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Introduction to the top 15 best oil pastels for artists:
I’ve been doing artwork for many decades, and frankly, I’ve avoided using oil pastels all these years because I had a higher priority to master oils, watercolor, pastels and acrylic. It’s not that I’m bored or anything, but now I’m CURIOUS! So, please read about my experience and insider information at the end of this article to learn about the ins and outs of the best oil pastels. You may also enjoy one of my oil pastel tutorials here and here. I must admit I love oil pastels now!
If you are short of time, here’s my top recommendations for the best oil pastels in descending order of quality:
- Sennelier Oil Pastels <<Our Number One Recommendation<<
- Neopastel by Caran d’Ache <<Our Number Two Recommendation
- Holbein Artist Grade Oil Pastels
- Van Gogh Oil Pastels
- Cray-Pas Specialist Oil Pastels
- Holbein Academic Oil Pastels
- Prang Gallery
- Niji Oil Pastels
- Cray-Pas Junior Oil Pastels
- Cray-Pas Expressionist Oil Pastels
- Pentel Oil Pastels
- Faber-Castell Oil Pastels
- Crayola Oil Pastels
- Sargent Oil Pastels
My Top Recommendations for oil pastels:
I sampled over a dozen of the best oil pastels on the market and I’m happy to share the results with you!
Turns out the Sennelier art materials company invented oil pastels at the request of a professional artist and the great modern artist, Picasso. They wanted something in stick form that Picasso could draw-paint with that was very close to oil paint. Sennelier was the premier artist paint manufacturer in France at the time, and he created an entirely new art medium: oil pastel. The Sennelier company “literally wrote the book”!
Frankly, I used most of the sets available on the market (with the exception of the artist grade Holbein) and I was flabbergasted at the difference in the quality of these oil pastels! Some are fantastic, some are ok and some are just miserable. As with all art supplies they can be graded into artist/professional quality ( with a commensurate price) and student grade (perform well, but not archival) and Kid’s grade/budget grade (which perform about what you would expect).
1. Sennelier Oil Pastels <<My Number One Recommendation<<
Boy, oh boy, these guys are creamy and delicious to use. They are almost like the texture of lipstick, needing just one pass to get rich color lay-down. Multiple layers get very opaque and look like oil paint out of the tube. It is remarkably easy to blend them together with a stump, finger or paper towel. When deliberately smeared, they produce a very fine grain of color, even on textured paper. The smallest of pills were created of all the brands we tested, and the pills easily blended into the background with a touch. I regret not buying a very large set to do our test, because my choices of reds were quite limited. I’m sure if I had access to a more scarlet red hue, I would have been very pleased with the color chart test. As it were, the red I used seemed less vibrant because it was a bluer toned red. If your intentions are to do a lot of blending or you wish to have your art look like an oil painting, then this is the set for you!
I would totally invest in a complete set of this brand. Hands down the best oil pastels. Some of the painting techniques with oil pastels can be easily done with Sennelier Oil Pastels. For example, notching off a piece of color from two different color sticks and blending them together on a palette with a knife before applying on the canvas. No way I could make that work with other brands (unless you spring for the Holbeins). They are just too waxy and stiff. These are just a joy to use. It is worth it to have a small set of waxier pastels on hand so you can experiment with textures and dry-brushing.
- Layer well
- Very soft and oiliest pastels
- Melt in your fingers easily
- Transparent to opaque
- Sets up overnight
- Huge selection of colors
- Available individually and in sets at Dick Blick.
2. Neopastel by Caran d’Ache <<My second choice>>
My second choice was obviously a bit harder than the Sennelier, but it was the second softest of all the brands we tested. On textured paper, one pass does not fill in all the grain of the paper, but it’s close! Multiple layers fill in the grain very well and quickly. There is a significant drag when you use these compared to Sennelier, but nothing compared to the other brands lower down on my list. On my test, the two colors blended into a muddy grey, which was disappointing, considering the high chromas of the box of colors. They had very slight pilling on our Arches Oil Paper, but the pills blended out easily. The smear test resulted in a light smear with a grainy fine texture. These pastels will work with all varieties and techniques of painting with oil pastels.
- Waxy compared to Sennelier
- Semi-soft, by our experiments, although they label themselves ‘soft’
- Fairly opaque
- Pure hues
- Huge selection of colors
- Very little pilling
- Sets up overnight
- Available individually at Dick Blick and in sets of 12, 24, 48 and 96.
Nearly a tie with Neopastel, Mungyo impressed us with vivid opaque colors, and richer pigmentation than most of the oil pastels I tested. They are comparable to NeoPastels in hardness.
A few of the colors (like the blue, for example) were greyer and less vibrant than the others. They blended well, and filled the tooth of the paper with coaxing. They smeared well into a fine grain and their small pills blended out well.
Comparing Mungyo vs. Cray-Pas
4. Holbein Artist Grade Oil Pastels <<Finest quality artist grade
Holbein brand is one of the world’s best makers of artist paints and pastels. The biggest problem is that while these pastels are available in individual colors they are only available as a set of 5 and not available many places online. However, in that set of 5 they include five different values of the same hue, which is really pretty brilliant! I found the individual hue sets on Dick Blick, as well as in two small sets of 15 and 25.
These are the preferred brand by many professional oil pastel artists. They are rich and buttery and fill the tooth of the paper very well. A large set of colors will run quite the investment, though. I recommend starting off with the other brands I list here first, to see if you like this medium enough to invest in the best of the best.
Available in sets of 12, 24 and 60
While I did not include these in my studio tests, the reviews of this product convinced me that they would perform in such a similar way to the brands below, that I’ll just include them here as an option for you. They are harder and waxier than my choices above. They lay down semi-transparent, needing quite a few passe of color to get a complete fill-in on the medium tooth paper. Users report a lot of shavings.
Another harder, semi-transparent to transparent oil pastel, I found these to be softer than Pentel or Faber-Castel or Holbein Academic in our studio test. They also laid down creamier! They do pill on application, but the pills blended out fast. The two-color blend test was rich-colored and thickened up faster than other pastels with a less waxy feel. A solid set worth a try and capable of doing all techniques with oil pastel. I also really liked the square shape of the sticks, it was possible to get a fairly thin line using the edges.
Intended for high school and college use, these felt waxier than the pro sets at the beginning of my list, but still fairly creamy. The pigments were nice and bright without the blueish tint of some of the cheapest brands. They lay down stiffer than the above oil pastels in my test, but better than the waxiest brands. The read smeared out pink in my test! Whaaaa??? Which could prove useful in certain applications. The two-color blend was surprisingly vibrant purple than the spendier brands but it was super difficult to get the blend to be seamless! The small pills blended out easily. I had difficulty getting them to fill in the tooth of the paper, and gave up after about six swipes with the stick.
BUDGET and CHILDREN’S SETS
This is a set I did not test, but users report lots of shavings.
Another student grade oil pastel, I did not test this set, but Dick Blick doesn’t sell junk (contrary to some online retail establishments), so I felt I should include this set in my list.
This set was a surprise. It is super cheap, and geared for children, but these pastels actually handled quite well. Of course, they are not archival and will eventually NOT be color- permanent, but they blended great with thick opaque paint lay-down. The two-color blend gave a vibrant violet-pink. There were lots of pills, but they tap-blended with the oil pastel stick quite easily. These were seriously not bad!
This is a student grade oil pastel, which is geared for high school and college art classes. They laid down softer than Pentels, Faber-Castel and Holbein Academic. They smeared well with a medium grain texture and the two-color blend blended out easily with a thick layer ‘feel’. It was not terribly waxy.
There were a lot of shavings. My conclusion: Not Too Bad!
This brand felt as soft as NeoPastels and they blended better than the Holbein Academic. There were a lot of pills, and some of them wouldn’t blend out as easily as other brands. They needed some coaxing to smear out though, and gave a weak performance there. The pigment really embedded into the paper easily. They also didn’t blend easily or well. The two-color blend failed a bit. I just couldn’t get the streaks to blend out into each other as well as other brands, no matter how hard I pushed or what tool or finger I used to blend with.
These pastels come in larger sticks than the other brands. They filled the tooth of the paper well with very little pilling! I enjoyed the hexagonal shape of the sticks. They smeared well. I was disappointed in the opacity of the blue stick- it was pale and waxy. Some of the sticks are opaque and some are transparent. Some users claim they are very, very hard, which I didn’t find to be the case. They do pill, but the pills blend out very easily. Not a bad set overall and we really appreciate the sturdy hard carrying case!
These large beveled sticks are easy to hold, non-toxic and great for kids. They do pill, and the pills do NOT rub out well. The red smeared out as the bluest red of our tests. The two-color blend sorta made mud. They are waxy and have more of an impasto lay-in. Suitable for kids though!
These oil pastels are small, think sticks. They fill the tooth of the paper fast and creamy for the most part. They create a few pills and in the smear test, the red smeared out rose-colored.
The two-color blend test was very dry. The blue didn’t layer well at all into the grain of the paper. They had small pills that didn’t blend out well either. They were by far the waxiest pastels I tested.
Here is my test results chart:
My sample test on Arches Oil Paper
If you are looking for true artist quality oil pastels, from my experience, you can’t top Sennelier in performance and in artistry. Ideal for oil painting-like applications, blending and sgraffito, the quality and archival integrity of their pastels are just fabulous. If you want to utilize texturing techniques like cross-hatching, dry brush and stippling, perhaps a slightly harder set like NeoPastel, Mungyo or Cray-Pas Specialist may be more suitable. If you don’t care about longevity or light fastness, then my favorite student grade brand was Cray-Pas Expressionist or Junior.
For our complete guide and ProTips in using oil pastels you may enjoy reading my comprehensive article here.
If you are wondering what papers and surfaces work the best for oil pastels, check out my article here.
Here’s a step by step tutorial for a Hawaiian Plumeria flower I created.
Have fun enjoying experimenting in this exciting, versatile and unique medium. Look for more tutorials to come on VeryCreate because we are hooked!