Pastels offer brilliant colors and high pigmentation. They are ideal for an artist who wishes to use intense color. They offer a lot of diversity, as they are mixable, wipeable, and water soluble. They can be used to achieve a wide range of drawing effects, from crisp lines to soft feathery textures.
They are easy to use when paint is not. Because there is no drying time, they make it easy to be spontaneous, and work at a moment's notice.
Historically, pastels can be traced back to the 16th century and have been used by many famous artists, but they became especially popular in the 19th century. Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler, Degas, and Mary Cassatt all used pastels for finished work as well as for sketches.
Because they have no liquid binder, they do not degrade over time. Pastels are valued for their long lasting beauty. Choose a surface and support that will stand the test of time.
The hardness or softness of a pastel depends on the amount of binder or filler in its makeup. There are advantages to each style of pastel.
Soft pastels contain less binder, which gives them their velvety texture or “bloom.” They contain more pigment, so the color is rich and can easily be blended or smudged with a finger or soft tool. The down side is that they are more delicate and can break easily. The same softness that makes them easy to blend also allows them to be accidentally smudged, so it's a good idea to use a spray fixative once you complete your work. Their soft texture creates more dust, which can be a problem for some people.
Hard pastels have less pigment, and more binder. They are firmer to work with, but the colors are not as vivid. They are good for making crisp lines and details as they can be sharpened to a point. They are often used for outlining or adding intricate details to work done in other media. Because hard pastels are less vivid, some pastel artists use them for background color. Hard pastels are recommended for preliminary sketching.
The main difference is in the texture. Hard and soft pastels could be described as "chalky." Oil pastels might be described as having a "waxy" or crayon like consistency. They are cleaner, and do not rub off as much. They resist crumbling and do not pose any health risk in terms of breathing dust. Oil pastels are also more permanent and offer intense pigments. However, they are more difficult to blend and never fully harden. Therefore, oil pastels can be smudged in storage.
The difference lies in the amount of pigment and its quality, as well as the proportion and grade of binders, fillers, or clay.
Student grade pastels make a fine low-investment way to experiment with pastels. If you find you are serious about them, you can always upgrade later. Artist grade pastels have much more vivid colors, and offer a broader range of shades and hues.
The easiest way to clean pastels is to wipe each stick individually with a paper towel. A good trick for pastels is to spread cornmeal in a container with a lid. Add a few pastels and put lid on container. Shake the container for 2-3 minutes. You will be amazed at how clean they will come out.