Soft Pastels vs. Oil Pastels – What is the Difference?

Historically, mediums like oil paint, watercolor, and acrylics have outshined soft and oil pastels. However, pastels offer the opportunity to blend colors and create textures that many other mediums can’t compete with.

If you’re wondering about the differences for soft pastels vs oil pastels, we applaud you for doing your research—some people assume they’re the same. As you’ll soon learn, this isn’t the case. So, it’s essential to know what art style you’re seeking to select the best-fit pastel for your needs.

An Overview of Soft Pastels vs Oil Pastels

Despite such similar names, soft pastels and oil pastels have massive differences. In fact, they’re so different that we’re going to start by listing their similarities. Doing so will help highlight just how unique these pastel types are.

So, below are the few items that different pastels have in common:

  • Similar price points
  • Various pigment choices
  • Round and rectangular forms
  • Water-soluble options for a watercolor-like appearance

With that under our belt, let’s explore where each type of pastel deviates from the other.

Fun Fact: Did you know mediums come in more than just raw paint?  Check out these examples like Pastel Pencils, Watercolor Pencils and Watercolor Markers.

Soft Pastel Composition

Soft pastels are the most popular of these two mediums. They’re a great choice for a dry matte appearance, as they contain the following ingredients:

  • Chalk
  • Gum Arabic
  • Pigment

Sometimes, your soft pastels may also contain clay. Either way, you can expect them to crumble during use.

A downside to using soft pastels is that the environment you’re working in can get quite dusty. So, it’s best if you either use them in a well-ventilated space or wear a respirator.

You can think of soft pastels as you would chalk—this medium doesn’t stick firmly to the surface. As a result, you can brush it off easily.

Oil Pastels Composition

Oil pastels have a completely different texture than soft pastels; they never completely dry, giving the art a glossy surface. These pastels contain the following ingredients:

  • Oil
  • Way
  • Pigment

Although it’s easy to confuse oil paint and oil pastels, oil paint dries out. However, both have a waxy and greasy feel.

If you’re unsure whether to use oil pastels or oil paint, oil pastels are better for creating pieces that require large strokes and less detail.

As you may have guessed, given the nature of its composition, unlike soft pastels, oil pastels stick firmly to surfaces.

Comparing Colors

We’ve established that these pastels differ in their texture because of their composition. But what about the differences in their pigment?

Soft pastels have a less intense hue than oil pastels. When you think about how chalk looks on a chalkboard versus using other mediums on paper, you can see how this makes sense.

So, when choosing whether to use soft or oil pastels for your artwork, it’s essential to consider how vibrant you’d like the colors to be.

Choosing Your Work Surface

Technically, you can use soft and oil pastels on any surface. However, you should check how a company prepares the surface, as these pastels stick better to texture.

Furthermore, you should choose surfaces with gesso priming if you decide to work with oil pastels. Otherwise, the waxy binders in these pastels will slowly bleed through the paper fiber.

As a result, your artwork will lose some of its colors, making it appear more like the colors from soft pastel.

Understanding the Difference in Blending

Given the composition of soft and oil pastels, can you guess which one blends better? If you chose soft pastels, you’re right.

The chalky nature of soft pastels makes it easy to rub colors together, giving the artist a nearly unlimited field of blending colors to bring their artwork to life.

On the other hand, oil pastels take a lot more work to blend. It takes time and practice to learn how to layer the colors to create a blended appearance.

However, the advantage of doing so is that building up several layers of color gives the artwork a 3D-like appearance, adding a dimension that’s impossible to achieve with soft pastels.

Setting Yourself Up With the Right Tools

Hopefully, you have a better idea of whether soft or oil pastels are a better fit for your art goals. So now, we need to ensure you have the right supplies.

The good news is that you don’t need many supplies to create a pastel masterpiece. However, there are additional items we’ll share here that can help you become the next Odilon Redon or Edgar Degas.

Choosing the right paper: Both oil and soft pastels do best with paper that has a tooth, meaning that it has texture so that the pastels have something to adhere to. If you’re in a bind, you can use watercolor paper or mixed media paper.

Fixative for soft pastels: You already know that soft pastels don’t stick as well to a surface as oil pastels. So, a fixative will help hold your soft pastels in place. If you’re on a budget, consider using hairspray.

In addition to choosing paper and a fixative, you’ll need to purchase the pastels themselves. Buying pastels in a set is often best because you’ll have a wide range of colors for a lower price than if you buy them individually.

Some helpful extra tools for creating pastel pieces include:

  • Blending tools, which is especially useful for oil pastels
  • Glassine, which you can use instead of a fixative
  • Tape to hold your pastel paper in place
  • An art desk or drawing board

The Verdict: Soft Pastels vs Oil Pastels

When it comes to the different versions of pastels, the “best” pastel comes down to an artist’s preference. However, both pastels have undeniable advantages.

One of the biggest benefits of soft pastels is that they’re easy to blend. They also offer softer colors and appearances, akin to watercolor paintings.

In contrast, the advantages of oil pastels are that they have bolder colors and create a textured appearance. In addition, although they have a greasy feel, they don’t leave behind dust like soft pastels.

Regardless of the type of pastel you choose, we hope you’re inspired to start creating a pastel masterpiece.

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