A Brief Introduction to Oil Pastels

A Brief Introduction to Oil Pastels

Header image source - Wikipedia

Sitting somewhere between the wax crayon and an oil paint you will find the humble oil pastel, noted for its buttery consistency and intense colour application. Not to be confused with soft pastels (also dry pastels) which are dry and apply with a powdery matt finish.

Oil pastels are NOT wax crayons

Oil pastels are sometimes confused with or erroneously referred to as “wax crayons". While the two mediums share a few of the same ingredients, such as paraffin wax and pigment for colour, oil pastels contain the all-important oil that gives them their softer consistency and blending ability.

Do oil pastels dry out?

They do not dry out when left in the air and can be blended with the same kinds of solvents used with oil paint which gives them a more painterly look to a finished piece. Zest-It make a specific blending fluid called 'Pencil Blend' which has been tested with and is suitable for most kinds of wax and oil-based pencils and pastels. Alternatively, oil pastels can be applied thick to create impasto technique work.

A blended picture using mineral spirits and oil pastels

Image source - Wikipedia


Can you layer with oil pastels?

Yes, they can be layered on top of a more resistant base like acrylic paint or wax crayon and then scraped away to reveal the layers beneath in a technique known as sgraffito.

scraping down or sgraffito

Image source - Wikipedia


Should you use a fixative with oil pastels?

Oil pastel art should be sealed with a fixative so they do not smear or smudge once you are finished and to help preserve and protect your work from surface damage and dust.


Different types of art oil pastels

The student quality oil pastel

The first variety is student quality, the most cost-effective workhorse oil pastel. These kinds of oil pastels are often seen in school classrooms but some artists will also use them to bulk out their palette if a lot of a single colour is required or for sketching a composition. Student quality pastels are perfect for getting to grips with pastel art, gaining skill and an understanding of the medium. Inscribe make a range of inexpensive and vibrant Gallery Oil Pastels which come in sets of 24 and a larger wooden case of 72 . Gallery oil pastels have a smooth consistency and blend respectably when layered, rubbed with a finger or a paper stump. They can also be used with the same solvents for oil painting to increase the ease with which they can be blended and create painterly washes to make a pretty effective oil wash look.

Gallery Oil Pastels Set of 24 Assorted

The artist quality oil pastel

For those who have acquired a good hold on how to get the best out of oil pastels then you might be considering a higher quality pastel to help push the quality of your work just that bit further. Artist quality oil pastels are notably more expensive than their student quality counterparts but they make up for this with superior colour and consistency. Some of the first artist quality oil pastels were originally made by Sennelier at the behest of notable cubist artist Pablo Picasso during World War II when he was unable to acquire oil paints and needed a suitable high-quality substitute which he could achieve similar results with. They took genuine artist quality pigments and binders to make pastels with a rich and vivid colour, smooth velvety application and clean blending between colours. Artist quality pastels handle better than their student quality cousins even without the use of blending mediums or oil solvents as the high quality, high pigment load means colours do not tend to muddy as much and remain clean and strong once mixed, again a key quality for a real artist's tool. Sennelier Artists Oil Pastels come in a variety of assorted sets from a basic colour range, to landscape, still life and shimmering iridescent colours which gives you a broad spectrum of colours to work with when practicing.

A final word on artist quality oil pastels

One last thing to mention regarding artist quality oil pastels are oils bars, which look like big chunky oil pastels. While they might look like pastels, they are actually a solidified oil paint compressed into a stick. They can be used very much like an oil pastel and pastels can be used to accompany them, but they don’t have the same buttery application as an oil pastel and tend to be a bit firmer and distinctly tacky in comparison. They are oil pastel adjacent so it is worth talking about if only to clarify the distinction between them, very similar but definitely their own thing.

Sennelier Iridescent Artists Quality Oil Pastel Sets


What is the best surface for oil pastels?

Once decided on your oil pastel of choice then you will need a suitable support to work on. Broadly speaking in art, a support is the surface which supports your chosen media so it is important to choose one that is best for the job. Cartridge papers are perfectly serviceable for oil pastels and provide sufficient tooth for the pastel to grip easily and pastel papers like the Murano Pads by Daler Rowney are even better. They come in a selection of colours and have a slightly textured surface which provides an even and slight abrasiveness making colour application even better than with cartridge paper. UART Sanded Pastel Paper is a very fine grain sand paper for pastel and pencil applications and comes in different grades from rough surfaces to exceptionally fine and also makes for a good surface for oil pastels. If you want to test the water before you commit, there is a trial pack of this surface for sale here , or the main product is here.

UART Premium Sanded Pastel Paper - Packs of 3 Sheets

Canvas boards make for an excellent support for oil pastel art as well and present the extra opportunity for heavy use of mixed media or blending mediums. Since canvas boards are both textured and rigid you still get all the benefits of a textured surface but with the extra durability afforded by canvas so there is not the issue of paper buckling when introducing wet elements like solvents and blending fluid into your work. Canvas boards will take pretty much whatever you can throw at them without so much as a corner curling.

Canvas boards


Where to store your artists oil pastels.

After you have decided on what pastels you are going to use, be they student or artist, you will need somewhere to store them safely between projects. Whilst a pencil case is a perfectly suitable solution, they are found somewhat wanting in terms of organisational efficiency. The best way to store pastels in your workspace is with a pastel storage box which often come with multiple drawers and partitions for keeping all manner of pencils and pastels. With one of these boxes, you can keep your pastels in any order you wish and easily grab what you need and know that all your colours are in one safe and convenient place.

Artists wooden storage cabinet 3 Drawer


So, is it time to give oil pastels a try?

Oil pastels are a richly rewarding medium to create and experiment with. They are easy to pick up and learn, with layers of additional depth for those willing to put the time in to truly master their application. We trust you will find this information useful for helping you make your first steps into the medium of oil pastels.

See our full range of oil pastels here

Daniel Green
Daniel Green


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