Using pastels is a ton of fun! The first time I used artist’s pastels (soft pastels) I gasped out loud with pleasure. The intensity of color is just incomparable to any other medium. There is quite a difference between Soft Pastels vs Chalk Pastels though! Read on for the differences in composition, cost and uses. Please don’t be confused by oil pastels! They are an entirely different beast. Check out my in-depth article on oil pastels here.
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Chalk pastels are intended for non-permanent artwork and crafts. They are made with cheap pigments that are not archival or of high quality and are made with binders that give temporary durability.
Chalk pastels are made with a naturally occurring mineral found all over the earth called gypsum, or a sedimentary rock called limestone. These are the classroom ‘chalks’ that are used on blackboards. Commercially made colored chalks are made in different qualities.
Kid’s chalk pastels are intended for use on blackboards or the sidewalk and wash away nicely with a spray from the hose. They are fairly low cost, are large-sized for little hands to grasp and come in fun shapes and colors. Look for brands that mention non-toxic ingredients.
Street artist-grade chalks are made with more costly and vibrant pigments, have a better quality binder that will have easier blending capabilities and be easier to layer. There are many more color options to paint realistic art in artist-grade chalks.
All over the globe, in warm climates, outdoor street chalk competitions and festivals attract thousands of visitors and artists. These artists spend days creating amazing works of art which are only intended to last for a day or so before they will be washed away by rain or hose!
My favorite pastel artist also creates street pastels for festivals and competitions. Here is his website: Cuong Nguyen.
Check out his videos here:
This is the brand he uses for sidewalk art: Koss Pastels .
These sets are economical:
Here’s some fun shapes for a summer theme:
This is a hoot! What kid wouldn’t be thrilled with this as a birthday gift?
Serious street chalk artists use more intensely pigmented chalk pastels that are more expensive but are easier to blend and come in a big variety of colors.
These fat sticks will cover a lot of sidewalk in a hurry and are great for single swipe strokes or laying in a first layer of color to fill in the grain of the sidewalk.
This is a good selection of colors for street art.
If you want to delve into blackboard chalk art, here’s my article on chalk markers!
For a fun craft project, consider making your own colored chalks!
Homemade craft ‘chalk’ pastel formula
It’s easy to make your own craft ‘chalk’ pastels to use on chalkboards or sidewalks. The ingredients are non-toxic and easy to find! It won’t save you much money though, unless you have all these items all on hand. You’ll need:
- kid’s dry powdered poster paint colors – you can find them here.
- talcum or unscented baby powder – find it here
- A binding agent like rolled oats (yes! I mean the breakfast food)
Boil 4 cups of water and add 1/4th cup of rolled oats. Boil for about 5 or 6 minutes. Let cool a bit and strain it through a sieve or cloth to collect the water. Discard the oats. Set aside this water.
In a separate bowl, mix 1/2 cups of talcum or baby powder with 2 Tablespoons of dry poster paint powder. Mix together well then add 1 teaspoon of the oat water. Mix by hand well. Roll into little tube shapes about the size of your little finger then slice them into approximately 2 inch lengths. Set each one onto several layers of paper towels and let dry for several days, depending on your local humidity. That’s it!
Soft pastels act and feel like chalk, but their composition is much different. They are held together with a binder like Gum Arabic with varying amounts of filler from clay or gypsum.
It is unfortunate that some overseas manufacturers call their artist soft pastels ‘chalk’. In THIS instance, the manufacturers are trying to say that their product is chalk-like in its application and appearance, NOT that it is composed of the same materials as chalk. I know, I know, it’s confusing! Fine art pastel artists always do a mental head-slap whenever someone asks them “Oh, are you using CHALK?!”
I usually respond, “Well, it LOOKS like chalk, but it is really artist pastels.” Artist-grade quality soft pastels will NEVER label their pastels as ‘chalk pastels.’ It’s not snobbery, it’s about correct consumer information.
Artist pastels come in several levels of hardness or softness. They even come as pencils, which you hold and sharpen like an office pencil. Hard pastels are narrow, square-shaped tubes of hardpacked color that can create a thin line of color or are great for laying in the first layer of pastel. The NuPastels brand is inexpensive and fairly hard. In general, artists use hard pastels as a first layer and progress onto softer pastels as they add additional layers.
Soft pastels are applied to pastel paper, which has a grit or ‘tooth’ like sandpaper. They remain as dry pigment on the surface of the paper and will forever be vulnerable to smearing, so framing under glass is a must. Properly framed, artist pastels will last hundreds of years in pristine condition if drawn on acid-free artist paper – which is much longer than oil paintings!
Soft pastels that are artist-grade have a pigment base that is intense. The more expensive sets are composed of natural minerals or organic compounds which sometimes rare or costly, and can contain toxins like cadmium, lead or cobalt. (Best used with disposable gloves and be careful not to breathe the dust while working).
Most pastel artists have a lot of pastel colors, as layering two colors to create a new color is sometimes difficult. The more layers you apply to the paper, the easier the paper becomes clogged and therefore, it can be more useful to have the exact hue in your hand, and avoid overloading the paper. Hence, the urge to buy more and more different colors, so you have the ‘perfect’ color on hand when you need it.
In general, the more expensive the soft pastel, the higher grade of ingredients and base pigment were used to create the pastel.
For those just starting out, consider purchasing a set with tons of colors, but of lesser quality. As you experiment with them, if you decide to invest in a higher-quality set, it will be easy to stair-step up to the most expensive brands!
Starter Sets of Soft Pastels
Available in sets of 12, 24, 48 and 144 colors.
Artist Grade Soft Pastels
THESE are the grade of pastels that made me gasp with pleasure when I made my first dive into pastel painting. The pigment load on these brands is excellent and worth every penny!
Available as half-sticks, full sticks and in individual colors from Dick Blick.
This excellent brand is made in the Netherlands and made of the highest quality ingredients. Available in many different sets and also in individual sticks from Dick Blick.
These pastels by Terry Ludwig are made in the USA by hand and they are the ultimate in artist grade pastels. (now his son is making them and running the company). The colors are superbly made by hand one batch at a time with very little filler, which results in incredible color and responsiveness. I recommend you buy some of his intense darks and vibrant reds to compare with your other pastels. Truly wonderful pastels! One item on my bucket list is to own his full line! Haha, I’ll probably never make it, but one or two sticks at a time……YES!
Available in sets and in individual sticks at Dick Blick.
Another option for soft pastels is a new invention called PanPastels. They are powder-fine pastels which are applied with little plastic palette knife-like tools with foam tips or very fine sponges. These work best on artist quality pastel paper. If you enjoy very smooth and delicate looking pastel artworks, these would be a great place to start, coupled with pastel pencils for details. The technique to apply them is much different from stick pastels, but the results are beautiful and refined. Because they are so very finely ground, you can apply them in super-soft strokes called ‘glazing’ for thin veils of color.
They are spendy, but each pan holds much more pigment than an artist stick, so they will last a long time.
Available in several different sets with tools or individual color pans.
Soft Pastel Pencils
Lastly, soft pastels are available in a wood pencil form that is easy to store and transport. They require sharpening by hand with a snap off cutter or knife, as a pencil sharpener may crack off the lead as you sharpen. They work wonderfully for soft details and fine lines. I must admit that sharpening them takes some practice, and getting the best point requires some patience and skill.
Here’s a demo (that I can actually do) on how to safely do sharpen pastel pencils:
and here is the brand that she favors: (they’re spendy!)
Derwent Pastel Pencils set of 24
I own the complete line of Derwent Pastel Pencils, they were a cherished gift one Christmas and I’ve used them down to the stubbins. Available in sets and individually from Dick Blick.
Faber-Castell Pitt Pastel Pencils
My new favorite pastel pencil is from the Faber-Castell company. Long respected art and drafting materials manufacturers, these pencils are not grainy or inconsistent. Available in sets and individually from Dick Blick. Individual light-fastness is printed on each pencil so you can select the most archival color.
Inspirations and Tutorials
Highly rated by owners, this book will teach you all the basics and show you several demonstrations start to finish:
Written by long-time pastel artist and authority, Maggie Price, this is a great book to own:
A demonstration from the French Sennelier company:
Artist Susan Jenkins has dozens of wonderful art tutorial videos on youtube. You’ll learn a lot and it’s FREE!