Pastel Pencils vs. Colored Pencils: Which are the Best for You?

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Many artists are torn between using colored pencils, pastels, or pencil pastels. While all three are coloring mediums that give excellent results, they are fundamentally different, and that influences the kind of results you can achieve. Each coloring medium boasts unique characteristics that can affect your drawing experience.

Whether you’re a professional artist, a hobbyist, or an art student, having insights into the differences between pastel and colored pencil is crucial to your success. You need a medium that not only lets you achieve the desired results but also makes the entire painting and drawing process fun and enjoyable.

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This pastel pencils vs colored pencils article aims to tease out these differences to help you make an informed choice when buying your next batch of coloring supplies.

Pastel Pencils vs. Colored Pencils: Comparison

What is Pastel?

Pastel is a mixture of dry pigment, chalk, and a binding compound. The best is fashioned into stakes and then allowed to dry. There are five primary types of pastels – soft, hard, PanPastels, oil and pastel pencils.

While each type of pastel boasts unique characteristics, the pigment is in solid form. Hard, soft, and pencil pastels use gum or a resin binder, which makes them more compatible. The binding component is to thank for pastel’s blend-ability.

Oil pastels use oil and wax as binding components and have a texture similar to oil paints. Unlike paints, you can’t mix different oil pastels.

Soft and oil pastels have a buttery texture that is best suited for pastel painting, i.e., covering an entire painting surface with color.

The harder pastels are best suited for sketching, drawing, and artwork with intricate details.

Pastel Quality

Pastel pencils come in two main grades – student’s and artist’s quality.

Student’s quality is the cheaper of the two because it’s made of inferior pigments and contains more binder and filler compounds. As such, the color isn’t as intense as the professional-grade quality. However, these pastels don’t crumble as quickly due to the additional components.

Artist quality pastels are the gold standard and contain top-notch pigments and have lower filler to pigment ratio. As a result, these pastels have sharp, intense colors that won’t fade with time due to a high permanence rating.

Professional grade pastels carry a higher price due to their high pigment content, but they are worth every penny.

Pastel Pencils

As the name suggests, pastel pencils are pencils with a pastel lead or core.

These pencils gained popularity in the 1980s and were initially produced by the Schwan-Stabilo company, which is still one of the most reputable brands on the market today.

These pencils bridge the gap between soft and hard pastels, both of which are a tad challenging to work with. Thanks to their pencil form, pastel pencils are easier to use, especially for beginners.

One of the highpoints of using pastel pencils is that they afford you all the advantages of pastel and the control of using a pencil.

Improved control lets you create stunning pictures with an incredible amount of details, a feat that is impossible to achieve when using a pastel stick.

That makes them a perfect choice for amateurs, kids, art students, and even professionals.

Using Pastel Pencils

You can use pastel pencils as you would your regular colored pencils. Sharpening the tip of a pastel pencil lets you draw controlled lines while using the side of the tip lets you draw broad lines.

Thanks to the binding component in their lead, pastel pencils produce a lower amount of residual powder while coloring. However, that means you’ll need to draw several layers to create a thick application to blend with your fingers or blending tool. You can mix colors to create new shades and tints by layering them on top of each other.

Pastel Pencils Basics

You should work pastel pencils from light to dark. So, if you want a darker tone, start off with a medium tone base color, then finish off with stronger colors.


A double-ended eraser works best when you need to erase when working with pastel pencils. Use the soft end to remove a small layer of pastel and the hard end for stronger applications such as black colors. Note that you can get away with erasing once or twice, but more than that wears away the paper’s “tooth.” That would mean the pastel can no longer grip the paper and you won’t be able to carry on with the drawing.

Blending Pastel Pencils

You have the option of using your fingers, a blending stump, or a color shaper when looking to blend pastel pencils. Color shapers, which resemble a paintbrush but is topped off with a rubber tip, make the best blending tools.

The color shaper achieves incredible results for hair and skin tones, and you can use the color leftover on the rubber tip to add color to other areas of your drawing.

Sharpening Pastel Pencils

It’s tempting to use a regular pencil sharpener on pastel pencils, but that’s an ill-advised move. The sharpener will eat through the soft lead, leading to massive wastage. A craft knife or safety razor blade makes the best sharpening implement since they don’t lead to cracking.

Using a razor lets you create the type of point you want with just the right amount of sharpness. While effective, this sharpening technique takes a little bit of practice.

  1. Hold the pencil firmly facing away from you. You can hold it against the edge of a bowl or even a dust bin so that it lies on the edge.
  2. Hold the razor with the opposite hand and cut away the wooden casing. Use small gentle strokes so that you don’t cut into the softcore.
  3. Rotate the pencil in small increments, chipping away at the wooden casing as you go. Do this until you’ve shaved your way around the pencil.
  4. Now that you’re left with a good chunk of exposed soft pastel. Carve the core into a sharp point in a shape that suits the kind of details you need to work on.

Some of the Available Brands

CarbOrthello and Conte are some of the oldest pastel pencil brands, dating back to the 1980s. Fabel-Castel joined the fray in the early 1990s, introducing the market to Pitt Pastel Pencils. Since the Pitt Pastel moved to cash in on the weaknesses of Stabilo pastel pencils, they had a higher level of pigmentation. The core was a bit sturdier so the pencils didn’t break when being sharpened. Stabilo pencils have since eliminated these shortcomings and remain one of the best pastel pencils on the market.

Other brands include Derwent, Cretocolor, and Caran D’Arche, which is the latest entrant in the pastel pencils market. Caran D’Arche pencils were released in 2017 and have cultivated the reputation of being very good despite being more expensive. They boast bright pigments and come in 84 different colors.

Colored Pencils

Some brands ask for hundreds of dollars for their best-colored pencils, while some cheaper brands go for only a few dollars. That’s the first indication that there’s more to these pencils than lead and a wooden casing.

Primarily, colored pencils are made up of four ingredients – pigments, extenders, binders, and wood. Some colored pencils are water-soluble, while some are oil-based or wax-based.

The pigment is the most outstanding and crucial quality when it comes to colored pencils. These pigments vary significantly from one brand to the next and even between colors. Pigment also accounts for the price differences and the subsequent application of cheap and professional colored pencils.

Pricey brands boast higher pigment concentration, which results in pencils with vibrant colors that achieve dynamic results.

You have Faber-Castel and Caran d’Ache to thank for colored pencils having invented and started their production in 1924. Other manufacturers who joined this bandwagon include Progresso, Lyra Rembrandt, Derwent, and Blick Studio.

Types of Colored Pencils

Just like pastel pencils, colored pencils fall into two broad categories – professional and student grade.

Professional grade pencils are crafted from superior quality pigments and carry less of the binding and filler materials compared to the student grade varieties. They are highly resistant to UV rays, have durable cores that don’t break easily, and are quite resistant to water.

On the other hand, scholastic and student-grade colored pencils are made from inferior pigments and don’t have many defined characteristics. They have a lower lightfastness, i.e. fade too quickly and change color appearance after exposure to light. However, these pencils are highly erasable, which makes them better suited for beginners and hobby artists.

Colored pencils are further divided into three broad subcategories according to the way the cores are manufactured – water-based, wax-based, and oil-based.

Water-based Colored Pencils

Also known as watercolor pencils, water-based colored pencils were developed by Caran d’Arche in 1931. The core of these pencils contains a propriety material that dissolves when it comes into contact with water. Ideally, these pencils let you have the best of both painting worlds. You get to dabble in watercolor painting while enjoying the control that comes with using a colored pencil.

You have two options when using water-based colored pencils.

  1. Dip the lead in water and then use it as you would a standard pencil. This is the best approach for drawing texture such as hair and grass or when you need to color tiny areas. You’ll have to keep dipping the pencil in water when using this method.
  2. You can use these pencils as a source of pigment while painting with a brush. It entails dipping the brush in water and stroking it against the pencil then using the brush to paint. You can produce various effects from broken color to tight details when using this method.
Wax-based Colored Pencils

They are the most common types of colored pencils on the market. Wax-based colored pencils glide smoothly on paper to create a relatively slick and shiny result. Their excellent blending abilities make them a popular pick for many artists as that makes for effortless layering.

On top of being easy to work with, wax-based colored pencils are compatible with a broad range of solvents. Common solvents such as xylene and baby oil dissolve the pigment and wax onto the paper.

Xylene makes the solvent as it reacts with the paraffin wax in the pencils resulting in excellent color blends. You can achieve the same results with xylene-based blending pens.

One shortcoming of wax-based colored pencils are the wax blooms, i.e., the wax may begin to oxidize a few days later. You can counter these adverse effects by wiping your artwork with a dry cloth. For lasting results, you need to seal off your drawing with a fixative to create an air barrier.

Oil-based Colored Pencils

Oil-based colored pencils are a bit of a rarity and are exclusive to a few brands such as LYRA Polycolor and Faber-Castel Polychromos.

However, this range of colored pencils provides slick buttery results as the colors tend to be more vivid and dynamic compared to the wax-based pencils.

Due to the oil in the lead, turpentine and odorless mineral spirit are the best solvents. Xylene and baby oil will only serve to ruin your drawing paper instead of helping the colors pop off.

Colored Pencils Basics

A well-sharpened colored pencil deposits color into the “tooth” of your drawing paper. A dull point will do a poor job of depositing the color, forcing you to apply more pressure and leave you with excess color on the artwork. You won’t achieve the desired color and will have challenges blending.

You should color from light to dark hues when working with colored pencils. Much like watercolors, you can put down color to build up various color tones and hues. The layers tend to be transparent and semitransparent, making it easy to build them up.

Starting with light colors makes for effortless drawing since they are easier to fix compared to dark ones. You should also start off with light pressure as the color intensity depends on the amount of force you apply as you draw.

Outlining the highlights of your artwork also lets you avoid mistakes such as applying darker colors and having to constantly erase them. For the best results when shading, avoid the use of a black marker. Black is a very strong hue and will make your work look a tad off when aiming for a realistic look.

Dry blending, pencil blending, and solvent blending, instead of a blending stump or a tortillon, give the best results when working with color pencils. For the best blending results, use colors in the same range or those that are close together on the color wheel.


Some of the crucial pointers to bear in mind is that pastel pencils are a dry painting medium while colored pencils are either waxy or oily. The different lead composition creates a world of difference in color intensity and vibrancy, blending abilities, and layering. Your choice of pencils also influences the painting techniques to use in your artwork.

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