Have you ever thought about the diversity of art mediums? Every material, be it oil paints, pastels, or acrylic colors, has unique characteristics and impressions. While some materials leave a glossy, watery stain, others may produce a rich yet rough texture.

The astounding range of art encourages artists to explore more and more techniques. Every art style, form, and medium helps convey a different meaning. Experimenting with art breaks customary patterns and motivates people to invent something new.

Though we have heard much about the vibrant, velvety look pastels give portraits and paintings, we are yet to discover its other features. So, today we will discuss the pastel art medium, which makes artwork glow with radiant colors.

This comprehensive guide on pastel portraits (will provide you with essential facts about pastel illustrations. We will also learn about the process of making pastel art, its longevity, the best art supplies, the symbolism of pastel hues, and a lot more.

So, let’s delve into this article and learn about pastel artwork in-depth.

What are Pastel Portraits?

Pastel portraits are realistic art creations made using pastels in varied forms. Pastels are pure powdered pigment rolled into a stick using a binder. Pastels' color pigments are like those used in any art medium, like oil paints and watercolors. The binding agent that binds the powder element is neutral in shade and low in saturation.

Pastels look like a cross of crayons and chalk. The way to hold pastels is identical to how one holds pencils, crayons, or paintbrushes. Pastels come in four forms: pastel pencils, hard pastels, soft pastels, and oil pastels. The hardness or softness of pastels depends upon the amount of binder used to combine them.

A purple pastel portrait of a girl wearing a cap

Credit: EtsyA pastel portrait of a girl wearing a hat

 Credit: Pastel Portraits


What Makes Pastel Drawings and Paintings Unique?

The physical characteristics of pastels make the artwork look lifelike and luminescent. Pastels add freshness, liveliness, and bloom to a portrait. The matte, velvety finish offers paintings an imprint unparalleled by any other medium.

The versatility of pastel forms adds a significant level of detail and precision to art pieces. The purity of pastel tones and hues helps create depth and a wide range of expressions. The smooth transitions of colors put creativity and spontaneity into the work. Thus, the many impressive features of pastels can help you make a composition unique.

Historical Significance of Pastel Drawings and Paintings

The first trace of pastel usage comes from the 16th century during the Renaissance era. Many artists made pastel portraits back then and approved pastels as an excellent source for making art. By the 18th century, pastels gained rapid popularity with the emergence of pastel makers throughout Europe.

Many royalties commissioned art persons to make personalized paintings using various pastel forms. In that era, most artists made pastels their primary medium and widely used them. The deep colors gave their artworks a beautiful appearance and rich texture.

Edgar Degas was a famous artist whose work is most connected with pastels. He brought about a massive transformation by mixing pastels with other art mediums. The complexity of mixing mediums gave art pieces a striking impression. 

Edgar Degas Pastels

Edgar Degas Pastels

 Credit: The History of Art

Edgar Degas Pastel portrait of a woman

Edgar Degas Pastels

Credit: Artists and Illustrators

Other artists who frequently used pastels in their compositions are Claude Monet, Michelangelo, Jean Millet, Pierre Renoir, and many more. Today, pastels hold widespread fame amongst veterans and budding artists.

Monet’s Pastels

Monet’s Pastels

Credit: The New York Times


 Renoir’s Portraits

 Renoir’s Portraits

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Difference Between A Pastel Drawing and Painting

Pastels are exciting and creative artistic mediums that result in ideal effects and outcomes. The differences between a pastel painting and a drawing can be tricky and difficult to spot. So, let us uncover the distinctive traits that distinguish them.

a) Pastel Paintings

In general, people refer to pastels as a drawing medium. But, when an artist uses it to add value, edges, and color, it becomes a painting medium. Another aspect that defines a pastel painting is that in paintings, pastels cover the entire surface of the paper.

Most artists use soft or oil pastels for making paintings. The high pigmentation of these pastel forms creates a painterly effect. Their unique bendability gives works of art a luscious and fine finish.

Pastel Painting of flowers


Credit: The Virtual Instructor

Pastel portrait depicting lamp and wine bottle

 Credit: Art Zolo

b) Pastel Drawings

One of the unique features of pastel drawings is that the pastels do not cover the entire paper in these compositions. If used to make sketches, pastels enhance the flat subjects, giving them a 3-D look. Usually, artists use hard pastels or pastel pencils for drawings, as they can create more defined shapes and lines. 

Hard pastels have less pigment and more binders making them tough and unbreakable. This quality leads to the creation of realistic illustrations.

Ross Lammas

 Credit: Ross Lammas 


Credit: Pinterest

Materials and Supplies for Pastel Art

The essential requirement for any creative work is good quality art materials. The quality of the art supplies is integral in determining how beautiful and natural an art piece will turn out.

When it comes to pastel art, the unique advantage it gives its creators is the ease of making alluring art pieces by using very few accessories. A fresher should keep it simple with a pencil, pastel sticks, and a blending tool. Once you get familiar with techniques, you can move forward to more advanced tools. 

In this section, we will learn about all the equipment needed to make pastel art

1) Drawing and Painting Surfaces

A toothed paper is the best for a pastel portrait. The tooth of a paper refers to the texture, i.e., how smooth or coarse the paper surface is. Toothed surfaces have tiny bumps and ruggedness across the top area, making them suitable for holding small pastel particles.

These rough textured papers are beneficial because they let the crumbly particles cling to them, allowing the artist to create multiple layers. Experimenting with various pastel types also becomes effortless on rugged surfaces.

On the other hand, a smooth surface does not hold the grip of particles, making them slide off and mix quickly. Thus, finding the right degree of toothedness and texture is integral while looking for art sheets and papers. You should go for a moderately rough drawing surface that is neither too heavily textured nor extremely flat.

Drawing and Painting Surfaces

  Credit: Jackson Art Supplies

Drawing and Painting Surfaces by nitram

Credit: Nitriam Charcoal

2) Pastel Sticks

Pastel sticks are color pigments bound in the form of sticks. The richness and intensity of colors depend upon the amount of binding agent mixed with the color particles. These pastel sticks come in various forms, each having a particular set of characteristics.

The usage of every pastel type depends upon the kind of artwork you are trying to pursue. For example, for creating in-depth impressions, artists recommend using soft pastels. Meanwhile, hard pastels and pencils are the best for making sharp, defined lines.

Pastel Sticks

 Credit: Dsource

Soft oil pastels

 Credit: eBay

3) Pastel Blenders

Blending and smudging form the core of pastel artwork. Though mastering mixing techniques require a lot of dedication and patience, they take portraits to a new level once excelled. Nowadays, a wide range of pastel blenders are available in the market. Let’s explore some of them.


A tortillion, better known as a blending stump, is a cylindrical-shaped tool made of soft paper, tightly folded to create a stick. The artists sharpen the stick from both sides with sandpaper to give the stick a pointed edge. After refining the tips, these sticks are ready for smudging and blending.

The sharp ends of a tortillion precisely pick up the unnecessary dust and pastel particles from the paintings. It also helps in creating light soft lines across the sketches. This twisted paper rolls work on any art medium, whether charcoal, pastel, or graphite.

Another advantage of blending stumps is that they are easy to clean and handle. You can clean them by rubbing these sticks against sandpaper.

tortillion, better known as a blending stump

Credit: Crafts Village


Nowadays, many pastel-blending-specific brushes are readily available in the market. These pastel brushes come in various shapes and sizes, with the brush tips made of synthetic or natural fibers. When creating pastel art, this blending tool solves many purposes, like flicking off dust particles and merging colors.

Flat brushes cover large areas, while round brushes can help you work on more detailed areas. Thus, this blending tool can help you gently transition between tone variations and values.

pastel-blending-specific brushes

Credit: Art is Fun

Soft Tool

Soft Tool is a palette knife-shaped accessory with a dense sponge in the front. Sofft sponges with wooden handles are best for blending pan pastels. They are washable, reusable, and easy to clean. You can buy this blending tool in different sizes and shapes depending on your requirement.

Another cheaper and more accessible alternative to the sofft tool is cotton rolls. You can make cotton balls and use them to smudge colors.

Soft Tool is a palette knife-shaped accessory with a dense sponge in the front

Credit: Pan Pastel

4) Kneaded Eraser

The best thing about pastel is its forgiving quality, i.e., the mistakes are reversible and manageable. With the help of a kneaded eraser, artists can revert their errors and alter all their painting blunders. As the name suggests, kneaded erasers can be molded and stretched into different shapes. These erasers are the most used tool in any artist’s toolkit.

The steps to follow while using a kneaded eraser are as follows:

  • Unwrap the kneaded eraser on a clean surface.
  • Stretch out the ends of the eraser, break it into two, and then knead them together.
  • Combine some pastel particles into the eraser to soften it immediately.
  • Once you have softened and combined the pieces of the eraser, it is ready to use.
  • Rather than dragging the eraser on your portraits, dab them to erase the part neatly.
  • Once you have corrected your mistake, stretch and fold the eraser back multiple times to clean it. 

Kneaded Eraser

 Credit: Amazon

Black and grey kneaded erasers

Credit: Wikipedia

5) Fixatives

If you are looking for an element that holds your pastels in place and helps prevent unnecessary smudging, then fixatives are the best option. Fixatives are a multiple-purpose art essential part of an artist’s toolkit.

Pastel fixatives assist in controlling and fixing delicate pastel particles so they do not accidentally spread around and spoil the portrait. These fixative sprays protect all dry mediums from dislodging on smooth surfaces. The preserving agent of fixatives prevents beautiful artworks from fading, discoloring, and crumbling over time. 

Fixatives can be classified into two different categories, which are:

Working Fixative

Working fixatives are useful between the various steps of creating pastel artworks. This fixative kind comes in handy for the artist to make a layered painting. While the artist works on layering and blending, a working fixative keeps the other pastel particles in place.  

Spray the desired area with a working fixative and leave it on for a few seconds to use it effectively. When it dries, you can continue creating your artwork.

Working fixatives are also helpful if you want to pause and resume work after a while. In the meantime, these fixatives protect the unfinished work and prevent accidental mixing of pastels. However, these fixatives are not mandatory. Their demand and usage depend on the artist’s preference. 

Working Fixative

Credit: Jerry’s Artarama

Final Fixative

Final fixatives are applied to finished pastel paintings, protecting artworks from unwanted damage or harm. You cannot use this fixative type during the painting, layering, or blending color tones. A final fixative safeguards pastel art from ultraviolet rays, dust, air pollution, or unintentional smudging.

Fixatives also have both pros and cons. Fixatives can dull the original color tones of the painting and darken the lighter pastel shades. Thus, testing them on a rough drawing or a small painted area before spraying the entire work is essential.

Final Fixative

Credit: Spectra Fix

Different Types of Pastels

Though all pastel types look almost identical, there are differences in their qualities and the impressions they leave. It is essential to pick the correct pastel form, as every pastel stick has unique features and characteristics. Choosing the right type ensures the exact results you wish to create.

This section will uncover the six different types of pastels and their use.

1) Soft Pastels

Soft pastels are the oldest and most used form of pastel sticks. With the least binding agent, these traditional pastels have a high pigmentation level. This property helps them create intense and rich imprints. Soft pastels' crumbly, powdery texture makes them best suited for blending and smudging. The fragile consistency of this art medium leaves a splendid layered impact on a canvas.

Soft pastels are cylindrical sticks in various sizes, colors, and thicknesses. Some manufacturers even make soft pastel palettes with up to 500 tones and hues.  

If you are a beginner, consider purchasing a balanced set of pastels. You can build the range and collection of colors once you gain experience. But, initially, try spending little on color palettes and more on enriching skills. 

Soft Pastels

Credit: Art Lounge

a box of soft pastels

Credit: Amazon

2) Hard Pastels

Hard pastels are pastel sticks with less pigment and a high amount of binder. These sticks give a light color impression and do not break or crumble easily. This pastel form is much stabler than any other pastel type, making it the best for making defined lines and edges.

You can use a knife or sandpaper to sharpen the tips of the hard pastel and create crisp lines with it. The side border of the pastel helps create bold strokes that give a rough, coarse look. Most artists blend soft and hard pastels to give sketches detailed, refined, and intricate final touches. 

Though the color variation in hard pastels is less than the soft ones, they are pretty enough. Their dust-free property is best for outlines and details.

Hard pastel sticks

Credit: Art Starts

Hard pastel shades

Credit: Art is Fun

3) Oil Pastels

Are you looking for an art medium with the same texture and versatility as oil paints? If yes, then try oil pastels today. Oil pastels are durable and multi-faceted pastels that give a dynamic and dreamlike finish to a pastel portrait. 

Unlike any other pastel type, oil pastels have wax and oil as a binder instead of gum. This binding property gives a remarkable consistency that leads to lifelike artworks. Oil pastels do not crumble, smudge, and break like soft pastels, yet produce intense and bright pigments. 

The waxy consistency of oil pastels helps them spread throughout the painting surface and create bold and smooth strokes. Another advantage that oil pastels offer is that they do not require a fixative spray. The durability and versatility of this pastel kind make it well-suited for large artworks.  

However, working with oil pastels is challenging as blending them and combining them with other pastel types requires mastering its techniques.

A box of Oil pastels

Credit: Blingspot

4) Pan Pastels

The newest form of pastels, pan pastels, are bound pigments set in small pans or jars instead of molded in sticks. This pastel type has the lowest binding agent and the highest pigment concentration. 

Pan pastels have gained massive popularity among artists because of their easy-to-pick characteristics. One can lift these pastels using a soft tool or brush from the container and apply them to their artwork, like paints. 

Pan pastels, a specialized soft pastel category, allow users to create significant blendable and detailed effects. Pan pastels' complete erasability and compatibility with other mediums attract artists to them.

Pan pastels

  Credit: Amazon

A box of pan pastels

Credit: Pan Pastels

5) Pastel Pencils

Pastel pencils are color pigments encased in thin wooden sticks for sketching and creating sharp fine lines. Though pastel pencils are versatile, many artists combine them with other pastel forms. Like conventional pencils, these pencils are also easy to handle and work with. 

Pastel pencils encourage artists to create prompt, spontaneous drawings that require little planning. This pastel type is best for making preliminary sketches and basic drafts. You can use blunt pastel pencils for soft, hazy lines and pointed tips for precise details.

Pastel Pencils

Credit: Art is Fun

How To Create A Pastel Portrait:

Before painting a pastel portrait, many queries may cross our minds, like:

  • What will be the output of pastels on different textured papers?
  • How do you keep pastel creations realistic and natural?
  • How do you smoothly blend, smudge, and layer different colors together? 
  • Do pastels work on a canvas?

Though we question a lot, pastels create magic when they touch the surface. So, let's get an insight into the pastel artwork process that will help you produce surprisingly beautiful results.

Eight Essential Steps to Follow When Making Pastel Portraits

Though using pastels can be intimidating initially, one can master the correct methods with continuous practice. So, let us go through this detailed breakdown of the process that will assist you in excelling in the art of pastel portraits. 

1) Sketch Out the Figure

Start your painting process by planning the composition as you envision it. Go through reference photos and art pieces to gather inspiration for the portrait. Once you have decided on the subject of your painting, sketch out the figures and objects using a graphite pencil. 

You can use a burnt-umber color pastel pencil to loosely and lightly construct the shapes and spaces. This step helps decide the placement of the elements across the frame.

A outline sketch from a reference photo

Credit: Pastel Portraits

2) Determine the Anchor

While making portraits, the arrangement of facial features holds significant importance. The precision of face dimensions gives images a realistic look. Therefore, determining the shape and placement of eyes, ears, nose, etc., is vital when creating pastel portraits. 

To do so, place a triangle between the eyebrows and nose. The triangle acts as an anchor, helping to identify the prominent face areas. You can also divide your subject’s face into three vertical divisions. This method also helps maintain accuracy throughout the portrait.

The three sections to divide the face into are:

  • the top of the forehead to the tip of the eyebrows,
  • from the eyebrows to the base of the nose, and
  • from the nose to the bottom of the chin.

arrangement of facial features

Credit: Youtube  

Facial features depiction of a man

Credit: Drago Art

3) Locate the Light Sources

The direction and flow of light play a vital role in creating a realistic painting. The way light falls on the face determines the shadows and highlights. The hardness or softness of light sources is also an influential factor in blocking darks and light.

To understand the concept of light, focus on the angle at which the subject faces the light sources. Look at the axis of the head, and comprehend the degree of light falling on it.

direction and flow of light in a portrait

Credit: Clip Studio Paint

4) Find the Darkest and Lightest Areas

Locating the lightest and the darkest area on your subject’s face is essential to ensure balance throughout the creation process. These two areas are the extreme points between which all other color values should fall. 

Take these areas as reference points, and start painting using your pastels. You will also get a fair idea about the highlights and shadows with the lights and darks

5) Adding Main Color

After establishing the darks, the next step is adding the primary colors to the face. You can divide the subject into three sections and then work accordingly. You should divide the section according to the warm and cool tones. 

Paint lightly and try to fill all the shapes and forms first. First, apply a white shade and then any other dark color to give a lighter tone. This way, you will get a balanced representation of the subject. Scrap the colors with a kneaded eraser or sandpaper if the section turns too dark.

6) Build Up Layers With Contemporary Colors

Start overlapping your subject with other colors as you finish the base layer. Layering is crucial because it gives depth and realism to a picture. You can create contrast using yellow-orangish, pinkish-peach, purple, and blue shades. 

Use hard pastels if you want your artwork to have strong strokes and fine lines. For a dynamic effect, blend soft pastels, pastel pencils, and hard pastels.

Layering of portrait

overlapping your subject with other colors

Credit: Artist Network

7) Blending Out Colors

Mastering the blending methods gives the artwork a final and more polished look. You can use your fingers, brushes, sofft tool, or sharpened blenders to finish blending the colors. Appropriate and realistic blending can enhance the overall appearance of the painting. 

Some ways to give real effects are:

  • Pick a soft tool and lift the shades from pan pastels to add minute details to your subject. This method is more effective than using a pastel pencil.
  • Use a kneaded round eraser to produce softer edges.
  • You can also use brushes, blending stumps, and chamois cloth to smudge colors and obtain the desired shade. 

Blending Out Colors

 sharpened blenders to finish blending the colors

Credit: WikiHow

8) Give Final Touches to Your Work of Art

As you progress toward your artwork's completion, compare your painting with the original reference image. Work on refining transitions to ensure smooth change between shades. You can even add some impressionistic effects for a striking look. Finally, spray fixatives on the surface to prevent pastels from harm or damage. That’s it; your pastel portrait is ready for display!

spraying fixatives on the surface to prevent pastels from harm or damage

  Credit: Jackson’s Art Supplies

arfina fixativesCredit: Amazon

Tips For Beginners When Making Their First Pastel Painting

The easy-to-learn quality of pastels makes it an excellent choice for beginners. This art medium allows artists to experiment and explore new ways and methods of use. The versatility of pastels gives an astounding range of expression and detail to an art piece. 

The attributes of pastel portraits benefit both the artist and the sitter. Some of them are its lower cost and easy portability of art supplies, fewer sittings, and less time required for drying. These factors even influenced the Renaissance painters to create commissioned pastel portraits. Let us uncover some tips and tricks beneficial for freshers and budding pastel makers.

1) Pick the Right Pastel Form

Every pastel form has an exclusive and distinct trait. Soft pastels have a creamy, buttery feel making them easily blendable. Hard pastels and pencils are great for adding defined and sharp edges.

Oil pastels are high-pigmented and less smudgeable compared to other forms. The water-soluble pastels create semi-transparent washes when water brushes over them. Thus, choosing the most suitable pastel form can help artists produce desirable effects and illustrations.

2) Make a Clear Plan

Planning is integral to ensure smooth functioning during the creative process. A clear vision of what you want to achieve guarantees success. Planning helps decide the styles, tones, underpainting, design, and composition. 

It would be helpful if you had an accurate idea of what your result should look like. This clarity will assist you in planning step-by-step the stages to follow.

3) Make Thumbnails For Experimentation

Thumbnails are miniature representations of large images. Artists make thumbnails to see how a particular pattern or style will look on a large scale. Therefore, it is advisable for beginners to first experiment with techniques on a rough paper.

4) Be Careful While Mixing Pastels

Pastels are wet and soft, so they easily smudge and layer over each other. Over-smudging and over-layering often lead to messing up the art. To avoid over-mixing, lightly use the pastels over the surface and carefully blend the colors.

Be cautious while using dark colors, and leave them for the last. Try using dark greens, browns, and grays instead of black. Gently create shadows and highlights while balancing the light and dark shades.

5) Do Freehand Drawing and Painting

Pastel artwork, once mastered, can be an entertaining and enjoyable activity. The varied effects created using the diverse colors and types of pastels are the result of its loose control and free strokes. Using flowy strokes and blended colors will create compelling and surprising visual effects. 

The different forms of pastels help in producing realistic and naturalistic marks. So, do not hesitate to let go of control when working with pastels and quickly build layers of colors. Also, do not worry about mistakes and errors, as they are easy to erase and fix.

Safety Measures and Precautions

The one major problem every artist faces when working with pastels is the fine dust fumes it exhales into the air. Pastels release air-borne pigments that can be hazardous to humans when inhaled. The inhalation of chemicals in binding agents can cause severe health concerns like breathing issues, lung damage, etc.  

But, nowadays, most companies manufacture chemical-free or less toxic art mediums to ensure the client’s safety. These pastels are harmless for human beings. But to be on the safer side, being careful and taking precautions is necessary. Some safety measures to remember while working with pastels are:

  • Always check the ingredients used while manufacturing pastels. Avoid any art medium that contains a poisonous chemical or dusty material.
  • Do not compromise on the quality of the art products. Go for high-grade art materials rather than poor ones.
  • If you have asthma or other breathing problems, avoid using soft pastels. Switch to oil pastels or any other art medium for your well-being and protection.
  • When using pastels, work in a well-ventilated room or an outdoor setup. It decreases the chance of inhaling harmful fumes.
  • Keep pastels away from children, as accidental ingestion can be very harmful.
  • Though wearing a mask while working can be uncomfortable, it is a good safety measure.
  • f you are a frequent pastel art maker, we insist you purchase an air purifier. An air purifier removes the contaminants in the room and improves the air quality.

Thus, these precautionary steps are mandatory for an enjoyable and safe working environment.

Longevity of Pastel Portraits

Pastel portraits are fragile and prone to fading faster than any other medium. Because of the absence of varnish, pastel artworks are more vulnerable to deterioration quickly. The color particles of pastels are delicate and can smudge off easily.

Here are some tips to ensure the longevity of pastel works of art:

  • Protect your pastel portrait from harmful UV radiation or sun exposure. Long spans of illumination can cause pastels to fade quickly.
  • Before framing your artwork, glaze them to ensure the best protection.
  • If not in a hanging position, always keep your painting vertically upright. This stance prevents your artwork from jarring and unwanted damage.
  • your artwork from jarring and unwanted damage. 
  • Always use good quality paper with a textured surface, as it absorbs pastel elements and aids in blending and mixing.
  • Use good-quality pastels to avoid unusual cracking, blistering, yellowing, or darkening.

These precautions will help you preserve and enjoy vibrant portraits for many generations.

Embracing Pastel Colors

Pastel colors bring an air of freshness and calmness with them. Primary and secondary colors diluted with white in large quantity forms pastel colors. The essence of the original color, along with the purity of white, combines to make these bright, cheery shades. 

Pastel tones evoke pleasant emotions and feelings of joy and happiness. They are symbolic of springtime and cheerfulness. Traditionally, a color wheel does not represent pastels as a color or shade.

The colors of the pastel family are soothing and appealing to the eyes. Some examples of pastel shades are mint, lavender, mauve, peach, etc. 

 Color shades

Credit: Color Scheme     

multiple pastel shades

Credit: Pastel Club  


Pastels as an art medium offer an array of possible outcomes and creative representations. Both beginners and experienced artists enjoy pastels and produce innovative, impressive art pieces. 

Though pastel paintings are challenging art mediums to master, one can excel in the techniques with constant practice, dedication, and patience. So, unleash your creativity, familiarize yourself with the rich world of pastels, and achieve excellent results.




Soft Elegance: Handmade Pastel Portraits

Experience the delicate beauty of pastel portraits, meticulously crafted by skilled hands. Each piece captures the subject's essence with a soft, ethereal touch.

Get Started