A variety of artist's pastels

Working with Pastels and Polymer Clay

Pastels are commonly used with polymer clay, and for good reason. They’re very versatile, and we can use them in many ways with our polymer clay work. Here is summary of what pastels are and how they can be used with polymer clay. This article is part of the Discovery Challenge #2 in the Community.

What are Pastels?

If you apply pigments to the surface of a canvas, they will easily be washed or brushed off. So artists use various binders to create paint that will stick better to the surface. Oil paints use linseed oil. Watercolors use gum arabic. Acrylic paints use acrylic medium. Tempera (originally) used egg yolk. But there’s another type of painting that doesn’t use a binder to adhere the pigment. Pastel painting relies on the “tooth” of the paper to hold the pigment that’s applied. The paper fibers, themselves, hold the pigment particles. When the pastel painting is finished, a fixative is typically sprayed on to fix the pigment in place.

Inexpensive pastel stick sets from the craft store will work just fine. They’re usually hard, however, so you’ll need to scrape the pigment from the stick using a blade or knife.

Because of the way pastels are applied to paper and fixed later, the pastels are very nearly pure pigment. They contain just enough extra ingredients so they can be pressed into a stick, similar to chalk. These pastel sticks are what artists hold, like a pencil, when they apply the colors to the paper.

Oil Pastels vs Soft Pastels

There are two types of pastels, oil pastels and soft pastels. Oil pastels have an oily base, similar to lipstick but less creamy, and aren’t used much with polymer clay. They can be chopped up and mixed into the clay, but aren’t terribly versatile for our use. (And I do welcome experimentation with them! You might find a neat way for them to be used.)

oil pastel crayons
Oil pastels are not generally used with polymer clay and are not as versatile.

Soft pastels appear similar to chalk (but artists balk when you call them chalks…they’re not). Some high-end (expensive) pastels are very soft and contain high grade pigment with very few fillers. These soft pastels are nearly pure pigment and can be quite expensive. They are very soft and the pigment applies very easily to the paper. More inexpensive soft pastels sold in sets at the craft store tend to have more fillers (yes, such as chalk) that make the sticks harder and the color doesn’t come off as easily. Inexpensive soft pastels sometimes have to be scraped to release very much color.

using a craft knife to scrape a pile of pigment powder from a soft pastel stick
Hard pastel sticks are perfectly usable if you scrape the pigment from the stick into a fine powder with a blade.

What are Pan Pastels?

Artist quality soft pastels are mostly sold in stick form. But the Pan Pastel company has chosen a different approach. Instead of pressing the pigment into sticks, they press them into pans, much in the same way that blush or eye shadow is pressed into a little pan and applied with a brush or sponge. Pan Pastels are a specific brand name of high-quality pastels in pan form. Aside from being in pan form, Pan Pastels are the same thing as soft pastels in stick form. They come in a large range of familiar artist’s colors.

pan pastels
Pan Pastels are a brand of soft pastels that are sold in pan form instead of sticks.

Pastels and Polymer Clay

Because pastels don’t have any sort of binder or adhesive, there’s nothing to hold them when applied to a plain surface such as baked polymer clay. They just won’t stay. But unbaked polymer clay is naturally sticky. Pastels applied to the surface of raw polymer clay will stick just fine, coloring the surface. In fact, you can “paint” with pastels on the surface of raw polymer in much the same way that artists paint with them on paper.

Pastels consist of nearly all pigment, so the pastel powder can also be mixed into various mediums to color them. This includes varnish, liquid clay, acrylic media, and yes, raw polymer clay. You can even create interesting faux ceramic effects by mixing the pastels into liquid clay that is then poured over a texture.

polymer clay faux ceramic tiles
Pastels can be used to color liquid clay for a faux ceramic effect.

Application Tools

Just as when applying blush or eye shadow to skin, you can use your finger, a brush, or a sponge applicator. If you’re using high-end soft pastels, they’re usually soft enough that the color comes off the stick quite easily and you can just rub the stick with a brush or your finger to load up with color. But with harder pastel sticks, you’ll need to scrape the stick to release a fine powder of pigment. This is very easy if you use your blade of a craft knife. Make a little pile of powder and apply that to your polymer with a brush, sponge or finger. If you scrape more pastel powder than you’ll use, you can easily store them in tiny plastic containers like these paint pot strips. Then you’ll have the powders ready ahead of time.

soft pastels in paint pots
These small paint pots work nicely to store pastels scraped from a craft set of soft pastels.

Pan Pastels are quite soft and you can load a lot of pigment onto a brush just by stroking it across the face of the pan. Pan Pastels come with sponge applicators (called Sofft Tools) of various sizes. While they DO work nicely, I find that brushes work just as well, perhaps even better. You can also use the small sponge eye-shadow applicators that come with nail powders. Cosmetic sponge wedges also work and are cheaper than the Sofft tools.


Various sponge tools that you can use to apply pastels to polymer clay
Various sponge tools that you can use to apply pastels to polymer clay.

What Kind of Brushes?

I use inexpensive craft paint brushes for applying pastels. The brushes should be fluffy enough to hold powder and soft enough that they won’t scratch the surface of the polymer clay. Makeup brushes actually work very well. You can find them cheaply from online marketplaces like Amazon.

inexpensive makeup brushes
Inexpensive makeup brushes work nicely to apply pastels to unbaked polymer clay.

I don’t typically clean them after each use. Rather, I have a selection of brushes that I use for the purpose, each one sticking with a color family. Periodically, I wash the whole lot with soap and water.

Applying Pastels to Unbaked Polymer Clay

Unlike mica powders, which cannot by layered, you can add many layers of pastels to unbaked polymer clay if you’d like. Just as when adding blush to your own cheeks, a light dusting of color can be very effective to give a subtle color effect. It’s common to use red or pink pastels to add a rosy glow to the cheeks of a figure, for example. But the unique character of pastels applied with a brush means that you can create lifelike shading by artfully choosing how you apply the colors. Whereas paint can look thick and fake, pastels can be applied in thin layers, creating artful impressions of real life.

painting pastels on the surface of polymer clay to imitate bread
The subtle shading of soft pastels make this miniature loaf of bread very lifelike. Much better than paint.

But the oils of the clay will soak into the powdered pigment, allowing the applied color to become one with your creation. This means you can keep applying more and more color, shading as you go, building intense colors on the clay. This is a point that’s sometimes hard to fully realize. The pastels can be applied VERY thickly and the colors can layer to create a surface that is not possible with any other medium. I find that students underestimate this and tend to apply pastels with a light hand as you would eye shadow. Keep going. The clay will hold a LOT of color!

textured veneer colored with pastels
This textured veneer is made with white polymer clay that’s been colored with a variety of soft pastels. You can see how deeply colored you can make the clay.

Fixing and Finishing Pastels

Because pastels applied to the surface of unbaked polymer clay will “soak into” the surface, they’re relatively durable after baking. They don’t generally rub off. If the item needs to be protected, you can apply the polymer-safe varnish of your choice. Often, you want to preserve the matte surface and therefore will want a matte varnish. I like DuraClear Ultra Matte. If you need a spray, I recommend Helmar Crystal Kote Matte.

polymer clay pinch pot leaf bowl
Pinch pot bowl, made with white Premo, textured with leaves, and brushed with soft pastels to create color.

Pastels and Texture

Because higher areas of texture will grab more pigment from your brush than the lower areas, soft pastels are perfect for accentuating the texture of what you’re making. As you can see in the above veneer and pinch pot, you can apply the color in a manner that makes the texture much more evident. Try using silkscreens, texture sheets, and found objects (such as leaves) to create texture that you’ll develop by brushing with various colors of pastels.

Base Color

You’ll find that the lightness of white polymer clay means that your pastel colors will be much richer than if you’d used a darker color. But you can still apply pastels over any color of clay. Expect to see somewhat of a visual blend in some cases, with the clay color showing through. Below is a pattern that I made with turquoise clay, a stencil, and various colors of Pan Pastel.

pastels applied over a stencil on turquoise polymer clay
This is turquoise Premo, a stencil was applied, then various colors of blue, green, and purple Pan Pastels were applied.

If you apply the pigment thickly enough, you can even have good results applying light colors over black clay. The votive below was made with a sheet of black Premo, a stencil, Pan Pastels, and a crackle technique.

votive using pastels over black polymer clay
This glass votive was covered with a veneer that was made with black Premo, a stencil, Pan Pastels, and a crackle effect.

Making Veneers

Sometimes you want to make a decorative sheet (called a veneer) that you’ll use to make or cover something. Because pastels are pigment (and not dye), the colors will remain exactly where you put them and the veneer can be stored over time. If you’re going to store veneers, I do recommend that you don’t use a “fracturing” brand of clay like Fimo, Cernit, or Pardo.

What About Eye Shadow?

Eye shadow is pigment, right? Isn’t that the same thing as pastels? Well, yes and no. If the makeup is flat/matte/dull/plain, then yes, it’s pretty close to the same thing and you can use it interchangeably with pastels. But if there are sparkles, then there’s mica in it and it will behave very differently than pastels. Mica and pigments are not the same thing and they stick to polymer clay differently. You see examples of each here. Some Pan Pastels (the metallics, iridescents, and pearlescents) contain mica powders and therefore won’t behave exactly the same way that pure pigment pastels will. (They will have their uses, but not the same as we’re exploring in this article.) So go through your eye shadow palettes and find the powders that don’t sparkle. They’ll work great for this topic!

Buying Pastels and Pan Pastels

I’ll write a second article with some suggestions on buying pastels and Pan Pastels. Give me a week or so. 🙂

Discovery Challenge #2: Pastels

The Discovery Challenges are a feature in Blue Bottle Insiders where we apply what we’ve learned and challenge ourselves to discover new things by experimentation and exploration. This article is tied to a Discovery Challenge that you’ll find in the Community, in the Discovery Challenges section. Have fun!