What is pastel

‘Pastel’ usually refers to soft pastels. Soft pastels are made from powdered pigment and a little binder to keep the powder from falling apart. The binder is often some starch or gum. Good quality pastels are no more or less than this. Some lesser quality pastels include other materials to reduce cost or change handling. Extremely soft pastels with little binder can be very dusty depending on how you handle them.


Soft Pastel

Soft pastel is the most well known and popular type of pastel. There is a huge choice in soft pastel and quality ranges from poor to student to professional. The best brands have very little or no additives and consist purely of pigment and a little binder.

The softness of soft pastels can vary enormously. Some brands offer extremely soft pastels that break easily. These are often the most highly pigmented pastels. Other brands come close to hard pastels and are much easier to handle.


Soft - Hard Pastels

Super soft: SchminckeSennelierTerry Ludwig

SoftUnison, Mount Vision, Jackson's soft pastel

Medium softArt Spectrum, Rembrandt, Faber-Castell soft pastel

Hard pastels: Nupastel, Caran D'Arche cubes, Faber-Castell Polychromos

Hard Pastels

Hard pastels often contain a little bit of clay as well as pigment. Hard pastels often have slightly less vibrant colours than soft pastels because it simply contains less pigment. Hard pastels are easier to use though, as they don't break or crumble as easily, and can take sharpening, which is useful for drawing fine detail.


Soft Pastel Quality

Professional quality: Some pastel brands are very expensive but you do get what you pay for. Well known professional quality brands are SennelierUnisonTerry Ludwig and many others.

Student quality: More affordable pastel brands will contain less pigment or less quality pigments. They are often a medium soft pastel so not as soft as the most professional ones. Colours are less nuanced and sticks are often (not always) square and short). Well known brands are Faber-Castell Soft Pastel, InscribeCretacolor, Mungyo.


Pastel Pencils

Pastel pencils are soft pastels in a pencil. Putting soft pastel in a pencil has advantages and disadvantages.

Pastel pencils are often used for fine detail work such portraits and refined still life. Some brands are softer than others but they are all harder than soft pastel sticks.

Well known brands are Stabilo CarbothelloDerwentCaran D'Ache, and Koh-I-Noor.

Pros and Cons of Pastel Pencils

  • Easy to hold and handle
  • No dirty fingers
  • No dirty fingers
  • ​Good for fine detail
  • Break easily 
  • Expensive
  • ​Not great for bold marks
  • Less colourful

Pan Pastels

Pan pastels are soft pastels in a pan shape. They work a little bit like make up; with an applicator or sponge you can apply beautiful and subtle shades. The use of an applicator makes it feel more like you are painting with a brush and the effects can indeed be quite painterly.

Pan pastels are easy to use and very blendable. They create much less dust than normal soft pastels and are very versatile.


Oil Pastel

Oil pastels are made from pigment and wax or a non-drying oil. Contrary to oil sticks, oil pastels never really dry and will always remain a little sticky. Sennelier is one of the most well known manufactures of oil pastels.

Oil pastels are very versatile and often used in mixed media applications. Their hardness can vary from incredibly buttery and smudgy to a much harder crayon type.



Chalk is rarely added to soft pastels and so the reference to 'chalk pastels' does not really make any sense. School board chalks have the same shape but are made of chalk (calcium carbonate).


Best for Beginners

Buy the best you can afford as it really pays off to have good quality art materials. If you are completely new to pastels you could start with a medium soft pastel such as Rembrandt. Hard and soft pastels feel very different so ideally you try a few types and see what you like best. To experiment with various types of pastel visit The Pastel Place.

Pastel Papers

There is a large variety of pastel papers available but they can roughly be divided into two camps: sanded papers and drawing papers. Prices and qualities vary a lot. Find your favourite pastel paper by simply trying a few. Almost all pastel papers come in a range of colours. 


The tooth of paper refers to the texture of a paper. The height of the tooth will decide how much pastel the paper can hold. The texture has to be very fine for it to be able to hold pigment. Low tooth paper is smooth and cannot hold much pastel. High tooth paper has a much rougher feel and can take lots of pigment. In a high tooth paper the fine texture is much deeper and the pastel pigment particles will get 'stuck' between the texture. This way the paper will 'grab' the pastel. The higher the tooth the more it can take. Low tooth paper cannot hold much pastel and if you apply extra layers it will simply fall off.

Sanded papers

Sanded papers is where pastel can really shine. Sanded papers get their name from sandpaper as the texture is often a little similar. Sanded papers have a high tooth and can take many layers of pastel. This means you can over paint mistakes, you can scumble over areas and you can hatch layer upon layer. This opens up a host of possibilities for the artist. Popular and good quality papers are Art Spectrum ColourfixPastelmatUart, and Canson Mi-Teintes Touch and Sennelier LaCarte.


Drawing papers

Drawing papers are usually lightweight (around 160mgs) coloured, textured paper that are suitable for pastel, charcoal and pencil. They are good for light sketches and drawings. The low tooth makes them unsuitable for paintings with many layers or for fixing mistakes endlessly. Popular pastel drawing papers are Ingres papers, Canson Mi-TeintesDaler-Rowney Murano.


The international Art and Materials Institute (ACMI) has been making efforts to encourage safety in art materials since 1940. Their seal of approval can be found on many art materials in the form of labels. You can find the AP or CL label on many pastel brands indicating the level of safety from toxic materials in the pastels.

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There are few standard lightfastness tests that are used solely for pastels. Some brands use a more generic testing standard for art materials, which, at least, gives us some indication of the lightfastness of pigments. Much more research and universal standard for all is very much needed. Unison pastels are universally considered very lightfast and Rembrandt pastels have a lightfastness rating printed on their wrappers.



The very softest soft pastels can be dusty, depending on how you use them. It is always sensible to use soft pastels gently and avoid creating lots of dust. Always work vertically so any dust will fall down onto an easel ledge, or a piece of paper/cloth that is put beneath the art work specifically to catch any dust. Do not blow on your work as dust will get into the air and will settle everywhere (including your lungs). Soft pastel dust is not toxic but just like normal house dust it is not a good idea to breath in lots of dust. People with asthma or other health concerns must use their own judgment an opt for masks or gloves as they see fit.


Soft pastels are held in the hand and so no dangerous pigments will be used that cannot be touched by the skin. Many soft pastel brands don't use any toxic pigments at all (such as Talens Rembrandt) but others use such low amounts that they are generally considered to pose no harm. Lead is not used but some brands use cadmium or cobalt in their pastels. Governments will have various laws on labelling and most pastel brands do not need to carry any labels warning about health hazards.


Basic Pastel Techniques

1. Use the tip of a pastel stick to create line drawings, for hatching and dabbing. Vary the presure to create thicker or thinner lines.

2. Use the side of the pastel stick (remove the wrapper) to create big bold 'brush' marks. Break the pastel stick to get the required width. 

3. Blending with your fingers, a torchon or a tissue can create beautiful soft effects. Don't over-blend though as you'll loose liveliness and texture.

4. Layer your pastel strokes to create colour mixes; either by blending, scumbling or hatching. 

5. Break a pastel stick to get a sharp point with which to make sharp lines or small detail. 


A fixative is an synthetic (acrylic) spray that can be used to give pastel paintings extra strength. The tiny particles will help stick the pastel to the paper, thereby reducing the risk of any pastel particles falling off. A big downside of fixative is that it basically makes the pastel 'wet' and it darkens the colour of the pastel (dramatically in some cases). 

If you have a lightweight drawing that smudges easily (like a charcoal drawing) you could apply some fixative to reduce the smudge risk. For full blown pastel paintings a fixative is usually not necessary if you work on a high toothed sanded pastel paper. 



Soft pastel paintings, like charcoal drawings, can smudge easily (no fixative will save it) and so need to be framed behind glass. Make sure the glass does not touch the pastel painting by using a mat/mount or spacers. Keep framed pastel paintings facing up or on their sides, to avoid any pastel dust falling on the glass. Keep glazed paintings away from direct sunlight, excessive heat, cold or damp places.


The Pastel Place

A place where everything pastel comes together.  A place to experiment, practice and shine. An online course for everyone who wants to dive deeper into soft pastel, whether you are a total beginner or a more advanced pastel painer. In this course you will learn fundamental paintings principles as well as specific pastel painting techniques. Your fellow students and course guide Sophie look forward to seeing you in the private forum where we discuss the lesson, help out and provide feedback. Come on in! 


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