Someone gave you a set of oil pastels (or you’ve seen them in the store), and you haven’t the foggiest idea what they are or how to use them. Am I right?
Are they different from chalk pastels? Am I supposed to draw with them? Should I use blending techniques? The answer to all the above questions is yes.
If you are brand new to this art medium, you have come to the right place. This post serves as an introduction to oil pastels for beginners and will discuss materials needed, some tips and techniques in using this fun medium, and a couple of recommended brands to try.
What Are Oil Pastels
The first time I ever tried oil pastels was when I bought a small set of Cray-pas for my son. We were trying them out on a coloring page, and they felt a lot like using a crayon, only more enjoyable and way more highly pigmented.
They come in stick form, either small (like a short crayon) or larger size.
There are many brands on the market, but I will discuss an artist-grade brand as well as a “starter” brand. More on that later.
(To the right is this poppy and cornflowers piece I did in Oil Pastels.)
Composition and Texture
Oil pastels are made of a mixture of wax, oils, and pigment, which is the reason they feel somewhat like a crayon in texture, only they are softer and buttery.
On the other hand, chalk pastels (either hard or soft)are like chalk and are powdery to differing degrees.
- Oil pastels offer versatility in surfaces they can be applied to, unlike chalk pastels. They will adhere to any kind of paper and to canvas—but please avoid very thin paper—and can be used on other surfaces such as board, metal and glass.
- And speaking of adhesion, they are more permanent than their counterpart.
- Additionally, oil pastels are highly-pigmented providing an intense saturation of color.
- They are water-resistant and do not need the use of additional mediums or brushes.
- Not to mention, you don’t have to deal with the dust from chalk pastels—my personal reason for liking oil pastels!
- They are non-drying, but I’ll discuss how to protect your artwork later.
- They can be a little messy if you don’t take care to set them out of the way as you work.
The great thing about oil pastels is they do not require a lot of expensive materials. I have put together a materials list that should get you started:
- 24 set of oil pastels (at least)
- heavier paper (65# at least)
- Paper toweling
- facial tissues
- silicone shapers (optional)
- metal stylus (or other pointed object)
- Baby oil (optional, used like a solvent)
Q-tips and facial tissues are used to blend the pigment. I have provided a link to a video later on in this post demonstrating these.
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I recommend two brands that are more or less at opposite ends of the range:
If you are just starting out, you may wish to go with a less expensive set that will do the job for you. Cray-Pas, made by Sakura, will get you started and is a good brand of oil pastels for beginners. They are decently pigmented, blend and layer fairly well, and color-mix satisfactorily.
Sakura makes three different grades of oil pastels: Junior Artist, Expressionist and Specialist. The Junior Artist is geared toward students; the Expressionist is for hobby artists, and the Specialist is made for professional artists.
[For you trivia lovers: Cray-Pas has been around for nearly 100 years and was the first to produce the oil pastel. They started out producing a better wax crayon in 1921 when the Sakura Cray-Pas Company first came on the scene. After some refinement of the initial product, developing a high viscosity to the crayon, the company produced the oil pastel.]
Sennelier Brand (Yes!!)
Sennelier is a French brand, known for its high quality art products. In 1949, at the urging of both Henri Goetz and Pablo Picasso, Sennelier developed top, professional quality oil pastels.
Note: Trust me, folks, if you want superior softness, super intense, bright, lightfast colors, and buttery soft, blendability, then Sennelier is your brand. It is truly a joy to work with this brand.
You can still use this brand if you’re a beginner even though these are not technically oil pastels for beginners. In fact, I highly recommend starting out using these, if you can afford them. My worry is, if you start out using an inferior brand that’s sticky, doesn’t move well, and not very blendable, you’ll give up on this medium. And that would be a shame. It’s so fun! Check out Sennelier here or click the picture below.
Sennelier makes a paper specific to the use of oil pastels. Here is the link to check it out:
Both brands give you peace of mind regarding toxicity.
The AP (“approved product”) encircled with “ACMI” symbol means they are certified non-toxic. If you have an older product, you may see CP (certified product), which also means non-toxic.
The Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), an independent non-profit organization, uses independent toxicologists and labs to test and evaluate the safety of art materials of its members—art supply manufacturers.
Moreover, these members agree voluntarily to have tests every five years or as needed when new products or formulas are developed.
Just bear in mind that these labels do not mean there are absolutely no toxins in them; it means the chemicals are at a safe level and will not be harmful to humans.
Working with Oil Pastels
Oil pastels can be thought of as more like a drawing than a painting medium—similar to colored pencil, where the colors are mixed, layered, blended, etc. You simply hold the stick and “draw” or apply color with it.
Moreover, please don’t think you have to shy away from this medium if you are new to art—on the contrary. If you know how to wield a crayon, then you’ll have no trouble using these. Just use them like you would a crayon for the initial layer.
Did I just say layer? Yes, because you will want to layer and mix these colors one on top of or overlapping one another. You can blend with your fingers or the actual pastels over boundaries where colors merge. You can also simply use a tissue or a q-tip if you don’t like using your fingers.
Watch – It’s easy!
Here is a wonderful video demonstration from She’z Art, “How to Blend Oil Pastels Using 4 Techniques”, where She demonstrates how to layer and blend oil pastels using q-tips, tissue, fingers and the actual pastel sticks themselves. This artist can blend!
Silicone Shapers like the one pictured here can also be used to blend oil pastels. Simply wipe off after use in each area.
A metal stylus, toothpick or empty ball point pen case can be used to scratch into layers to create awesome effects as well.
A Sample Piece
I quickly worked up this floral piece using Sennelier pastels, which shows the beautiful saturation of the pigments.
I used the actual sticks, q-tips and my fingers to blend. Additionally, for distinct edges, I just simply drew on top of the color without blending.
I must say, the pigment (if you have enough of it where you can no longer see the paper underneath) moves around so easily, it’s so fun to do!
– You will definitely want to remove the other colors that gather on the tips of the sticks as you use them. You can simply wipe them off using a paper towel.
– Take care to place sticks out of the way of the picture, preferably on a paper plate because they roll and will dot your paper, and you cannot erase oil pastels.
– Be careful to keep you hand off the work as you apply. You can accidentally pick up crumbs and inadvertently transfer them.
Protecting Finished Pieces
Oil pastels, because of the non-drying oil binder, will not completely dry but will harden in time. Because of this, you should take care to protect your finished pieces with two different options:
Framing your oil pastel work is really the safest way to protect your work. It’s best to frame it behind glass or plexiglass. Use a double mat between the piece and the glass to protect it from smudging. And, obviously, there are no worries about dust collection on your artwork when it’s behind glass.
Although framing is your best bet to safely protect your picture, Sennelier has a spray that will fix and harden the work called, D’Artigny Oil Pastel Fixative. This vinyl resin and alcohol-based fixative, made specifically for oil pastels, leaves a transparent and glossy film to protect work from dust and smearing.
Note: Your piece will always remain slightly tacky whether you spray it or not because as I mentioned, oil pastels don’t cure. Also, please follow directions on the can and always use in a well-ventilated area (I always spray outside with the wind).
I would be wary of any other fixative brand for use on oil pastels. If you decide to spray to protect your art, I would recommend Sennelier D’Artigny because is formulated for oil pastels.
Don’t Be Shy – Give Them a Try
Hopefully you enjoyed this introduction of oil pastels for beginners and are motivated to give them a try!
They are truly a unique medium that offers much creativity and enjoyment. Like any other medium, though, they will require practicing to make “perfect”, of course.
Thank you for reading and as always, I welcome comments and questions. And, your email address will never be shared!
Have an artful day!