Oil Pastels vs Soft Pastels

Comparing oil pastels to soft pastels – what’s the difference?

Oil pastels and soft pastels are two popular mediums used by artists. While they may seem similar at first glance, there are distinct differences that set them apart.

* This article isn’t about which is best, that is for each artist to decide. Instead I just want to compare the differences between each medium and you the reader can decide for yourself what you prefer to use.

So, let’s embark on this journey and uncover the unique characteristics of oil pastels and soft pastels.

Basic Differences

First of all, let’s start with the basic difference in what each of these mediums are made of.

Oil pastels are made of blended pigments with a non-drying oil and wax binder, resulting in a smooth and buttery texture. Soft pastels are composed of powdered pigments held together with a minimal amount of binder, providing a soft and powdery consistency.

So the composition and texture of oil pastels is actually very different from soft pastels. One way to think of it is that oil pastels feel somewhat like crayons while soft pastels are more like chalk.

Composition and Texture

Oil pastels consist of pigments mixed with non-drying type of oil and wax binder. This composition gives them a creamy and smooth texture that glides effortlessly across various surfaces. The combination of oil and wax allows oil pastels to remain workable for an extended period, making them suitable for both drawing and painting techniques. The waxy texture of oil pastels also enables them to adhere well to surfaces, ensuring the longevity of works of art.

Soft pastels contain powdered pigments held together by a minimal amount of binder. The binder used in soft pastels is usually a gum arabic or methyl cellulose, which provides enough cohesion for the pigment particles to adhere to each other. The soft and powdery texture of soft pastels allows artists to achieve a range of effects, from delicate and subtle to bold and expressive. The dry nature of soft pastels can make them prone to crumbling, requiring careful handling and storage.

Pigmentation and Color Range

Oil pastels are highly pigmented, and offer very rich and vibrant colors. The oil binder in them enhances the intensity of the pigments, resulting in art that can have strong color saturation. Artists can achieve a wide spectrum of hues, shades, and tones using oil pastels. Additionally, the opaque nature of oil pastels allows for excellent coverage, making them suitable for layering and creating textured effects.

Soft pastels also have high pigment concentration, providing artists with a vast array of colors to work with. The pigment in soft pastels ensures their colors remain vivid and true. Soft pastels excel in producing subtle gradations and blending effects, and artists can create a diverse range of shades and tones by blending different colors directly on the surface.

Blending and Layering

Blending is an essential technique in pastel art, allowing artists to seamlessly transition between colors and create smooth transitions.

Oil pastels lend themselves very well to blending, thanks to their creamy consistency. (This depends on the type of oil pastels you choose. See my article oil pastels brands comparison for more)

Artists can blend oil pastels using various tools like blending stumps, brushes, or even their fingers. This versatility in blending techniques enables artists to achieve both subtle gradations and bold color transitions in their artworks. Layering is another technique that works exceptionally well with oil pastels, allowing artists to build up colors, textures, and details gradually.

Soft pastels also excel in blending due to their powdery texture. The pigment particles in soft pastels readily mix and merge when applied to a surface, resulting in smooth color transitions. Artists can blend soft pastels using their fingers, blending tools, or by layering multiple colors.

The powdery nature of soft pastels allows for effortless blending and enables artists to achieve soft and atmospheric effects, and can also be highly textured.

Drying and Fixing

I think a key difference between oil pastels and soft pastels is in the drying properties of each.

Oil pastels do not dry completely like traditional paints. They remain malleable and can be reworked even after long periods of time. This characteristic can also make oil pastels susceptible to smudging and smearing.

To preserve oil pastel artworks, fixing is necessary. Artists can use a fixative spray specifically designed for oil pastels to protect their creations from unwanted smudging and ensure the longevity of the artwork.

In contrast, soft pastels do not require fixing. Soft pastel artworks dry naturally and do not smudge once the pigment particles settle on the surface.

However, to preserve the delicate nature of soft pastel artworks and prevent accidental smudging, artists can use fixative sprays designed for soft pastels. Fixatives help set the pigment particles in place, ensuring your art remains intact over time.

Surface and Application

The choice of surface plays a crucial role in the successful execution of pastel art.

When it comes to oil pastels, they are incredibly versatile and can be applied to various surfaces. Artists can work on traditional supports like canvas, paper, or board. They can also experiment with unconventional surfaces such as wood, metal, or textured materials to achieve unique effects.

The tooth or texture of the surface influences how oil pastels adhere and interact with the support, affecting the overall look and feel of your art.

Soft pastels typically require a specific type of surface to achieve optimal results.

The surface used for soft pastels needs to have enough tooth to grip the pigment particles, allowing for easy application and blending.

Specialized pastel papers, sanded papers, or pastel boards provide the ideal surface for soft pastels, which helps their layering ability and blending techniques. The choice of surface texture also influences the overall aesthetic of the artwork, allowing artists to experiment with different effects.

Lightfastness and Preservation

Lightfastness refers to the resistance of pigments to fading when exposed to light over time. It is a crucial aspect to consider when creating art that is intended to be displayed or sold.

Oil pastels generally have good lightfastness, thanks to the durable pigments used in their composition. However, it is a good idea to check the lightfastness ratings of individual oil pastel colors, as some pigments may have different levels of lightfastness.

Soft pastels also come in a range of lightfastness ratings. High-quality soft pastels made with artist-grade pigments tend to have excellent lightfastness, ensuring the longevity of drawings.

Artists should refer to the lightfastness ratings provided by the manufacturer and choose colors with high permanence to ensure their art remains vibrant and fade-resistant over time.

Versatility and Uses

Oil pastels offer artists a high level of versatility. They can be used for various art forms, including drawing, painting, and mixed media.

Artists can apply oil pastels in thick, impasto-like layers for a textured effect or use them in thin, transparent washes reminiscent of watercolor.

Oil pastels can also be combined with other mediums such as acrylics or oil paints to create mixed media artworks. This versatility makes oil pastels a favorite choice for artists exploring different techniques and experimenting with unconventional approaches.

Soft pastels are also versatile in their applications. They are widely used for drawing, sketching, and creating atmospheric effects. I think soft pastels can really excel in capturing the nuances of landscapes, portraits, and still-life subjects.

Artists who choose soft pastels use them in a variety of ways, including layering, hatching, cross-hatching, and scumbling.

The ability to blend colors seamlessly and achieve a wide range of tonal values makes soft pastels an ideal medium for capturing the delicate nuances of light and shadow.

Pros and Cons

Like any artistic medium, both oil pastels and soft pastels have their pros and cons. Here I want to list out what makes each medium unique:

Oil Pastels:

  • Pros:
    • Rich and vibrant colors
    • Creamy texture for smooth application and blending
    • Versatile for both drawing and painting techniques
    • Can be used on various surfaces
    • Long working time and reworkability
  • Cons:
    • Susceptible to smudging and smearing
    • Requires fixing to preserve artworks
    • Color range sometimes is limited compared to soft pastels

Soft Pastels:

  • Pros:
    • Vast array of colors and subtle tonal variations
    • Soft texture for easy blending and layering
    • Ideal for capturing atmospheric effects and delicate nuances
    • No drying time or fixing required
    • Suitable for a wide range of subject matters
  • Cons:
    • Fragile and prone to crumbling
    • Requires specialized surfaces for optimal results
    • Higher chances of dust and pigment particles dispersing


Oil pastels and soft pastels offer artists distinct qualities and characteristics that cater to different artistic styles and preferences.

Understanding the differences between the two mediums helps artists to make an informed choice based on their artistic goals, which I hope I have provided here! (let me know your opinions in the comments, or reach out to me on twitter.)

Oil pastels provide vibrant colors, creamy textures, and versatility, making them suitable for various techniques and surfaces. Soft pastels, with their vast color range, powdery texture, and atmospheric effects, excel in capturing delicate nuances.

Both mediums offer unique artistic possibilities, and exploring them opens up a world of creativity and self-expression.

Whether you choose the bold and creamy textureof oil pastels or the soft and ethereal effects of soft pastels, let your imagination guide you on a journey of artistic discovery.


  1. What type of paper should I use with oil pastels?
    • It is recommended to use heavyweight papers or specialized oil pastel papers with a textured surface. These papers have enough tooth to hold the oil pastels and prevent them from smudging.
  2. Can I use oil pastels and soft pastels together in one artwork?
    • I think so, although personally it isn’t my favorite thing to do, because the texture of each is so different. Combining oil pastels and soft pastels can create interesting effects. Just be mindful of the different handling and blending techniques required for each.
  3. How do I fix oil pastel art without smudging the colors?
    • To fix oil pastel artworks, use a fixative spray specifically designed for oil pastels. Apply the fixative in thin layers, allowing each layer to dry before applying the next. This helps preserve the colors while minimizing smudging.
  4. Are soft pastels suitable for beginners?
    • Yes, soft pastels can be a great choice for beginners due to their ease of use and ability to achieve vibrant colors and soft blending effects. They offer a versatile and forgiving medium for artists of all skill levels.
  5. Can I blend oil pastels with my fingers?
    • Yes, blending oil pastels with your fingers can be an effective technique to achieve smooth transitions and create unique textures. Oil pastels do contain oil so you may want to wear some protective gloves if you choose to blend with fingers. Keep in mind that using tools like blending stumps or brushes can offer more control and precision in blending.

Which One To Use – Oil Pastels or Soft Pastels?

As stated above, it’s really up to you the artist which medium to use.

Both oil pastels and soft pastels have unique qualities and characteristics, and there is no right or wrong answer to the question of which to use.

Have you created any oil pastel art or soft pastels art recently? Or have you created any art that uses both? Let me know what you created!

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