What Are Pastels? - Complete Beginners Guide - The Creative Folk (2023)

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There is a lot to learn about the art world. From painting to drawing to sculpting; color theory to blending to creating depth – the details of art are truly infinite.

Among the different forms of art, there are countless mediums and media to work with. In the paint world, you have oil, acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and more. In the sculpture world, you can work with clay, wood, metal, stone, or even found objects.

Sometimes people think drawing is limited to just pencils and charcoal, but beginner artists often forget one great art medium: pastels.

So, what are pastels? Pastel means two different things in the art world. One is an art medium made of pigment, chalk, and a binder molded into a stick form, and the other describes a lighter shade of color.

Artists need to be familiar with both types of pastel, the art medium and the color palette. Each of them has a specific purpose in the art world and can help a beginner artist become more well-rounded in their artistic knowledge.

What Are Pastels?

Pastels are a type of art medium traditionally used on paper or another surface that has sufficient tooth and texture.

Most pastels are made of pigment, chalk, and a binder, then molded and formed into a stick shape. Oil pastels are made of pigment, wax, and oil.

Because most pastels are made of chalk, the surface they’re used on has to have enough tooth and texture. This means that the surface needs to have grooves for the chalk to stick to. If you run your finger over pastel paper, you can feel these grooves, called teeth.

If you were to apply pastels to a regular piece of printer paper, you could blow on the paper and all the chalk dust would fly up into the air, removing all color from the paper.

For pastels to work properly, they need to have a textured surface to grip onto.Pastels are a common art medium for drawing thanks to their vibrancy and ease of use. They blend beautifully and create soft, dynamic works of art.

Types Of Pastels

In the pastel world, there are different types of pastels. Each of these pastel types has their own advantages and disadvantages, and you may find yourself stocking up on sets of more than one pastel type to give you a better range in your art.

1. Soft Pastels

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Soft pastels are the most popular and traditional type of pastel. They’re made with the same binder as watercolor called gum arabic, giving them a smooth and flexible feel.

One of the reasons soft pastels are the most popular is because they have a high pigment and low binder ratio, making their colors bright and vibrant.

They’re also incredibly easy to work with since they blend better than some other pastel types.

A major drawback to soft pastels is how easily they crumble. As chalk does, it breaks down as it’s being used, leaving behind dust that lifts into the air.

If you have respiratory issues or sensitivity to dust, soft pastels may not be the right choice for you.

(Video) A Beginner's Guide to Soft Pastels

Soft pastels are best used outdoors where the dust can dispel naturally in the air, or in a well-ventilated room with an air purifier.

You can wear a mask while working with soft pastels, but many people find this uncomfortable and not feasible while trying to relax and work with their art.

Still, soft pastels are a great art medium for those who want to create vivid works of art with soft blending and vibrant colors.

Check out the video below from the ArtTutor.com channel on YouTube.

2. Hard Pastels

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Hard pastels are the opposite of soft pastels; they have a higher amount of binder and a lower amount of pigment.

Their colors are still vibrant, but the higher amount of binder allows for a stronger and stiffer body, eliminating the dust issue that soft pastels have.

Hard pastels won’t crumble when you use them. In fact, they’re so strong, you can sharpen them with a knife to get a more precise point.

Because they’re so sturdy and able to be used on a small, sharp point, hard pastels are great to use for outlines or small detail work.

You can still achieve the same great color palette as soft pastels, but with more precision and sharp details.

The drawback, however, is that hard pastels don’t blend as well. Since the composition of hard pastels is thicker, the colors won’t blend as well on the page.

Many artists use soft pastels to do a lot of color work and blending, then use hard pastels to add small details. You can combine different types of pastels to create any image you have in mind.

Check out the video below from Art Scribe on YouTube.

3. Oil Pastels

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Oil pastels stand apart from the other types of pastels because they have a different composition. Rather than using chalk and binder, oil pastels are made with pigment, wax, and oil.

Since oil pastels are made with wax instead of chalk, they have more of a soft crayon feel, though they are very different from crayons. They have a much smoother texture and glide across the page with ease to create beautiful strokes of color.

Oil pastels are widely loved because they give more of a painted look. Rather than the chalky appearance of other pastels, oil pastels have a darker and more vibrant aesthetic.

If your goal is to create drawings with richly saturated colors, oil pastels are the way to go. You’ll achieve deep, rich colors to give your drawing depth and texture.

Another up side to using oil pastels is that they won’t crumble or release dust into the air. Without the chalk, oil pastels are easier to work with and won’t break down as you’re working on your drawing.

(Video) A COMPLETE Beginners Guide to Soft Pastels & Pastel Pencils

Check out the video below from Drawing & Painting – The Virtual Instructor on YouTube.

4. Pan Pastels

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Pan pastels are more of a recent trend. Rather than the pastels in stick form that you can hold in your hand and draw with, pan pastels are pastel colors that have been molded into pans or trays, like watercolor paints.

To use pan pastels, you need to acquire pan pastel tools designed to pick up the pan pastel colors and spread them on the page. It has more of a painting feel than drawing, though you still get a somewhat chalky appearance in your finished product.

The chalk is a very small amount compared to hard and soft pastels, though. Pan pastels have the brightest look because they have a higher pigment content, since they don’t need as much chalk to hold the pigment together into a stick form.

They also create significantly less dust, if releasing very much at all.

Pan pastels are perfect for artists who love to paint, but want to branch out into different mediums. You’ll get the feel of painting with the ease of pastels.

You also won’t have to wait for your paint to dry, since you’re not using any paint at all.

One major downside to pan pastels is that they’re often more expensive when compared to pastels in stick form. You’ll have to pay more money to get less color options when buying a set of pan pastels.

Check out the video below from Kirsty Rebecca Fine Art on YouTube.

5. Pastel Pencils

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Another form of pastels other than sticks or pan is the pastel pencil.

Pastel pencils are exactly what they sound like. It’s a thin stick of pastel inside of a wooden stick, just as you’d find a thin stick of graphite in a wooden stick for a regular pencil.

Although it would seem like having the pastel in this form might take away from the smooth consistency of pastels, pastel pencils actually have a consistency somewhere between hard and soft pastels.

They’re not as crumbly as soft pastels, but not as dense as hard pastels.

This flexibility in the consistency makes them a great choice for a wide range of art. You can use them to create your entire work of art, or you can use them for sketching out the general idea before going in with your soft pastels.

They’re still soft enough to allow for blending, so if you want to use them for your whole drawing, rest assured that you’ll still be able to blend your colors.

Pastel pencils are a great option for those who need mobility in their art. If pastel is your go-to medium but you need flexibility for travel, then we recommend investing in a pack of pastel pencils to keep you engaging with your art no matter where you are.

Check out the video below from Kirsty Rebecca Fine Art on YouTube.

(Video) Soft pastel techniques | Soft pastels for beginners


If the details above are overwhelming you and you need a quick at-a-glance guide to pastel types, we’ve got you covered. Check out the summary below of the different pastel types:

  • Soft pastels:
    • Softer in consistency
    • Crumble when used
    • Release dust, best used outdoors
    • Have high pigment to create vibrant works of art
    • Blend well
  • Hard pastels:
    • Sturdy consistency
    • Don’t crumble when used
    • Can be sharpened with a knife for precision work
    • Don’t blend easy
    • Ideal for details and outlines
  • Oil pastels:
    • No chalk or dust
    • smooth consistency
    • glides across the page
    • gives a painted look rather than chalky look
    • Blend well
  • Pan pastels:
    • Colors packed into trays
    • Require tools for application
    • Higher pigment
    • Painterly yet chalky finish
    • More expensive
  • Pastel pencils:
    • Consistency in between hard and soft
    • Easy to hold and use
    • Allow for mobility
    • Great for outlining
    • Sharpen for precision

What Are Pastels Good For?

Pastels are used to create two types of art: drawings and paintings.Pastel drawings are when there’s still some of the paper or surface showing through beneath your art. This would be areas of the paper you intentionally left blank and did not cover with color.

Pastel paintings are when you’ve covered the entire paper or surface with pastels. Not a single area of the paper or surface shows through, because it’s been painted corner to corner and edge to edge with pastels.

For sketch artists who like to create drawings in a sketch pad, pastels are a great medium to add a soft, dreamy quality to the art.

The chalk component of pastels means that they create softer drawings with smoother blends and less hard lines.However, you can still add those small details with hard lines by using hard pastels or pastel pencils.

This gives you more range to not only create smooth, dream-like drawings and paintings, but to add incredible detail to those works of art and create something truly stunning.

Supplies For Using Pastels

Aside from just picking up a pack of pastels, you’ll need other supplies before you can get started on your art.You already know that with pan pastels, you’ll need to buy pan pastel tools to apply it to the paper.

Below is a list of supplies that are required for making great pastel artwork:

  • Ingres pastel paper: This is a special type of paper specifically designed for use with pastels. It has the right amount of tooth and texture to grab the pastels and keep the color on the page.
  • Pastelbord: An alternative surface to pastel paper, you could also use pastels on pastelboard. This is a harder, thicker surface than paper, designed to be framed and put on display.
  • Workable fixative: This is a type of fixative spray that can be used as you’re working. If you’re in the middle of a pastel drawing or painting and need to put it down before you’re done, simply spray it with workable fixative to keep the colors in place. When you return to your drawing, you can keep working on top of the fixative spray.
  • Final fixative: When you’ve finished your pastel drawing or painting, you’ll need to spray it with fixative to keep the colors in place.

Tips And Tricks For Using Pastels

Pastels are easy to use, but there are little tricks that make them easier to work with and help create better pieces of art.The first tip for using pastels is to make sure you use the right paper. For best results, you should use pastel paper, also called ingres paper.

Stay away from watercolor paper or drawing paper. The reason different types of paper exist for different mediums is that they each need a different tooth and texture to apply the medium just right.If you want to have best results with your pastels, use pastel paper.

Another tip is to apply your dark colors first, then finish the artwork with your light colors. This helps prevent your light colors from getting lost or muddied by any dark colors.

For blending, you’ll have to blend the colors directly on the page. You can’t pick up pieces of pastel and blend them together on a separate surface like you would with paint. Pastels need to be blended on the paper or surface they’re applied to.

You can do this by smudging the pastels with your fingers, or if you want to try to keep your hands clean, use a sponge or brush.

Keep in mind that every color you apply to the page is there permanently. Pastel colors are not easily undone, so be very sure about the colors you’re using and where you’re using them before putting them on the paper.

Finally, use fixative sprays to help with your art.

Workable fixatives are designed to hold your pastel chalk in place before the drawing is finished. This is helpful if you’re interrupted in the middle of your art.

Final fixative sprays are designed to protect your finished product. It will seal in the chalk dust of your pastels and lock in your artwork.

When working with oil pastels, you won’t need to use fixative sprays at all, since they’re made with wax instead of chalk.

What Are Pastel Colors?

Switching gears from pastels as an art medium, pastel colors are defined as lighter shades of a color created by adding a greater amount of light, called luminance.

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This increase in light lowers the color saturation and lightens up the pigment.

Pastel colors are often soft and bright. Some examples are baby pink, mint green, pale blue, and light yellow. In color theory terms, pastels are tints, or hues (pure colors) that have been brightened by adding white.

You can create your own pastel colors in any art medium by mixing it with white. This works especially well with paints and pastels (the art medium).

Pastel colors are often associated with femininity, relaxation, babies, and elegance. This may seem like a wide range, but it’s a group of concepts that ties into a certain sense of softness.

How Are Pastels Different Than Other Colors?

Pastels are different than other colors because it’s a pure color mixed only with white. To achieve other shades or tones, you would have to muddy the color by adding black or grey. With pastels, you’re taking a pure color and only adding light.

This means that pastels have a unique light look to them that stands out among different hues, shades, and tones of the same color.If you put mint green next to forest green next to kelly green, you can see an immediate difference between the light, dark, and bright.

Pastels still retain their color, though. Depending on the amount of luminance added, your pastels can be as soft or vibrant as you want.

Best Ways To Use Pastel Colors

Pastel colors are used for a wide variety of purposes, not just within the art world but outside of it.

For art, pastel colors are used to brighten up the page. They work great to blend with more vibrant colors and create a light source, or to highlight certain aspects of the image.

You can use pastel colors to highlight aspects of a person’s face, create soft fields of wildflowers, or add vibrant light sources in a dark image such as a night scene.

Outside of art, pastel colors are used in interior design, marketing, weddings, and baby-related decorations and events.

Pastel colors are used in interior design to brighten up a room. If you have a space that doesn’t have a lot of windows or natural light, pastel colors can make it feel lighter than it is.

Pastel colors also help to make a small space feel bigger. If you have a small room that feels cramped, using pastel colors on the wall and for the furniture and decorations give it a more open feel and help the space not feel as claustrophobic.

Due to the lighter appearance of pastel colors, they’re often appealing to the eyes and evoke feelings of relaxation, calmness, and happiness.

Marketing agencies take advantage of these feelings and use pastel colors in branding. From advertisements to product packaging, pastel color palettes are a go-to for any company trying to entice their customers to purchase their products.

These feelings of calmness and happiness are also a primary reason that pastel colors are used for weddings. They help guests to feel excited and welcome, while helping the bride and groom to feel at ease on such a busy day.

Pastel colors are often associated with elegance, too. They evoke a certain level of classiness due to the clean look of light colors, which is another great advantage to using pastel colors for a wedding.

Finally, pastel colors are used often for baby showers, furniture, decorations, and clothing.Babies are soft, sweet, and innocent. This natural lightness matches perfectly with the light visual aesthetic of pastel colors.

Babies also require a lot of work, energy, and all of your time you’d normally use for sleep or other activities. This can leave parents feeling exhausted, frustrated, and at their wit’s end.

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Wrapping a baby in a pastel color blanket and sitting in a nursery bathed in pastel colors can help bring the parent back down to a relaxed state – as much as they can while holding a crying baby.

Pastel colors do wonders for our mental state, so it’s no wonder they’re popular in so many aspects of our lives.

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