SOFT PASTELS–What they are, and How They Make Beautiful Art

Image by Massimo Boschet from Pixabay 

If you were to simply ask me right out “what are these?”, I would probably answer something tongue-in-cheek like

“My current addiction.”

Which is true, but not the answer you were looking for.

Actually, most often instead of a question, curious onlookers will say something like “oh, those are chalks!”

Aaaannndd…They’re not wrong. (But FYI, when you say that around a pastelist, they are cringing a little inside as they imagine you are thinking of that big box of sidewalk chalk you can buy at the store 6 colors for a dollar.)

Well if they’re not exactly chalks, what are they?

I’ll answer with no hint of a tongue anywhere near a cheek: soft pastels are small wands made of stars and gems which, when stroked across the proper surface, leave behind a sparkling trail of pure, luminescent color. Ever since I discovered them, I’ve been their biggest fan.

You were hoping for something a little more educational? Alright, I’ll try.

Soft pastels are dry sticks made from the exact same pigments that oil, watercolor and acrylic paints are made. They all start out looking like this:

Image by Fatima Valer from Pixabay

To make each type of paint, a binder of a certain kind is added: oil for oil paints, gum arabic for watercolor, acrylic polymer for acrylics. To make a pastel, simply take a measure of one of those lovely colors and mix it with a bit of gum tragacanth and some water, form it into a stick, and allow it to dry thoroughly.

The higher quality the pastel (or paint, for that matter) the higher the concentration of pigment. The dense concentration of pigment is what allows an artist to swipe that stick over a piece of paper and leave a luscious, consistent mark of beautiful color. As you can imagine, those pure pigments are costly. (Not just any paper will do. Curious? Click here to read an explanation–link coming soon).

The name “soft” pastels is a bit misleading, because there are several degrees of “soft”. The softest ones have the least amount of binder possible, and are ground superfine so that they leave quite a bit of pigment on the surface no matter how light the stroke. These are the most expensive type: some cost as much as $6 for one stick! 

Although they can be expensive, because of the rich pigmentation each stick will last a very long time. Waft it lightly over the paper and that is all that’s needed to lay down a blanket of color.

Then there are those pastels that are still called “soft”, and yet the manufacturer has added a bit more binder into them, making them harder. There is a whole range of soft to hard, and each type of pastel has its use: most pastel artists have several different hardnesses of pastels in their collection, and use them in different parts of their process to get the effect that they want.

Oil and acrylic artists, using a semi-liquid medium, are able to mix their colors to get the exact color that they want. Soft pastels, however, are dry: I often remark that I “paint with rocks”! There’s no need for any actual color mixing. Just choose the color you want from your lovely box. And this is why they are an addiction–because a pastelist never has enough colors! There’s always an excuse to buy another shade of green in that landscape that just isn’t yet in our box.

I paint with rocks!

Image by Cinthya Liang from Pixabay

Similar to chalk, the pigment lays on top of the surface. The beautiful colors are carefully layered by the artist to give your eye a thrill. This also means that a bit of rough handling can cause problems. Pastel paintings, to maintain their brilliance and vivid color, are framed behind glass to maintain their brilliance and luminescence.

Pastel paintings last for hundreds of years, when handled correctly, displaying the same vivid color as they day they were laid down. Monet, Degas, and Renoir are just a few of the famous artists who painted in this expressive, immediate medium. Painting with pastels is a time-honored tradition, as well as an addiction.

My name is Esther, and I’m a pastel addict.

Thanks for reading. What was the most surprising thing you learned from this article? I’d love to hear from you. Just use the contact form to let me know.

Interested in more?

Here is an article on paper types used for pastel

Here you can view some of my many pastel paintings

Here is my Youtube channel where I’ve uploaded some process videos and tutorials so you can get a close-up and personal idea of how all this works to make beautiful art.