Pastel is pure powdered pigment, rolled into stick form and held together with a binder. The pigments used in pastels are the same pigments used to produce oil paints and all other colored media.

Typically the surface used is toned or colored paper but other surfaces such as canvas and sanded boards are also popular. A pastel is considered a painting when the entire surface is covered; a drawing or sketch when much of the background is exposed or left untouched.

When protected with fixative and framed under glass, pastel is considered more permanent than oils and other media because it never darkens, yellows, or cracks.