Introduction to Pastels

15th Oct 2015 Art Materials

For years I have limited myself to graphite pencils and colored pencils for the fear of not being able to handle any other medium.

When I finally took the step to try a new medium, the soft pastels, I didn’t regret it. Some people say pastels are the easiest medium to work with and a very popular choice. I love how they are a drawing like medium but provide a color rich, paint like environment. There is no need to prepare the drawing surface as pastels can be applied directly. There is no need to wait for it to dry, or fear of harsh chemicals!

Some people new to pastels might think pastels can only produce soft subtle pale tones due to their name. However, this is a common misconception. Pastels can be extremely versatile and can produce intensely vibrant and vivid colors.

Unfortunately, one of the limitations of pastels is that colors cannot be pre-mixed as with liquid paints. To achieve subtle layering of colors, usually different shades of one color are blended with fingers directly on the paper or by carefully overlaying one color with another, so the lower layer shines through.

This means that the total range of colors and shades for pastels are much more than those for acrylics or oil paints. Some pastel manufacturers offer several shades of the same color in a pack. This can become very pricey as you have to by several shades of one color, whereas with paints you would just add some white to a, eg. dark green tone, to get different lighter green tones. The positive side of having to layer different shades of pastels, however, is that the colors keep their purity and stay much more vibrant that those of mixed paint colors.


Most Common Pastel Types

Pastels come in a variety of different types. They come with different strengths of pigments and some can be much harder than others. Understanding their qualities is the first step in the journey of pastel painting.


Soft Pastels

soft pastel

Soft pastels might be the most popular and mostly used form of pastels. In their original form they are composted of pure pigment, chalk and a gum solution. They have less binder and thus produce strong vibrant colors and give a smoother velvety feel. They come in either square or round forms (usually about 2” to 3” long). Soft pastels have the widest selection of colors available. You can get the cheaper ones which are usually machine manufactured or the more pricey ones which are hand-made, latter usually has superb quality and I can highly recommend them.


Hard Pastels

hard pastels

Hard pastels are, as the name suggest, harder in their consistence due to more binder and are this less vibrant than soft pastels. They are perfect for drawing finer, crisper details and producing lines. Usually soft and hard pastels are used together in one painting. Hard pastels can be sharpened to a point and offer possibilities soft pastels cannot achieve. However, hard pastels don’t have the extensive color selection as soft pastels have, so you will need different optical color mixing techniques to achieve different shades and tones.


Pastel Pencils

pastel pencil

Pastel pencils are simply hard pastels encased in wooden pencils. Their primary advantage is that they are not so messy to use as are the soft and hard pastel pencils as you don’t directly get in touch with pastel pigments. They can be sharpened like an ordinary pen and thus create sharp details and lines. Pastel pencils are available in a limited range of colors when compared to soft pastels. They can be purchased in a set or as individual pencils.


Oil Pastels

oil pastel

Oil pastels are totally different from hard and soft pastels. They use oil rather than gum as a binder which makes them very sensitive to temperatures. When using them for a long time (or maybe even during the summer) they will soften and get harder to apply. In comparison to soft and hard pastels, however, they can be used on more surfaces than just paper. You can use oil pastels on canvas, or boards and just like oil paints oil pastels can also be used with turpentine which offers hundreds of new possibilities of painting.



Personally I prefer soft pastels mainly, but use a variety of hard pastels and pencils for finer details at the end of a portrait painting. There are many different soft pastel brand and not all of them are very good. I will talk about soft and hard pastel brand in another post.


Which medium do you prefer? Have you tried soft or hard pastels?