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Soft pastels are colored drawing sticks, sometimes resembling a crayon, that contain a pigment and a binding agent to keep the pastel together. With soft pastels, the binding agent is minimal so they can be blended or smeared on a drawing. Drawings made with soft pastels do not keep well unless the drawing is then covering with a fixing agent or fixative.
A few forms of pastels exist. Hard pastels contain a higher amount of binding agent that does not blend as well. They are often used in combination with soft pastels when the artist wants to render fine details. Oil pastels are soft, with a slightly waxy feel. These are commonly used in children's artwork, since you don’t have to apply a fixative to the finished product. Children often love them because they can smear or blend colors easily, and come in a wide assortment of colors. You do have to make sure to wash the hands thoroughly after using oil pastels since you can end up getting the oil on wall or furniture surfaces.
Using pastels in art was first discussed by Leonardo Da Vinci, and it is suggested that some early pastel art did not survive. In order for soft pastels or hard pastels to work appropriately and to last, they have to be used on paper or canvas free of acids. There are special papers and canvases formulated for soft pastels drawings. Some extraordinary works have been produced with pastels, which are especially favored for their bright colors. Mary Cassat’s 1910 work Sleepy Baby is a lovely instance of work with soft pastels.
Edgar Degas was famous for his pastel work. It should be noted that Degas and Cassat were both often criticized for using colors that were too bright in their work because they used soft pastels and hard pastels. Early artists who worked with pastels in the 18th century (Degas and Cassat were 19th and early 20th century artists) include Rosalba Carriera, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, and Maurice Quentin de la Tour. James McNeill Whistler was also a fan of the soft pastels medium.
Many companies make pastels, some quite expensive for the professional artists. You can buy amateur or “student grade” soft pastels if you’re interested in exploring the soft pastels form. Student soft pastels are a little higher in price than wax crayons, about 3-4 US dollars (USD) for a set of 12, and about 5-6 USD for a set of 32-36. Artist quality soft pastels can be a little more daunting in price, ranging from about 20-100 USD for full sets.