UART Tip #34: “Pastel Pencils or Colored Pencils?” with Denise Howard

In my UART Tip #25, I said: “Why use colored pencil rather than pastel pencil on UART? Less mess, and the option to frame under Plexiglas instead of glass.” If you are experimenting with media, you might have found that answer insufficient to help you decide whether one or the other is better for you. So, I’ll take this opportunity to do a little side-by-side comparison.

In general, the differences between pastel pencils and colored pencils are in some of the pigments used, and in the binder that holds the pigment core together. Pastel pencils (and stick pastels) are typically made with a very small amount of gum arabic, while colored pencils are made with a blend of vegetable oils and waxes. This makes a big difference in how they lay down on and adhere to a surface; pastel pigment has a weak hold and can be shaken, smudged, or blown off, while colored pencil pigment truly sticks. Some colored pencils have a drier consistency; these are so-called “oil-based” because their binder’s blend contains more oils than waxes. Others have a creamier consistency; these are so-called “wax-based” because their binder’s blend contains more waxes than oils. “Oil-based” pencils work very well on many of the same papers and surfaces that pastelists like, such as UART; “wax-based” pencils work, too, but a little less like pastels.

Note that the distinction between pastel pencils and colored pencils is very important to the Pastel Society of America and the Colored Pencil Society of America for their respective annual exhibitions, neither of which allows the other type of pencils.

For this exercise, I’m using Stabilo Carbothello pastel pencils, and Rembrandt Lyra Polycolor colored pencils (which are “oil-based”), and UART 600 grit Sanded Pastel Paper.

For each, I’ll show the results of: pencils only; smudged with my finger; blended with solvent; white marks made on top; and a blend between two colors via pencil strokes alone. For each swatch, I consistently created a heavy application on the left side to a medium application on the right side.

Pencils alone

The difference in softness is immediately obvious when you touch the pencils to the UART paper. Barely any pressure is needed for saturation with the pastel pencils, and quite a bit of residue powder is produced. The colored pencil sticks to the paper’s tooth better, more pressure is needed for saturation, and it produces less residue powder.

Smudged with finger

I lightly swiped my index finger from left to right across each swatch a few times. The pastel pencil smudged very easily, and quite a bit of pigment lifted off on my finger. This can be a good thing if you like to use your fingers as blending tools, but it also means you have to be very careful to avoid accidental contact! The colored pencil smudged some, and some lifted off on my finger, but not nearly as much as the pastel.

Blended with solvent

I moistened a small flat brush with Gamsol and swiped it from left to right across each swatch a few times. (Alcohol works, too.) Since the pastel powder doesn’t cling to the tooth, it’s easy to produce a painterly or watercolor effect. The colored pencil does stick some, so I got a grittier-looking result. With more solvent I could completely dissolve the binder, but that would dilute the color saturation, too. Depending on the subject matter, I might actually want this gritty effect!

White marks made on top

With pastel pencils, it’s very easy to make a strong white mark atop a dark color, and in fact pastelists usually work from dark to light. One of the hardest things to get used to when learning to use colored pencil is that achieving strong light colors atop dark colors is almost impossible, so that one must work from light to dark, reserving the lightest spots (such as eye reflections and cat whiskers). This is because colored pencil is by nature more transparent. This example makes the issue clear! Some artists choose to work around this by using a gel pen or gouache to add highlights at the end, but that changes the work from pure colored pencil to mixed media.

Blended with pencil strokes

I put about the same amount of work into each swatch, stroking the colors atop each other to create a transition. A smooth, paint-like transition from one color to another is pretty easy with pastel pencils. It’s doable with colored pencil, but requires more work to accomplish before the paper runs out of tooth. This is why I prefer 600 grit over 800 grit for my colored pencil work. Some colored pencil artists use 400 or 500 grit.


There are of course other ways of blending pastels and colored pencils, but they are more specific to each. I hope these comparisons give you a better idea of how the way each responds to the techniques I used might help you decide which type of pencil to use to produce the result you want for a given project.

Denise J Howard, CPSA, CPX, UKCPS, MPAS

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