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By Phil Davies

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I’m a big believer in keeping art supplies simple. Especially in the
early days of an artistic journey.

If you stick to relatively few materials, you’ll master them much more
quickly. That means, if you want to, you’ll be able to switch between
mediums like pastels, oils, acrylics, coloured, pencils, graphite and
charcoal with ease!

It will also help you enjoy the art-making process that much more. It’s
so much simpler to get into the ‘flow’ state when you’re not
constantly having to deliberate between dozens of colours and
accessories. I’d go as far as saying that the fewer materials I have to
hand, the more I enjoy the creative process!

This guide contains the materials I recommend for anyone wanting

to quickly master pastels. I’m assuming you’re either a newcomer or
early on in your pastel painting adventure and my aim is to save you
from lots of tedious research and wasted money on equipment you
don’t need.

It’s not an exhaustive review of every brand that’ll take hours to

digest, because that’s the last thing you need. What you need is a
definite recommendation for a set of tools that you can hit the
ground running with!

Here’s the list…

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There are essentially four types of pastels:

• Soft Pastels
• Hard Pastels
• Pastel Pencils
• Oil Pastels

Professional and experienced pastel painters will often use soft

pastels, hard pastels and pastel pencils in the same piece. Oil pastels
behave very differently to the other three and are considered a
completely separate medium.

Let’s take a look at soft and hard pastels and pastel pencils, along
with their various pros and cons and whether you need all three to

Pastels are made by combining pigment with a
mineral filler and binder, which holds that
pigment together in a useable form.

Soft pastels contain more pigment and less

binder compared to hard pastels and pastel pencils.
As a result, the colours are very vibrant and intense
and it’s this quality that draws so many artists to
using them.

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Because of their soft nature, it’s extremely easy to apply lots of
colour quite quickly to the paper. Being so intense and opaque, the
colours will also cover even the darkest toned papers without looking

Soft pastels are the easiest to blend, the easiest to layer colours on
top of one another and will cover larger areas the most quickly.

The downside is that they are expensive and they can create quite a
bit of dust.

Student Quality Vs Artist Quality

Soft pastels are available in artist quality and student quality. And
just like oil, acrylic and watercolour paint, artist quality pastels have
more pigment (and often a higher-quality pigment) and less binder
compared to student quality ranges. They are also more resilient to
fading with light exposure over time.

While there is a noticeable

difference in the intensity of their
colour, how smoothly they cover the
surface and how well they blend,
artist quality soft pastels can be very

If you’re a newcomer to drawing and

painting, without question start with
a student-quality set. If you’re a
more experienced artist wanting to
try pastel painting also go for student
quality unless budget isn’t an issue.

There are some very good student sets (see brands below) that will
last you a long time. Even if you upgrade to artist quality later on,

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you’ll still use your student set for large background areas, quicker
sketches and in place of hard pastels (see the next section).

Health & Safety

Pastels create dust and, when inhaled, there are some concerns
amongst the artist community that it can be harmful.

The worry is that dust particles can settle in the respiratory system
and, over time, potentially cause problems. Some pigments may also
be toxic (as is the case with other mediums such as oils) and because
they can be inhaled (unlike oils) there are some concerns there too.

If you do a search online for health concerns, you’ll read opinions

that range from the completely care-free to impending doom for
every pastel artist that has managed to survive so far.

Remember that, while well-meaning, these are largely speculative

opinions and scare stories are completely anecdotal.

A scientific study, by Duke University School of Medicine in 2003,

looked at potential harmful effects of pastels. They studied the

1. The harmful chemicals in pastels from 11 major brands

2. The amount of dust created and its dispersal in a poorly

ventilated room

3. The amount of respirable dust (how much you actually breathe


4. The long terms effects on pastel artists (by surveying about 270
artists and seeing if there was correlation with health issues)

Their conclusion was as follows:

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Although pastel dusts may contain components that can increase
risk of chronic health effects at high exposure levels, exposures to
pastel dusts are low. The risk of any adverse effect is
correspondingly low as well. No special precautions are necessary
to prevent excessive exposure to such dusts, either during use or

The average pastel artist they studied had worked with pastels for an
average of 18 years. They also only found potential harm chemicals
(very low levels below the safe limit) in two out of 1159 pastel
colours. If you’re concerned, you can read the full study here.

Some sensible precautions to take are as follows:

• Work in a well ventilated room, or if the weather is nice, work
• If possible, have a dedicated room for art rather than working on a
kitchen table for example. This assumes you’re a more serious
pastel artist working with the medium regularly.
• Don’t blow dust from the paper. If working flat, periodically lift
your drawing surface and tip excess dust into a container or onto
another piece of paper that is thrown away.
• Avoid eating and drinking whilst working with pastels.
• Consider wearing a smock or a set of clothes that you only use for
pastels and wash regularly.
• Work only with pastel pencils, where much less dust is created.

Brands to Look Out For

Artist Quality

I’m a big fan of Sennelier and Unison. Both are incredible! I haven’t
tried the others on this list, but they are all highly regarded amongst
serious pastel artists:

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• Sennelier soft pastels
• Schmincke soft pastels
• Unison soft pastels
• Rembrandt soft pastels
• Conté à Paris soft pastels
• Art Spectrumsoft pastels

To give you some idea of price:

A set of 40 Sennelier half sticks (more on

half vs full sticks below) costs around $60
USD or £45 GBP.

A set of 60 Rembrandt half sticks comes

in at around $75 USD or £40 GBP.

A set of 40 Art Spectrum half sticks costs around $90 USD or £65

Student Quality

The following three brands all offer excellent value for money and
are highly rated:

• Faber-Castell Creative Studio

• Prismacolor NuPastel (these are a harder pastel - see the next
• Inscribe / Mungyo

I have sets by Faber-Castell and Inscribe and both make great starter
sets. In North America, Prismacolor are highly rated for the price too.

A set of 72 Faber-Castell Creative Studio costs around $40 USD or

£25 GBP. The smaller 48 sets comes in at about $18 USD or £15 GBP.

A set of 48 Prismacolor NuPastel can be had for around $35 USD.

They’re not very affordable in the UK though.

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If you’re on a tight budget, go for a set
of Inscribe or Mungyo. A set of 64 is
currently on offer for under $10 USD /
£10 GBP. They are the least vibrant and
hardest to blend of all the brands
listed, but a very affordable way to test
the waters.

Sets Vs Individual Colours

If you’re opting for student quality,

you’ll be buying a set. The only decision
comes down to set size and what you
can afford. Try to get at least 48 to cater
for a range of subject matter.

If and when you upgrade to artist quality, it’s still more affordable to
start with a set and then replace or acquire individual colours as you
need to.

Most pastel manufacturers will offer sets based on subject matter.

(i.e. a landscape set or a portraits set). If you tend to focus on one
subject more than anything else, it’s a good idea to go with one of
these subject-specific sets.

There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t mix and match artist and
student quality pastels as you’re progressing. A good progression
might look something like this:

Start with a student quality set.

Purchase a small artist quality mixed set of general colours

and use alongside the student quality set to see how you like

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Add additional individual artist quality colours when you can,
or go for a subject-specific set if you find yourself making lots
of landscapes or portraits or animals, for example.

Hard pastels contain more binder than soft pastels.
On the one hand, they won’t produce the same
vibrant, opaque coverage that soft pastels do, nor will
they smudge, blend or layer as well.

However, their firmer consistency makes them ideal

for crisp edges and fine detail. It’s very difficult to
create any kind of sharp detail with a soft pastel (not
least because of their shape) so most artists will use a
combination of soft and hard pastels for each

There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t create

entire works of art using just hard pastels. You won’t
get the same loose and expressive energy but you
will be able to create the hard edges and detail that
even loose paintings require.

Student Quality Vs Artist Quality

It’s not always obvious whether a brand or range of hard pastels falls
into the artist or student quality bracket. The most highly-regarded
hard pastels are probably Carrés crayons by Conté à Paris. At the
other end of the spectrum, you’ll find cheap chalk-based pastels
which I don’t recommend, even with their low price tag.

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Brands to Look Out For

• Carrés crayons by Conté à Paris

• Polychromos Pastels by Faber-Castell (confusingly the
same name as their coloured pencils)
• NuPastel by Prismacolor
• Carré pastels by Cretacolor
• Signature hard pastels by Jack Richeson
• Gioconda pastels by Koh-I-Noor

For an idea of price, a set of 48 Carrés

crayons by Conté à Paris costs around
$70 USD or £40 GBP.

A set of 48 NuPastel by Prismacolor

costs around $50 USD but are very
expensive in the UK.

A set of 48 Gioconda hard pastels by

Koh-I-Noor comes in at around £25
GBP but are much more expensive in
North America.

If you’re in North America, go for Prismacolor

NuPastel. In Europe, Carrés crayons might be
within your budget but if not, go for the
Gioconda. With that said, read the next section
on pastel pencils before you rush out and buy anything!

Pastel pencils are a wonderful drawing and painting tool in their own
right. In fact, I believe they are the easiest coloured medium to work
with and they are ideal for newcomers.

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They’re not as soft as soft pastels, as you’d expect, but they are
noticeably softer than hard pastels. This means they tend to blend
and layer more easily.

Despite being softer, they actually offer you more precision and
control than hard pastels, with the familiarity of a pencil. And
because the pastel in encased in wood, they are by far the least
messy form of pastel painting.

If you want to dip your toe into pastel waters (and you should!) you
could just go for a set of pastel pencils to begin with. I’d much prefer
you do that, learn the fundamentals of layering and blending etc.,
and then add a set of soft pastels to your toolbox.

Student Quality Vs Artist Quality

The same applies here as it does for hard pastels - there are different
priced options with the most expensive being artist quality. Of the
three types of pastels my advice is to be the most picky over pastel
pencils. There are only a couple of brands I recommend you consider
(even as a newcomer) and they are classed as artist quality.

Brands to Look Out For

• Faber-Castell Pitt pastel pencils (my favourite)

• Caran d’Ache pastel pencils
• Derwent pastels pencils
• Stabilo Carbothello pastel pencils
• Koh-I-Noor artist soft pastel pencils

Unsuprisingly, Caran d’Ache pencils require you to remortgage your

home, costing about $120 USD or £100 GBP for a set of 40.

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A set of 36 Faber-Castell will cost around $55 USD or £45GBP.

Derwent’s set of 48 costs about $50 USD and about the £40 GBP
price mark.

Koh-I-Noor set of 48 comes in at about $70 USD and about £40 GBP.

Irrespective of price, Faber-Castell are my favourite and with all the

ranges above in the same price category, it’s a no-brainer for me.


Serious and professional pastel artists will have a mix of soft, hard
and pastel pencils and they’ll very often use a combination of all
three on their paintings.

In my opinion, this is overkill for newcomers. Even if you’re lucky

enough for affordability not to be an issue, this amount of materials
just adds complexity and will lengthen the learning curve.

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I am going to suggest that you forget about a separate set of hard
pastels. Either go with soft pastels and pastel pencils, or pastel
pencils alone.

Here are some recommended mixes, which you can choose from
based on your preferences:

Option 1 - Budget not a concern

• A set of artist quality soft pastels such as Sennelier, Schmincke or
• A set of pastel pencils by Faber-Castell or Derwent

Option 2 - Budget conscious but not too restricted

• A set of higher priced student pastels (i.e. Faber-Castell Creative
Studio or Prismacolor NuPastel)
• A set of pastel pencils by Faber-Castell or Derwent

Option 3 - On a budget, want the shortest learning curve

• A set of pastel pencils by Faber-Castell or Derwent or hard pastels
by Conté or Prismacolor (my recommendation is pastel pencils for
the reasons given in the section above)

Option 4 - On a very tight budget

• A set of Inscribe / Mungyo pastels (these are hard enough to give
you some control and soft enough to experience some of the
blending and layering qualities of pastels)

Surface choices in most mediums are so varied nowadays that it can
become a bit overwhelming. Pastel papers and surfaces are no

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Fortunately, we can simplify things a lot by looking
at the main categories and skimming over the
more obscure or expensive that I wouldn’t
recommend for beginners.

Surface Texture

Papers and surfaces that are suitable for pastels

paintings all have one thing in common… they have
plenty of texture or ‘tooth’. A paper’s tooth refers to
the little peaks and valleys in its surface. It will feel rough
and uneven to the touch.

The opposite to this is a very smooth and flat surface, like

printer paper or hot pressed drawing paper. If you try to apply
pastel to a smooth surface, you’ll find that very little colour leaves the
pastel stick, and any that does tends to look very weak and insipid.

There are various types of textures available in pastel papers and

most fit into one of the categories below:

Texture #1 - Ingres or Laid Surfaces

Ingres or laid paper has a very distinctive

gridline pattern embossed into the surface.
You’ve probably seen it before without
being aware of its name and the feel of the
texture is quite subtle.

Ingres is a type of paper and not a brand

name. A lot of the well-known art brands
do their version of an Ingres paper and it
tends to be quite affordable.

Ingres surfaces won’t take a lot of layering

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because the texture is only minimal. The upside of this is that you
can move the pastel around and blend quite easily.

Because the of the uniform pattern and the relatively large gaps
between the peaks and troughs, it can be more difficult to achieve
sharp detail and you have to work quite hard to cover the pattern if
you don’t want it showing through.

I created the following images on an Ingres paper with pastel pencils:

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Affordable Won’t take a lot of layers

You might not like the gridline pattern

Easy to blend
showing through

Brands to look our for:

• Fabriano Ingres
• Clairefontaine Ingres
• Daler-Rowney Ingres
• Hahnemuhle Ingres

Texture #2 - Honeycomb or Dimpled

These types of papers are similar to Ingres
in that they have a slight texture embossed
into their surface. The pattern looks more
honeycombed or pitted compared to Ingres

Honeycomb textured papers tend to be a

bit pricier than Ingres but still relatively

Layering and blending ability tends to be

about the same as Ingres (limited layering,
easy blending).

The image below was completed on this type of paper:

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Affordable Won’t take a lot of layers

You might not like the honeycomb

Easy to blend
pattern showing through

Often has a more subtle texture on

the reverse

Brands to look our for:

• Canson Mi-Teintes (not Canson Mi-Teintes Touch though)

• Fabrian Tiziano
• Daler-Rowney Murano
• Strathmore pastel paper

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Texture #3 - Gritty Surfaces

Gritty surfaces have a slight sand paper like feel to them, though not
as harsh.

They grip on to the pastel extremely

well, and even after you’ve applied
several layers of intense colour, they
will still allow you to add a bright white
highlight on top.

Because of their gritty nature, it tends

to be a bit more difficult to move the
pastel around but you can still blend
beautifully with them and achieve much
subtler blends.

Gritty papers are pricey and you should

only use them for more serious pieces of art. Keep in mind that if
you’re going to start off just using pastel pencils, then gritty papers
will reduce their lifespan significantly!

I created the image below on Clairefontaine’s Pastelmat. Compare it

to the image of the older gentleman above, which I kept looser to
work better with the Canson Mi-Teintes:

Fantastic layering ability Expensive

Will use up your pastels more quickly

Allow for very subtle blends
(especially pastel pencils)

Great for sharp detail

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Brands to look our for:

• Clairefontaine Pastelmat
• Canson Mi-Teitnes Touch
• Art Spectrum Colorfix
• Sennelier Pastel Card

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Texture #4 - Velour Surfaces

Velour surfaces have a velvety, material-like feel to them. At first, you

wonder how well the pastel will grip on to it, but it does.

I’ll keep this bit short… velour surfaces are expensive and I only
recommend you experiment with them later on. They take quite a bit
of getting used to and find the surfaces above much more intuitive to
begin with.

Surface Colour

Good quality pastels (certainly the

brands I’ve mentioned in this guide )
will cover even the darkest coloured
papers. That means you no longer
have to stick to white or off white!

There are no right and wrong

colours. Each will give a subtlety
different feel to your painting and
they can act as a more interesting
background than plain white
(assuming you’re painting something
isolated like a portrait or animal for

I like to buy pads of various colours

and I usually work on a different
colour for each painting. Sometimes I’ll pick the colour at random,
sometimes, I’ll choose a colour because I think it will look nice in the

I completed these waterfall sketches on two different colours - one

on an orange-brown and one on an earthy brown. They have a

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different look to them (despite me using exactly the same colours)
but I don’t have a preference for one over the other:

Which Surface For You?

I recommend you start with either an Ingres surface or a honeycomb

dipped surface because of its affordability. My personal favourite is
Canson Mi-Teintes.

What I love about this paper is that it works well with soft pastels,
hard pastels and pastel pencils alike. It’s reversible with a more
subtle texture on one side and it’s relatively affordable.

Canson make a series of pads in different colour ranges, such as

earth tones and grey tones. Don’t fret over which colour to go with,
just choose whatever appeals.

Of course, any of the Ingres or honeycomb papers will work equally

as well, so do a search for the brands above and go with anything
that looks like it’s on offer.

Start with a pad. As you progress, and especially if you get a set of
soft pastels, you might want to work larger than a pad can

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accommodate. You can buy loose sheets of most of the above

If and when you fall in love with pastels, treat yourself to a gritty
paper. Clairefontaine’s Pastelmat is my favourite and despite it being
fairly pricey you won’t be disappointed!


You don’t sharpen soft pastels, and working them to a point on snap
paper or sand paper is a waste of very expensive pigment!

You can sharpen hard pastels but the square edges and corners are
designed to give you a fair degree of precision. Again, I think any kind
sharpening is throwing money down the drain.

Pastel pencils should be sharpened to get the most from their

precise nature, and the best tools for this are a craft knife and
sanding block (or piece of sand/glass paper).

Use a pencil sharpener at your peril! A good quality mechanical

sharpener will work a lot of the time but you’ll still get frustrating
breakages. Pastel pencils are just too expensive for those.

I feel so strongly about pencils breaking in sharpeners that I felt

compelled to make a video helping people avoid the same frustrating
fate! You can see it here:

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I recommend you get both a plastic / vinyl eraser and a kneaded /

putty eraser.

Plastic erasers can be very hit and miss. The two that I find most
consistent and that won’t damage your painting or the paper are:

• Faber-Castell plastic eraser

• Staedtler plastic eraser

My favourite kneaded eraser is by Faber-Castell and you’ll find it

much softer than other brands. It’s great for teasing to a point or thin
edge, and then used for lifting out precise marks.

If you plan to do any detailed or photo-realistic pastels, a retractible

eraser can be very handy giving you a lot of control. They can be a
little difficult to find so search for the Tombow Mono retractable

Blending Tools

You have a number of options here:

1. Your fingers
These are quick, easy and effective (don’t worry about grease unless
you’re simultaneously eating a bag of potato chips).

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2. A blending stump or tortillon
Cheap and give you more precision than your little finger. You can

unravel layers of paper to ‘clean’ the stump, which can be a little


3. A pastel shaper
Looks like a paint brush but has a rubber tip, available in various
sizes and shapes. You can get them in packs of various sizes and
you’ll find low-cost versions on Amazon (no need to go for the more
expensive well-known brands).

4. A soft brush
You can buy brushes especially for blending pastels but I think their
main use is best reserved for brushing away excess pastel. I blow the
excess dust away as I work in a studio that I’m happy to be messy in.
If you’re working in a room of your home, brush the excess pastel
dust on to a larger piece of scrap paper under your working paper
(see health and safety tips above).


Unlike other painting mediums, pastels will never set or dry. That
means they are prone to being smudged.

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You can minimise this with careful storage, such as loosely placing
grease proof or glassine paper over the front and keeping your
pastel artwork in one place (so you’re not moving it about too often).

If you ever create a pastel painting for commission, or to hang on the

wall, the mount and glass will prevent any smudging. Pastel particles
can still dislodge and fall over time, especially if
the painting is knocked, but on the whole a
framed pastel piece will remain perfectly intact.

I never use fixative spray. Neither do the

majority of pastel artists I know.

Fixative, regardless of the brand, will noticeably

change the appearance of your paintings. It can
darken colours significantly (which can look
terrible if you’ve worked on a dark background)
and it can give soft blends an unsightly grainy

You’ll find tips for using fixative on YouTube, along with cheap
alternatives like hairspray. But my advice is to avoid it and store your
pastel art carefully.

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Here is a quick reference lists based on my recommendations above.
I’ve linked to and as they tend to be the

See page 12 for a guide to buying a mix of pastels depending on your

budget and other preferences. I’ve created a table below the links to
the brands mentioned on that page.

Items are in no particular order. Refer to the sections above for

specific recommendations.

Question: are any of the links above not working or outdated?

Please contact me at and I’ll get it updated.
Thanks for your help!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide. Look out for out other free drawing
and painting guides at:

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Sennelier soft pastels Set of 40 half sticks Set of 40 half sticks

Rembrandt soft pastels Set of 60 half sticks Set of 60 half sticks

Prismacolor NuPastels Set of 48 Set of 48

Faber-Castell Creative Studio

Set of 48 Set of 48
hard pastels

Conté à Paris carres crayons Set of 48 Set of 48

Faber-Castell pastel pencils Set of 36 Set of 36

Derwent pastel pencils Set of 36 Set of 36

Caran D’Ache pastel pencils Set of 40 Set of 40

Inscribe / Mungyo budget

Set of 48 Set of 60


Pad of assorted Pad of assorted

Canson Mi-Teintes
colours colours

Pad of assorted Pad of assorted

Daler-Rowney Murano
colours colours

Pad of assorted Pad of assorted

Clairefontaine Ingres
colours colours

Pad of assorted Pad of assorted

Hahnemuhle Ingres
colours colours

Pad of assorted
Daler-Rowney Ingres Not available

Pad of assorted Pad of assorted

Clairefontaine Pastelmat
colours colours


Plastic eraser Pack of 2 Staedtler Staedtler eraser

Kneaded eraser Faber-Castell Prismacolor

Blending stump and Blending stump and

Blending stump
sanding block sanding block

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Phil Davies is the co-founder of and delivers many of
ArtTutor’s courses and lessons.
Other than high school art, he is
completely self-taught. His mediums
of choice include graphite, charcoal,
pen and ink, coloured pencil and
pastel pencil.

He lives in the Midlands of the UK

with his suffering wife and
exceptionally demanding young son.

You can see a list of Phil’s drawing courses here >>

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