Pastels are a great medium to explore—all you need to get started are the pastels themselves and a piece of paper. You can make beautiful scenes with pastels alone or use them to add color and detail to mixed media work. If you’ve never used pastels before, it may be hard to decide which to try first. Traditional soft pastels are dry and chalky; oil pastels are a much newer medium and act similar to oil paints.
In this post, we will look at the history and physical differences between the two pastels and highlight tips for using each type of pastel to its best advantage. Pastel artwork can be interchangeably referred to as “pastel painting” or pastel drawing. The pastel landscape pictured above is "Folly Farm" by Carolyn Wilkinson. It was made using Rembrandt Pastels on sanded pastel paper—a great example of landscape painting using soft pastels.
Soft Pastels (a.k.a Chalk Pastels)
Soft or “French” pastels are much chalkier in consistency than oil pastels. They are made by combining dry pigments with binders and setting the formula into sticks. Kaolin clay is a popular binder for high quality artists’ pastels. When working with these pastels, it is necessary for your surface to have an adequate “tooth” to grab the pigments.
Many manufacturers make papers that are specially formulated to use with soft pastels. Fibrous papers or sanded papers are wonderful for soft pastels. Sanded paper is currently a popular choice because the surface has such an excellent tooth for grabbing the pigments of chalk pastels. It is typically made with marble dust, aluminum oxide and pumice embedded in one side of the page. These abrasive materials make the surface slightly bumpy and give it the proper tooth to hold onto the medium.
It is recommended that you start building your palette with about 15 colors as a base for your pastel set. As you experiment, you can slowly add new colors to your repertoire instead of going all-out on a large and expensive set at the beginning.
Notable pastel artists of the past include Rosalba Carriera, Edgar Degas, Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Odilon Redon and Wolf Kahn. Soft Pastels were around since the 16th century, but gained popularity in the early 18th century and have continued to be an exciting option for portraits, landscapes and mixed media today.
Hard pastels are French (chalk) pastels that have more binder added to the formula to make them less crumbly. Available in both pencil and stick form, they can be sharpened to a point for creating finer details. Finer, harder edges can be achieved with this type of pastel and it can be used alone, or in combination with any other pastels. Some people use hard pastels to add finishing touches or fine details to soft pastel works.
These unique pastels can be used dry or wet. They have a chalky consistency and, like hard pastels, are available in stick and pencil form. Many soft and hard pastels are also water soluble, but these are formulated especially for use with water.
There are two types of fixatives to use with pastels. Workable fixatives can be applied to the surface of a pastel drawing when the paper becomes saturated with pigment and cannot pick up any more color. Spray a workable fixative over your work to create additional tooth so you can keep coloring.
A finishing fixative is applied to pastel work to prevent it from being smudged. A face-resistant, clear fixative coating will protect your artwork when it is finished.
General Pastel Tips and Tricks:
- Apply colors in layers to avoid over-applying. A piece of paper will only accept so many layers of pastel. There are papers especially designed to absorb many layers of pastel.
- Use thicker paper for both chalk pastels and oil pastels. Heavier papers like watercolor paper, printing paper, or any other textured paper is good to use with pastels.
- Student grade pastels are a great value and many artists use them for experimentation. Artists’ quality pastels are pricier but the brilliance and smooth consistency are incomparable.
Oil pastels are quite similar to oil paints because they are genrally made with plant-based oils and pigment. Some, like those made by Winsor & Newton are made with pure, high quality pigment and linseed oil. Other oil pastels, like the traditional Cray-Pas, also have wax binder and mineral oil and never fully dry because of this formula.
The look and shape of pastels is very similar to crayons—in fact, oil pastels are sometimes called oil wax crayons. Slow drying oil such as linseed makes oil pastels act much like oil paint. Unlike oil paint, oil pastels are more difficult to blend.
Oil pastels as we know them were invented in 1925 by Sakura Color Products of Osaka, Japan. “Cray-pas” pastels were made with paraffin wax, stearic acid, pigments and coconut oil. Compared to traditional “French” soft pastels, these new pastels were easy for younger artists to use and inexpensive to produce. They were colorful, expressive and easy to apply to paper. The oil pastels available today are softer and richer than the original Cray-pas pastels.
Oil pastels are often preferred over soft pastels because they do not have the same tendency to crumble when working. It could be said that it takes a certain finesse to handle French pastels because they are more delicate in this way. French pastels are also harder to store and display because of the crumbly quality of this medium.
Oil pastels are generally applied to paper, but can be used on a wide variety of surfaces: metal, glass, wood, Masonite, fiberboard, ceramic, canvas and more. Oil pastels can be applied in a way that mimics the look of soft pastels, or they can be laid on thickly and built up to achieve an impasto effect. After oil pastel is applied to a surface, it can be worked over with a brush dipped in solvent or oil. Manipulating the pastel with Gamsol or linseed oil can result in a very interesting blended look. You can also scrape away layers of pastel in a sgraffito technique.
Another option for blending is to use a colorless blender like the Oilbar Colourless or the Cray-Pas Extender Stick. These colorless blenders can be used to blend oil pastels instead of Gamsol. Blenders also contain a siccative to aid in the drying process.
Oil Pastel Tips and Tricks:
- You can apply a brush dipped in solvent over a pastel drawing to create blending and other effects
- Student and children’s grade oil pastels tend to crumble a bit more than professional quality pastels because the binder or production process is less refined.
- Wear disposable gloves to protect your hands from the medium.
Soft Pastel Tips and Tricks:
- To avoid smearing colors, instead of wiping away crumbs or blowing on them, turn the page over and hold it over a trash bin. Tap your fingers on the back of the drawing a few times and all the excess crumbs should drop right off.
- Seal your soft pastel work with a fixative so that it adheres to the paper better over time.
- Use a tortillion, stump, chamois for blending instead of your fingers. Stumps are made of compressed paper and have two pointed ends that can be sharpened like pencils before blending. Tortillions are made from soft gray, tightly wound paper and are only sharpened on one end. Chamois is a very soft, porous leather cloth and is also available as a synthetic cloth.