oil pastels vs soft pastels

Oil pastels vs Soft Pastels: What are the Differences?

Oil pastels vs soft pastels, what are the differences and which type of pastel should you choose for your painting practice?

There are notable differences in the working properties, the kinds of techniques that work best while painting with them and in the finished appearance of the drawing.

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How are oil pastels different from soft pastels?

Oil pastels use a different binder to hold pigment together, which makes the pastel behave in a unique way.

In summary, oil pastels are more creamy and oily in texture and have a satin sheen to them. Manufacturers of soft pastels generally make a greater colour range. With more tonal transitions, you will be able to mix clean colour gradations. There are more artist grade brands of soft pastels available compared to oil pastels. Soft pastels create dust, whereas oil pastels don’t and are more powdery than oil pastels.

What are oil pastels made from?

Oil pastels are made from pigment and a binder of oil and wax. The quantity of wax is usually higher than oil, but different brands of oil pastels will contain differing quantities of ingredients. Professional grade brands will contain a high proportion of pigment. For example, Sennelier pastels contain high quality pigments, non-drying oil and mineral wax.

What are soft pastels made from?

Soft pastels are made from pigment with a small amount of binder, which usually includes chalk and gum arabic. Some brands manufacture soft pastels with other inert binding mediums such as marble dust. Professional brands of soft pastel are incredibly concentrated with pigment and their recipes are stripped back to contain the maximum amount of high quality pigment powder. 

Schmincke, for example, had to design a custom manufacturing process to handle the delicate pastels, ensuring that they don’t break. It involves rolling, then sectioning off and cutting by hand with a wire frame before being left to dry for two weeks. 

What are the properties of oil pastels vs soft pastels?

Soft pastels feel drier, whereas oil pastels can feel greasy, slick and waxy. Oil pastels have a tendency to be more durable and less likely to break and crumble. 

Pastels made with oils are non-siccative, which means that they never fully dry. To create separate colour layers with oil or soft pastels, use a fixative to prevent smudging. When using fixative, bear in mind that it will make colours appear more muted and tone down the saturation. Use a paper like Pastelmat to make colours adhere to the surface better and reduce the need for fixative. 

How does it feel painting with oil pastels vs soft pastels?

soft pastel painting

Soft pastel is an expressive, painterly medium. Because professional brands are so soft and pigment rich, it almost feels like painting with pure pigment. Soft pastels range in hardness and texture. A pastel like Schmincke or Sennelier feels ultra soft and can break unless handled carefully. Using techniques like blending feels wonderfully easy with soft pastels. A harder soft pastel, like Terry Ludwig, feels drier and can be used to achieve finer detail, or for the first layers of a drawing. The texture of soft pastels can be described as velvety smooth.

Oil pastels on the other hand feel less dry and more buttery and creamy. The texture has been described by many artists as like lipstick. They are versatile and can be used in a number of ways, on a variety of surfaces. This makes the painting experience feel expressive and free.

What effects can you achieve with soft pastels vs oil pastels?

With round shaped soft pastels, achieving detailed effects can be a challenge. Soft pastel paintings have more of a tendency to appear smoky, with details looking blurry. To achieve more detailed marks use a harder soft pastel with a square shape like Terry Ludwig or Art Spectrum. Use the corners of the pastel to make the detailed marks. 

With very light pressure applied to a soft pastel, artists can create brilliant colour shifts and vivid marks. Soft pastel will cover the tooth and texture of the paper quickly, if you want to make more subtle marks, go for a medium soft pastel like Terry Ludwig.

The versatility of oil pastels is what attracts many artists to them. For example, you can heat oil pastel to make it release more colour. Or you can thin the pastel with turpentine to make runny, transparent layers of colour.

What techniques can you use with oil pastels vs soft pastels?

oil pastel painting

Professional grade soft pastels that are on the softer end of the spectrum, like Schmincke, Sennelier or Unison require a featherlight touch to create intense marks on the surface.

There is a layering method that should be used with soft pastel, layer harder pastels first, followed by extra soft pastels. So for example, if you have some Terry Ludwig pastels, Schmincke pastels and Unison pastels, it would make sense to layer them Ludwig, Unison then Schmincke. The Schmincke pastels are incredibly useful for final colour layers. 

Blend soft pastels with your fingers (but wear gloves), or mould pastel on the surface with a moulding tool. With oil pastel, colours can be blended by smudging, or brushing small amounts of solvent over the top.

Scumbling is a technique that can be used with soft pastel or oil pastel, lightly layer one colour on top of another. Colours will start to mix together creating new tones and hues. You could move the pastel in rough circular motions for a textured appearance to keep colours more separate.

Techniques for oil pastel painting and soft pastel painting are much the same, however, you can afford to apply more pressure to oil pastels. One technique that is quite effective is pressure blending, where heavier pressure is applied to the pastel to create rich colour transitions.

Stippling is a technique artists can use with both pastel mediums, creating short strokes, with strokes closer together to resemble darker areas of colour. 

What supplies do you need for oil pastel drawing compared to soft pastel?

Similar supplies are needed for both oil pastel and soft pastel drawing. A paper or surface with ‘tooth’ like Pastelmat or Pastelbord, allows artists to create multiple colour layers, with less need for fixative.

If you need to fix colours in place to prevent smudging, use a pastel fixative. It’s recommended to use an easel or something to prop up your painting surface when using soft pastel, as they can generate quite a bit of dust over the course of an art session. It’s better for dust to pool at the bottom of the artwork, as opposed to spreading across the surface making unwanted colour marks. If you want to paint en plein air, Richeson makes a fantastic pochade box that you can buy extra inserts for to transport pastels safely.

What are the prices of oil pastels vs soft pastels?

oil pastel painting

There is a huge difference in price per individual pastel between soft pastels and oil pastels. For example, Sakura Cray-Pas Expressionist oil pastels are around $0.79 per pastel. This makes them incredibly affordable for someone wanting to try the medium. These pastels are not bad quality, they are mid range and would be suitable for students, or advanced students. 

Rembrandt soft pastels are suitable for students or advanced students and are on the cheaper end of the spectrum compared to other soft pastel brands. They come in at $3.33 per pastel.

Soft pastels like Unison are ultra high quality, using the finest pigments, but they are more expensive at $5.20 per pastel. Holbein oil pastels are professional quality and are the most expensive at around $4.51 per pastel.

Oil pastels vs soft pastels: Which is best for beginners?

Oil pastels can be easier to use for complete beginners as they are slightly more durable, less crumbly and don’t require the featherlight touch that soft pastels do to make marks. Plus, oil pastels are generally cheaper and don’t create dust. You don’t need many supplies to get started with oil pastels. Plus, you can work flat on a desk if you prefer.

This doesn’t mean that beginners should avoid using soft pastels, as anyone can get a lot of enjoyment out of using either medium and create wonderfully vibrant effects. Beginners may have to spend a bit more money for a set of soft pastels and be prepared for their unpredictably soft nature. Art Spectrum pastels may be a good place to start for a complete beginner, then if you feel like you want to try a softer pastel, Unison are incredibly luxurious (but also quite expensive).

What are the best brands of oil pastels vs soft pastels?

The brands that make their soft pastels with the highest amount of pigment possible, that yield some of the most vibrant effects and cleanest mixes include Unison, Schminke and Terry Ludwig. For a more comprehensive guide, check out our soft pastel brand review.

The best brands of oil pastels are Holbein and Sennelier due to the quality pigments, binder and smooth, consistent texture. Check out our oil pastel brand review.

Can you use oil pastels and soft pastels together?

Oil pastels and soft pastels are two different mediums that should not be used together. When oil pastel is applied over soft pastel, it will stick to the pastel and remove it from the surface. However, when soft pastel is applied over oil pastel, it will not adhere to the surface properly. In some cases, the pastel could crack or crumble off.  

Can you use oil pastels with other mediums?

Oil pastels can be used with other mediums due to their versatile nature. Holbein oil pastels have especially good surface stability. This means that they can be used over acrylic paint, watercolour paint, gouache, or even dry oil paint. It’s advised not to paint any of these mediums over oil pastels, however. 

Oil pastels on top of any of these mediums will appear lustrous and you don’t need to worry about the surface cracking.

Can you use soft pastels with other mediums?

Soft pastels are a dry pastel and can be used over mediums like watercolour or pencils. Use soft pastels to accentuate colours in a dry watercolour painting. Where watercolour can yield muted results, soft pastel appears vivid on the surface. Alternatively, you could use the soft pastel to lighten highlights.


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