Oil Pastels vs. Soft Pastels – A Comparison


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What’s the Difference Between Oil Pastels and Soft Pastels?

Oil pastels differ greatly from soft pastels. Even though both mediums are referred to as “pastels”, they are different mediums entirely. In this lesson, we’ll see just how different they are.

The Binder

To begin to understand the differences between soft pastels and oil pastels, let’s look at their compositional makeup. That starts by taking a look at what’s called binder. Binder is what holds the pigments together. All colored art supplies include pigment and binder. Binder and pigment are what gives color to the art materials.

Soft pastels are bound with a gum or methylcellulose binder.

Soft pastel binder

But oil pastels have an oil and wax binder.

Oil pastel binder

The materials will behave differently because these two binders have such a wide range of differences. It also means that we have to use them in a different way. Due to its binder, pastels can be applied dry. They’re noticeably powdery and easily blended or smudged with a finger.

Blending soft pastels

Oil pastels are applied more wet. Oil pastels are never completely dry because of their binder. They’re a little bit more difficult to blend with a finger compared to soft pastels.

Layering oil pastels

Surfaces for Pastels

Soft pastels are usually applied to textured paper. The texture allows for layering, allowing the artist to build up the complexity of the color. Oil pastels are usually applied to textured paper, just as soft pastels. But oil pastels can also be applied on glass, thanks to their binder.

Oil Pastel and soft Pastel Behavior

Oil pastels tend to have a more intense color than traditional soft pastels. Because of their similarities to crayons and colored pencils, oil pastels behave more like a crayon when they’re applied. You can see how layering causes some mixing.

Mixing oil pastels

Soft pastels are more like chalk. They’re powdery and loose, and easily blended with a finger or blending tool.

Oil pastels can also be blended, but typically we don’t use a finger to blend them. Oil pastels can also be blended with a colorless blender, but you can use other mediums as well. Oil pastels can be blended using terpenoid, or other oil-based mediums.

Blending oil pastels

Oil Pastels and soft Pastels: Techniques

Oil pastels are able to use many of soft pastels’ techniques. Both mediums use techniques such as scumbling or feathering.

Oil pastel and soft pastel techniques

Oil pastels can be removed from the surface by scratching. This characteristic can be used to create textures on the surface or to remove the oil pastel completely. Oil pastels are applied thickly to mimic impasto techniques in oil painting. Soft pastels are a bit more difficult to work with because of their powdery dusty nature.

You may notice that oil pastels stick to other pastel colors. Of course, when you apply this to the surface, you’ll see some contamination. So with oil pastels, it’s important to pay attention to the tip of your stick and make sure it’s clean before applying it to the surface. Soft pastels, however, don’t share this characteristic. You don’t really have to worry too much about contamination when you’re using soft pastels.

Oil pastel contamination

Soft pastels cover over other applications like an opaque medium. As you can see here, I’m adding blue dots over the top of a darker blue and it’s easily visible with a very light touch.

Layering soft pastels

Oil pastels can also be used for this, but require a bit more effort. In most cases, the colors on the surface will affect the colors you add to the top.

Oil Pastels vs. Soft Pastels – Conclusion

Both oil pastels and soft crayons can produce stunning results that can resemble a painting. But it’s important to note that even though both of these materials are called pastels, they’re typically not used in combination with one another. This is because their binders are different, and therefore they’re completely different mediums.

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