oil pastels vs soft pastels

In the colorful world of pastels, there’s a vibrant debate that often comes up: oil pastel vs soft pastel. These two art mediums might look similar at first glance, but they offer distinctly different experiences for artists. Whether you're a budding artist trying to choose your first set of pastels or a seasoned creator looking to expand your toolkit, understanding the unique qualities of oil pastels and soft pastels can make a huge difference in your artistic journey. So, let’s dive into the world of pastels and unravel the mystery of which one might be your perfect match.

1. What are Oil Pastels?

A box of oil pastels.
Oil pastels are a type of drawing medium made with pigment, wax, and non-drying oil. They are known for their bright, vibrant colors and creamy texture. Here's a breakdown of what makes oil pastels unique:

  • Composition: Oil pastels consist of pigment mixed with a non-drying oil and wax binder. This combination gives them a smooth, buttery consistency.
  • Texture: The texture of oil pastels is rich and creamy, making them easy to blend and layer.
  • Color Intensity: Oil pastels produce intense, vivid colors that stay vibrant over time.
  • Application: They can be applied to various surfaces, including paper, canvas, and wood.

2. What are Soft Pastels?

A pile of soft pastels
Soft pastels, on the other hand, are composed of pure pigment and a minimal amount of binder, usually gum tragacanth. They are often favored by artists for their ability to create soft, velvety textures. Here’s what you need to know about soft pastels:

  • Composition: Soft pastels are primarily pigment with just enough binder to hold them together.
  • Texture: They have a delicate, powdery texture that allows for easy blending and smudging.
  • Color Intensity: Soft pastels also produce bright colors, but they can create more subtle shades and transitions.
  • Application: They are best used on textured paper or surfaces that can hold the pigment in place.

3. Key Differences: Oil Pastel vs Soft Pastel

Now that we have a basic understanding of what oil pastels and soft pastels are, let’s dive deeper into their key differences. These differences can significantly influence your choice depending on your artistic style and project needs.

Multiple colors of oil pastels paint on paper

(1) Texture and Consistency

  • Oil Pastels: The texture is smooth and creamy, allowing for bold, thick strokes and heavy layering. They don't crumble or produce dust.
  • Soft Pastels: They have a dry, powdery texture that can be easily smudged and blended. Soft pastels often produce dust, which can be messy but is also great for creating soft transitions.

(2) Blending and Layering

  • Oil Pastels: Blending oil pastels can be a bit tricky since they don’t mix as easily. Artists often use tools like palette knives or even fingers to blend colors. You can also use solvents to achieve smoother blends.
  • Soft Pastels: These are known for their excellent blending capabilities. You can use your fingers, blending stumps, or soft brushes to mix colors seamlessly.
Soft pastels on paper

(3) Color Vibrancy and Longevity

  • Oil Pastels: The colors of oil pastels are extremely vibrant and long-lasting. They don’t fade much over time and are resistant to environmental factors.
  • Soft Pastels: While soft pastels also offer bright colors, they can be more susceptible to fading if not properly fixed with a fixative spray.

4. Techniques and Uses

Each medium offers unique techniques and uses that can affect your artistic output. Let’s explore how you can use oil pastels and soft pastels in your artwork.

(1) Techniques for Oil Pastels

  • Sgraffito: This technique involves scratching through a layer of oil pastel to reveal the color underneath, creating interesting textures and designs.
  • Impressionistic Strokes: Use short, quick strokes to build up texture and color, much like the Impressionist painters.
  • Layering: Apply multiple layers of color to create depth and dimension. The creamy texture allows for thick applications.
  • Solvent Blending: Use a solvent like turpentine or mineral spirits to blend colors smoothly, almost like oil paints.
Various oil pastels techniques

(2) Techniques for Soft Pastels

  • Blending: Soft pastels are excellent for blending. Use your fingers, blending tools, or brushes to create smooth transitions.
  • Feathering: Apply light, feathery strokes to build up delicate layers of color.
  • Overlaying: Build up colors by overlaying them, allowing the bottom layers to show through for a rich, complex effect.
  • Fixatives: Use a fixative spray to set your work and prevent smudging.

5. Choosing the Right Surface

The surface you choose to work on can significantly affect the outcome of your artwork. Both oil pastels and soft pastels perform differently depending on the surface.

(1) Best Surfaces for Oil Pastels

  • Canvas: Provides a sturdy, textured surface that can hold the heavy layers of oil pastels.
  • Paper: Use thick, smooth paper designed for oil pastels to avoid tearing.
  • Wood: Oil pastels can be applied directly to wood for unique, textured effects.
Choosing the right paper for soft pastels

(2) Best Surfaces for Soft Pastels

  • Pastel Paper: Specially designed with a textured surface to hold the pastel pigments.
  • Sandpaper: Provides a gritty surface that can grip the fine pastel particles.
  • Canvas: Use a gessoed canvas to give it enough tooth to hold the pastels.

6. Pros and Cons

To help you make an informed decision, let’s weigh the pros and cons of oil pastels and soft pastels.

(1) Oil Pastels


  • Vibrant, long-lasting colors
  • Easy to layer and build up texture
  • No dust or crumbling
  • Works on various surfaces


  • Harder to blend smoothly
  • Can be messy and sticky
  • Requires fixatives to avoid smudging

(2) Soft Pastels


  • Excellent for blending and smudging
  • Soft, velvety texture
  • Ideal for creating subtle transitions and shades


  • Produces dust, which can be messy
  • More fragile and prone to breaking
  • Colors may fade if not properly fixed

7. Frequently Asked Questions

(1) Q: Which is better for beginners, oil pastels or soft pastels?

A: Both have their learning curves, but oil pastels might be easier for beginners due to their sturdiness and vibrant colors. Soft pastels require more control and practice, especially with blending and handling the dust.

(2) Q: Can I use oil pastels and soft pastels together?

A: It’s generally not recommended because their textures and compositions are quite different. However, some artists experiment with layering them for unique effects.

(3) Q: How do I fix and preserve my pastel artwork?

A: For oil pastels, use a fixative designed for oil-based media. For soft pastels, use a fixative spray to prevent smudging and fading.

(4) Q: What’s the best way to store pastels?

A: Keep your pastels in a sturdy, compartmentalized box to prevent them from breaking and to avoid cross-contamination of colors.

8. Conclusion

When it comes to the oil pastel vs soft pastel debate, there’s no definitive winner. It all boils down to your personal preference and artistic style. Oil pastels are vibrant, durable, and easy to layer, making them great for bold, expressive works. Soft pastels, with their blending prowess and delicate texture, are perfect for creating soft, nuanced artworks. So, why not try both and see which one resonates with your creative spirit? Happy painting!

Oil pastelsSoft pastels

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