Oil and chalk pastels compared

Heather Joliffe

Different types of pastel essentially consist of two components: the pigment and the binder. Traditional soft and hard pastels use a chalk binder in varying degrees. Soft pastels use little binder which produces intense colours; they blend well and can quickly cover large areas. They are fragile, and are usally produced in paper sleeves. Hard pastels use more chalk binder and are stronger than the softer types. They usually have a square cross section and can be snapped to provide hard edges for drawing fine lines. They are often used for drawing. Pastel pencils are usually of the hard type.

Oil pastels use the same pigments as chalk pastels but the binder contains an oil soluble wax which gives a more buttery texture. They are harder to blend than the chalk pastels but are less fragile and since they produce little dust they are also less messy in use.

Some of the pastels Heather uses are shown below.

There are many types of purpose made pastel paper varying in weight, colour, and surface roughness or "tooth". Heather often works on coloured papers when using pastels as the background colour can have a unifying effect on the final painting. She has found that watercolour papers provide a good tooth for pastel use and can be made in any colour by applying a watercolour wash to the paper and allowing it to dry thoroughly. For the demonstration she used Bockingford watercolour paper with colour washes she had applied earlier.

The image on the left was done using oil pastels showing how quite thick layers can be overpainted. It is also possible to scrape paint off with a palette knife and reapply it elsewhere.

The above image was sketched using soft pastels

For the main demonstrations Heather painted two woodland scenes: the first with oil pastels, the second with soft pastels.

For the first demonstration Heather used a sheet of Bockingford paper with an aubergine colour. After a very simple drawing to position the main elements, a sky coloured pastel was used to define the upper shapes of the trees


Many more layers were added to produce the foliage and the bark rexture of the foreground trees. The darks were then added.

Heather at work!

The finished demonstration

For the second demonstration, Heather used a sheet of Bockingford watercolour paper to which a bluish grey wash had been applied.


The finished demonstration showing how quickly it is possible to work with soft pastels.
(This took approximately 20 minutes)