Soft Pastels – A Synopsis

fast facts… quick learnin… the spark notes of art…


Soft pastels, also known as chalk pastels, are a kind of pastel made by mixing pigment with a binder (generally clay). It is then allowed to dry into a stick of pigment that ranges from soft and crumbly to extremely hard.



Both “soft pastels” and “chalk pastels” are terms used to describe the general category of dry pastels…

But both terms also have specific meanings inside the category… Where soft pastels means a literally soft pastel instead of medium or hard… and chalk pastels are a whole mess of products from street chalk type pastels to pastel cubes.



Pastels can and are sometimes referred to as crayons. A crayon, in the modern use of the word, is wax and pigment… which is the same basic concept as all pastels and crayons. Example… oil pastels are made of oil, wax, and pigment.


Pigment + binder + sometimes other stuff = pastel / crayon.


While crayons, oil pastels, and soft pastels all have their own technical definitions and are seen as specific things… common usage of the words and the fact that art supplies companies frequently make products that blur the line between each category means that it frankly doesn’t matter what term you choose to use. As long as people know what you’re talking about, technical definitions are irrelevant.

They are all just sticks of pigment.


The hardness of a pastel is determined by the ratio of pigment to binder (and its other ingredients). The more binder, the harder the pastel will be.


Which leads to the distinction between hard, medium, and soft pastels.


Soft pastels lay on the one end where the ratio of pigment to binder is high… leading to a soft crumbly pastel.

Hard pastels lay on the other where the ratio of pigment to binder is low… leading to a very hard almost colored pencil like pastel.

Medium pastels are simply pastels that have a hardness between soft and hard pastels.



You can currently purchase pastels that range from insanely soft to quite hard.

Some are made artisanally in small batches by artists and others are made by hand in a factory setting. Each brand and product line is unique in its hardness, texture, pigment load, sizes, price, etc. There’s always a soft pastel that’ll fit your needs.

Soft pastels are generally sold in two sizes, full stick and half sticks.


The dust from soft pastels is a serious health hazard and appropriate precautions should be taken depending on the nature of the pastel you’re working with. Hard pastels may not make any dust while soft pastels may crumble into fine particles that will float in the air of your work space.

Proper ventilation, masks, gloves, and even eye protection should be part of your work plan depending on the properties of the pastels and surfaces that you’re working with. While you may feel silly taking precautions… it is serious and you should see safety as a fundamental part of engaging in artistic activities.

Your health is not a joke and looking or feeling silly is not a good reason to forgo safety precautions.


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