About the only thing that soft pastels and oil pastels have in common is their shape and the word ‘pastels! Which one is ‘better’ really comes down to which of the different characteristics most appeal to you. Here’s the scoop on Soft Pastels vs Oil Pastels:
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Soft pastels are dry, and feel somewhat like chalk sticks. They are composed of binders and pigments blended together in different levels of hardness. You can find a great chart showing the relative hardnesses of different brands of soft pastels here.
Soft pastels are super easy to blend flawlessly. The sticks are fragile and must be packed away with foam padding to keep them safe from shattering. Each stick can be purchased separately with a huge variety of colors, textures, shapes, and quality. They can be found in pan form as well for super-fine applications with a buttery texture.
Finished soft pastels are matte, not glossy in finish. While being dry, they are nevertheless vulnerable to smudging at all stages of completion.
Soft pastels are available in hundreds of different colors and many varieties of hardness and softness.
Oil Pastels are, of course, oily and sticky to the touch. They feel somewhat like children’s crayons, but unlike crayons, you can build up layers of colors or thin them down with OMS so that the finished artwork looks like an oil painting. They NEVER dry….yes, you heard that right. Oil pastels stay soft and gooey to the touch forever. However, oil pastels are more resistant to smudging than soft/dry pastels.
The sticks are pretty sturdy and don’t break at the slightest touch.
One of their strong suits is that they are really clean to use, and often children’s schools will transition kids from crayons to working in oil pastels because there is very little mess and no chemicals involved in blending colors or layering them, unless you choose to use OMS as a thinner.
Oil pastels are halfway between matte and semi-glossy when finished. They can be thinned with OMS for easier coverage over larger areas or to get the color smooshed into the paper more thoroughly.
How They Are Applied
Soft Pastels are applied by dabbing, stroking using an edge or the side of the pastel for a wider swipe. Once applied, they can be blended with a variety of things like your finger, a dry paintbrush, cloth or sponge. Different techniques like cross-hatching to show different colors peeking through are part of the appeal.
Blending two colors together is typically done by layering, cross-hatching, or placing them touching each other (like the Impressionists), called Broken Color. Sometimes, a fixatif can be used to facilitate adding more layers.
Soft pastels can also be loosened with an application of water or OMS, which dissolves the binder, changes the color of the pastel and embeds the pigment deep into the surface for an underpainting effect.
Soft pastels are powdery and can be toxic to breathe in the dust. I find them to be very messy to create with and I get them on my fingers, on my clothes, and on my floor. I always lay down a tarp before I paint with soft pastels as I ALWAYS drop one or two while painting (I’m really clumsy). That being said, the payoff is a fantastic color that is very tactile in the application. I love how gorgeous soft pastels can appear in skilled hands!
I can complete a soft pastel painting in less than an hour. Oil pastels take longer because they don’t blend as effortlessly as soft pastels.
I wear painting clothes and use a hand towel that lays across my arm so that I can wipe clean my sticks as needed or wipe my fingertips clean.
How many layers you can add depends on the tooth of the paper or surface. Both reach a saturation point where the only option to add more layers is to scrape off what you have applied and begin again.
Oil pastels are applied like crayons. Please see my two tutorials below for details and ProTips!
Oil Pastels can create unique effects like sgraffitto!
Soft pastels are unique because they need a grit paper or prepared surfaces so that the pastel can ‘grip’ the surface and remain permanent. These options range from watercolor paper to sanded paper or boards, which feel like fine to rough sandpaper. It can be a bit spendy to buy the highest quality papers, but they make a huge difference in your finished work. These are a few of my favorites:
Because oil pastels are ‘oil-based’, they require a surface that is safe for oil paints. This can be any non-abasorbent surface like metal, wood or paper/canvas as long as the surface has been prepared in advance with a gesso or other sealant to prevent the oil from seeping into fibers and undermining the integrity of the surface.
Oil pastels don’t need a strong tooth of the surface, but they work best with SOME tooth. Gessoed paper, oil paper like this one or gessoed wood is ideal
In my article here, I explain all the different papers you can use for oil pastels.
Framing and Preservation
Protection from smearing is a must or either pastel. Oil pastels never dry to touch. Soft pastels are vulnerable to smearing or dislodging from being dropped.
Both kinds of pastels require a spacer between the artwork and the glass. You can use two layers of mat between glass and the art, or purchase plastic spacers like these.
If you choose to not frame your pieces, then they should be stored between sheets of glassine, a special coated paper that is not going to be vulnerable to static charges.
Soft pastels are quite costly. Each stick will run from $4-7 each. You’ll want every color, and find yourself handicapped without a large variety of hue and value.
Oil pastels are budget-friendly but the available colors and values are quite limited.
Soft pastels are, for the most part, all good quality. The highest quality brands such as Sennelier, Terry Ludwig, Unison, etc have more pigment and less filler. You have to watch out for cheap manufacturers who label their soft pastels artists’ quality, but by sticking to name brands who make artist’s materials, you’ll be guaranteed a quality pastel.
Oil pastels vary in quality from kid’s schoolroom quality to fine art quality. Prices reflect the level of quality. Please see my article reviewing some of the best oil pastels here.
Where To Buy
Of course, you can find a fair selection at your local art supply store (not the big box craft stores). You can also find a few single sticks of soft pastels on Amazon and online stores like Dick Blick. I recommend purchasing in sets, as it is more economical. I also recommend buying online because the availability and selections are out of this world, delivered right to your door!
Here are a few of my favorite sets:
Rembrandt Soft Pastels set of 30 Half Sticks
My favorite place to shop for pastels is the Dakota Art Pastels Store in Mt. Vernon, Washington. They are dedicated to being the largest art supply store of pastels of all kinds and the supplies and surfaces artists use in the world. I love to visit and spend a couple of hours finding my ideal supplies, but virtually everything they sell is also available online.
Another great source is the Terry Ludwig Company. Terry’s son now runs this business and hand makes his superior and delicious soft pastels by hand. The colors are intense and perform superbly!.
More Information and My Demos
Here are links to some of my other informative articles you may find useful!
Here’s a demo video that showcases the differences in application and finished look:
Here’s a step by step Plumeria Flower tutorial I created for oil pastels
Vibrant colors and blending with oil pastels
Here’s another tutorial I created of a landscape in oil pastel: