What Are Pastels? Different Types and Uses

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There are two different meanings for the word, “pastel”. One is a set of light or pale colors, which are called pastels. The pastels I am going to discuss in this post are the crayons that artists use for drawing and painting.

When I decided to get back into art, I dove in head first. I tried a variety of mediums, including soft pastels.

After doing a couple of paintings with soft pastels, I wanted to learn more about the various types of pastels. I have since discovered that I prefer working with oil pastels, but I still use soft pastels once in a while, and I am planning on trying pastel pencils as well.

There are five different types of pastels. Keep reading to learn more about what pastels are, and the kinds of pastels that are used by artists.

What Are Pastels Made Of?

Most types of pastels are made with a mixture of chalk, pigment, and a binder. The ingredients vary depending on the type of pastel.

Pastels are molded into a stick or crayon shape. They are easy to use and come in a wide variety of vibrant colors.

You probably remember using pastel crayons in school when you were a kid. These are a common staple in any school art class, but they are not just used for kids’ coloring books.

Pastels are an art medium that is used on paper. In most cases, the paper must be rough, or in other words, have “tooth and texture”. This is because most pastels are made with chalk, and the paper needs to have that texture for the chalk to adhere.

What Are Pastels Used For?

You can use pastels for a few purposes. Most artists use them for drawing and painting. So, what is the difference between drawing and painting?

With a drawing, there will be some of the paper showing behind the artwork. In the case of a pastel painting, the entire surface of the paper is covered with color.

Of course, pastels can also be used for coloring, as long as the coloring pages have that much-needed tooth.

Types of Pastels

There are five different pastel types for artists to use. I have tried soft pastels and oil pastels, and eventually, I will get around to trying the other types as well.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of pastels you can use for your artwork.

#1. Soft Pastels

The most popular type of pastels are the traditional soft pastels. These crayons are made with the same binder that is found in watercolor paints, gum arabic. It is this binder that makes the pastels feel smooth and flexible.

This type of pastel is easy to work with. They contain a lot of pigment and not too much binder, so the colors are nice and vibrant.

What I like about soft pastels is that they are easy to blend colors. What I don’t like is the fact that they crumble easily, and I’m always trying to remove tiny beads and dust from my art.

This may not be the best option for anyone who has respiratory problems or dust allergies. You can wear a mask to avoid this problem. Another option is to work outdoors.

Check my guide on how to use soft pastels for more tips.

#2. Hard Pastels

Hard pastels have more binder than pigment, which is what makes them hard. They do have vibrant colors, but because they are hard you don’t have to deal with as much dust as you do with soft pastels.

One of the great things about hard pastels is that they are perfect for outlining and detailed work. This is because you can use a knife to sharpen hard pastels to a sharp point.

The problem with hard pastels is that you can’t do a lot of blending with them. A lot of artists use both hard and soft pastels. The hard pastels are for outlines and details, and the soft pastels are for coloring.

#3. Oil Pastels

Oil pastels are completely different from any other type of pastels. This is because instead of using a chalk binder, they are made with pigment, oil, and wax.

Oil pastels feel a lot like soft crayons. The texture is smooth, and they will easily glide across the paper. You don’t even need to use toothy paper with this type of pastel.

You can create art that looks much like an oil painting when using oil pastels. The colors are deep and rich, and you can get a lot of texture in your paintings.

The best thing about oil pastels is that they don’t crumble, so there isn’t a lot of dust floating around. They are easier to work with than other pastels, and they don’t break down.

Check my guides on oil pastel techniques and blending oil pastels for more tips to get started.

See more: Do oil pastels dry out?

#4. Pan Pastels

Pan pastels haven’t been around for as long as other types, but they are quickly growing in popularity. Instead of being in a crayon form, they are in pans, just like watercolor paints.

You will need to use a pan pastel tool to use pan pastels. The tool is used to pick up the colors and then spread them on the paper.

These pastels contain less chalk than hard and soft pastels. They also contain more pigment, so the colors are nice and vibrant.

The only real drawback to using pan pastels is that they are a bit on the pricey side.

#5. Pastel Pencils

Last but not least are pastel pencils. These look just like regular colored pencils. There is a thin pastel stick, with wood around it.

The consistency of pastel pencils is about mid-way between soft and hard pastels. They don’t crumble like soft pastels do, but they aren’t as hard as hard pastels.

This means that they can be used for outlining, details, and coloring. One tool does it all! They are also easier to travel with because they are not messy.


If you haven’t tried pastels as an art medium, it is time to start. I suggest trying hard and soft pastels first and then working your way into oil pastels. There are many great pastel painting ideas for beginners which you can start.

I haven’t tried pan pastels or pastel pencils, but I am excited to try the latter as soon as I can get a set. You never know, I may soon even begin teaching some pastel paint and sip classes.

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*image by YAY_Images/depositphotos