Pastels come in many different forms which beginners can find confusing. Some pastels are better for some types of work, so the type you need will really depend on the type of artwork you are creating. I will explain the main characteristics of each type of pastel; oil, soft, hard and pastel pencils.
Oil pastels are not to be confused with soft pastels which is the type of pastel that I think of when I think ‘pastels’. Every term new learners come to the pastel lesson with oil pastels so it is worth knowing the difference.
Oil pastels are not crumbly, soft or easy to smudge or blend. Oil pastels are waxy, think of them of finer versions of the wax crayons you used as a child. They are great for colour and getting very intense coverage of bright bold colour but you can’t blend them, you can only layer colours. This makes them completely the opposite to the qualities of the soft pastel.
Oil pastels will form a distinct line and you can draw with them unlike soft pastels which will smudge on contact with paper. They can be great to draw with for large-scale expressive work.
Soft pastels are very soft, crumbly and smudge extremely well. Soft pastels can be challenging to use because they are so powdery that they can be hard to control and make any definition with them. They are best for laying down large areas of colour, perhaps for backgrounds or working in a very loose, expressive way on a large scale.
You can also use soft pastels quite effectively to tint paper by smudging in pigment. The loose powdery pigment can either be rubbed in with a rag or for smaller areas a blender or cotton bud. See my post on What is a Blending Tool? for more advice on blending.
Blending is a very effective technique for soft pastels, being so soft you can blend different colours very effectively as well as covering the paper with a colour.
Soft pastels will need good pastel paper with a tooth (a groove) in it. This grain keeps the powdery pigment in place. You will also have to fix your work with a fixative.
Hard pastels are as the name suggests a bit harder and therefore you can achieve a line with them. You can still smudge them very effectively though and they work well used with soft pastels. Hard pastels work well combined with other media such as charcoal, carbon pencil, pencils, graphite stick and watercolours. They can be purchased as sticks individually or in sets.
Pastel pencils come in pencil format and offer much more control than soft pastels. You can usually achieve fine lines with them but they lack the versatility of the pastel stick as you can’t always get the broad flat coverage of the side of a stick.
Pastel pencils are not as soft as soft pastels in blocks but will vary in softness depending on the brand. A few I have tried have been a bit chalky and a bit harsh on the paper surface, so I’d suggest getting the better quality ones.
You can produce some fairly detailed work with pastel pencils and you have the option of smudging them or not. They will retain a line if you don’t smudge, you could always smudge more detailed areas with a blending tool.