What is the difference between oil and soft pastels?

By Nicole Tinkham


Choosing to start a pastel drawing is an easy decision. Choosing your supplies however, is a bit more challenging. You may have gone into your local art supply store expecting to see one type of pastel but discovered there are two very different kinds: oil and soft. Let’s explore their differences so you can determine which one is best for your project.

Soft pastels, the most commonly used pastel, are made with a combination of white chalk, pigment and gum arabic, which gives it a drier matte finish. Soft pastels do not adhere to the surface, allowing it to be brushed off. Oil pastels on the other hand, are similar to oil paints but don’t dry out or harden completely. Like oil painting, oil pastels can be worked and thinned. They tend to have a creamy, wax-like consistency.

Oil pastels produce an intense hue while soft pastels have a softer, more delicate hue. Both types of pastels will work on any surface but a paper with a texture (“tooth”) allows the pastel to stick to the surface which would be difficult to achieve on a smooth surface. When using oil pastels, the surface should be primed with gesso so that the waxy binders are not absorbed by the strands of paper fiber. This keeps your pastels from becoming dull in color.

Both oil and soft pastels have very different effects and it’s left up to personal preference when choosing which one to go with. If you are more drawn to oil painting and love mixing colors to get unique textures and hues, you may favor oil pastels. If you prefer lighter paintings such as watercolor or ink and enjoy ready-made colors and drawing, soft pastels may be the choice for you.

Keep in mind that there are also water-soluble pastels which come in both oil and soft pastels. Water-soluble pastels can be thinned or blended together with water. This type of pastel is great if you want to achieve a watercolor-like wash.

Already have experience using oil and/or soft pastels? Let us know which one you prefer!

Image used under Creative Commons from RCabanilla

For more information about our art supplies stop in, give us a call (941-747-2995) or visit http://www.keetonsonline.com/Art.html! For a list of our upcoming workshops, check out The Artist’s Corner.

8 thoughts on “What is the difference between oil and soft pastels?

  1. Can you combine the two in a mixed medium project ? Soft pastel for the background and oil for the detail of the picture? Is this possible or not?

  2. I recently used oil pastels with charcoal. It was an accident–I wanted to add a little color to my project and had googled which medium to use, and the source I consulted stated that pastels could be used in congruence with charcoal. I wish I had read THIS first–little did I know there were two main types of pastels! Anyway, the project came out beautiful (despite my error), although about half-way through I started to realize that it was tricky to make charcoal work with the oily texture of the pastels. Here’s a picture of the final project: http://www.oceaninacup.com/p/my-amateur-art.html (drawing is the one titled “Emerald Eyes” on very top). Now I’m concerned about how long the drawing will last with the two incompatible mediums. A part of me wants to give it another go though, because I love how bright the oil pastels are against the charcoal.

    Thanks for this informative article Nicole!

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