
The bottom row shows some Nupastels from a 24 pc set, and
the labelled sticks are open stock Mungyo Gallery Semi-hard pastels. 

Mungyo Gallery Semi-Hard Pastels

I have pastels from four different Mungyo lines, but today I am only discussing the Gallery Semi-hard variety. I discovered the Mungyo brand at the beginning of 2015, and I was attracted to the lower price as well as many favorable reviews. Mungyo is a Korean company, and the brand is available on, through sellers at, and through Jerry's Artarama. There may be more sources, but these are the ones I can verify. Korean vendors on Amazon and Etsy sell sets at extremely low prices, and the shipping is very reasonable, but you have to wait a week or two for the package. I decided to try some of the semi-hard open stock colors when it was time to replace some of my Nupastels.

I bought semi-hard sticks in all of the warm and cold grays as well as some earth and red tones, and a few shades that I didn't have in my other brands. My first observation is that they are slightly harder than my "fresh" Nupastels, but not as hard as Conte crayon or drawing chalks. In most cases, the Mungyo pastels leave less dust behind than Nupastel, but they are not as "creamy" as Nupastel. They are better for crisp details and hatching, because once you make a hard line with the Mungyo stick, its there for good. You may soften it with new layers, but the line will show to some degree. I made this observation while using a classic pastel paper by Strathmore. It may not be the case if you use sanded paper. 

More about Mungyo Gallery Semi-Hard Pastels:

  • Strong, holds up to a "heavy hand"
  • Good for initial layers and fine details, bold strokes
  • Rich pigment, large range of lightfast colors (120)
  • Sold in open stock (Jerrys) and sets of 12, 24, 36, 48, 96, and 120
  • Earth tone and Gray Scale sets available (12 pieces each)
  • Colors correspond to other Mungyo lines, perfect for layering 

Mungyo pastels are a little cheaper than Prismacolor. Jerry's sells them for $.99 each, but you have to buy at least six sticks. You can buy six different colors or multiples of the same color, just as long as six are in your cart. I have only found the open stock at Jerry's, but sells Mungyo semi-hard pastel sets, and Blick does not sell this brand as of this writing. 

My next post is going to cover other Mungyo lines including the Gallery soft pastels, Gallery Hand-made soft pastels, and Mungyo standard (student grade) pastels. I will also include Rembrandt soft pastels. That leaves Lowe Cornell. In all fairness, I cannot compare LC to the others because they are not artist grade pastels. I would place them at the  lower end of student grade quality as well. They suck as fine art materials, but they make fantastic sidewalk chalk for the kids. There, that's my Lowe Cornell soft pastel review.  

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