Cheery, pastel drawing of a Queen Anne style blue house with large front porch, white trim, lots of flowers and a dog
Credit: Class Drawing Houses in Pastel: Paint a Unique Realistic Portrait of Your Home by Wiktoria Miko This pastel house portrait is detailed and realistic, including architecture, landscaping, and even a pet dog.

Pastels provide brilliant color in a handheld stick. Like paint, they come in many varieties and an endless range of colors.  

Artists started using pastels in the 17th century as an alternative to paint, brushes, palettes and jars of water. Paper and the pastels themselves are the only materials required.

What Does Pastel Mean?

“Pastel” comes from Latin for “paste,” as the sticks mix pigments with paste-like binders. The word came to mean pale colors because the pigments are less vibrant than in paint. Higher quality sticks contain more pigment, while lower quality pastels contain more binder.  

Learning how to use pastels depends on the look you’re going for, your budget and how messy you want to get. 

Types of Pastels

Manufacturers and artists categorize pastels on a few different factors:

  • Quality: Artist quality pastels contain better pigment and won’t fade. Student quality pastels contain lower quality pigment and more filler. The color is less intense, though the sticks are more durable. 
  • Binder: Oil pastels bind pigment with oil and wax, while other types use gum, resin or cellulose. Pastels with the same binder can blend together while different binders make blending difficult. 
  • Resistance: Non-oil pastels are often categorized as hard or soft. Hard pastels contain less pigment and work for sketching. You can create painted effects with soft pastels, which contain more pigment   

Pastels can come in sets or as individual sticks. Buy individual sticks to figure out which type works best for you, then select a base palette set. You can build your palette with individual new and replacement sticks. 

Natural pigment pastels will cost more, especially if the pigments are rare. Synthetic pigment pastels may be labeled as “hues.” 

Oil Pastels

To harness the feel of paint without tools or harsh chemicals, choose oil pastels. The cylindrical sticks combine pigment with oil and wax for a buttery texture that glides across paper and blends almost as well as paint.

The oil binder means oil pastels aren’t crumbly and won’t easily smudge or create dust. In fact, you can apply them thickly, almost like paint, or thin them for a glaze or wash. Oil pastels don’t require a fixative, but they also never dry completely.  

Oil pastels aren’t ideal for capturing details and won’t blend with non-oil pastels.

Chalk Pastels

Despite some confusion out there, chalk and pastels are not the same. While pastel uses gum or oil as a binder, chalk is essentially limestone. 

However, chalk pastels may refer to certain soft pastels. These occasionally contain some chalk, though it is not a standard ingredient.  

With gentle blending, you can make soft drawings with chalk pastels.

Pan Pastels

This newer form is a kind of soft pastel and comes in pans or jars rather than sticks. Because so little binder is required, pan pastels contain more pigment than just about any other type of pastel.  

Artists use the pigment by lifting it from the pan with a brush, sponge or other tool and applying it to the paper. 

Pan pastels blend well, can be erased and make less dust than pastels containing more binder and filler. 

Woman holding up a tray of pan pastels in brown, blue, black, white, orange and yellow
Credit: Class Creating Realistic Wildlife With Pan Pastels and Pastel Pencils - Tiger Eye by LaVonne LaVonne shows us the tray of pan pastels she will use to paint a tiger’s eye.

Soft Pastels

The most traditional and popular pastels are soft pastels. They come in cylindrical sticks in a large range of colors and are ideal for artists just starting out. 

Soft pastels tend to be “chalkier” than oil pastels (even if they contain no chalk), though they still contain a lot of pigment and as little binder as possible. The high amount of pigment makes for intense color and successful blending and layering. However, the sticks tend to be crumbly.   

Soft vs Hard Pastels

Hard pastels use the same ingredients but with less pigment and more binder and filler. They come in cylinders or rectangular sticks, the latter of which can be sharpened with knives.  

Artists often use both types in combination. Draw with hard pastels for preliminary sketches and lines, then use soft pastels for blending and filling.

Be careful about breathing in dust from soft and hard pastels. Even non-toxic varieties might need a fixative to reduce smudging and dust. These fixatives can alter the tone and texture of your art. 

Dry Pastels

Non-oil pastels are considered dry pastels. While the pastels themselves are dry, you may blend them with water for a more paint-like look. 

Pencil Pastels

This super convenient medium has a consistency somewhere between hard and soft pastels in pencil form. Use them wet or dry and combine them with other dry pastels for all kinds of pieces. 

Pencil pastels give artists the ultimate in control and aren’t messy, making them perfect for highly detailed work. Understand that they will not blend with graphite pencils.

Creating Oil Pastel Art

Wondering how to use oil pastels as a beginner? All you need are pastels and a drawing surface. The versatility of pastels means you have several surface options, though some work better than others.

Pastel surfaces include:

  • Paper 
  • Canvas
  • Boards

Textured paper is the most commonly used surface for pastels because it has enough “tooth” (bumps and valleys) to grip and hang on the pastel color. The texture also helps with blending and techniques like layering. 

While you can use pastels on any type of paper, the ideal (in addition to tooth) is something thick and strong enough to hold up against rubbing and blending. Paper made of 100 percent cotton is quite strong and acid-free to prevent yellowing. Look for sheets weighing 160 grams or more.   

Canvas is another reliable option. Consider avoiding pre-primed canvas, as the primer (gesso) can reduce the canvas’ tooth.

Pastel board is paper mounted on a solid board. The board is more expensive than paper alone, but helpful if your techniques are particularly rough on paper. 

Depending on your technique, you may want materials like a palette knife, cotton swabs, paper towel and other things for texturing and blending your oil pastels. 

Painting With Oil Pastels

Your drawings in oil pastel will become more like paintings when the pigment covers the entire surface. If the surface texture doesn’t influence the visual of the final piece, it’s considered a pastel painting.  

How to Blend Oil Pastels

Get hands on to really learn to paint and blend oil pastels. Just remember to clean the sticks when other colors adhere to them. Certain techniques can enhance your painting:

  • Change the angle of your hand.
  • Increase or decrease pressure.
  • Practice tinting and shading (see credited class in picture below for further guidance).
  • Use knives, paper towels and other tools.
  • Add a little water or solvent.
Four-by-three grid of squares, each with an example of oil pastel blending techniques in a full range of colors and textures
Credit: Class Oil Pastels Bootcamp: A Missing Manual for Success by Jen Dixon Jen demonstrates 12 oil pastel blending techniques in a full range of colors and textures.

Ideas for Oil Pastel Drawings

The ideas for oil pastels are as numerous as their colors. You might want a realistic still life; you might want an abstract pattern. Whichever you choose, enjoy experimenting with blending, brands and techniques.  

Find Your Faves and Start Drawing

With a basic understanding of how to use pastels, you can pick your favorite types and start practicing techniques. You’re sure to find the medium accessible and fun!  

Pick the Perfect Pastels

Exploring Color in Your Illustrations Using a Limited Color Palette

Written By
Katie Mitchell

Katie Mitchell

Katie lives in Michigan with her husband, kids and pets. She enjoys cooking, travel and live music.

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