The first time I used oil pastels, I didn’t enjoy them at all. In fact, I gave away my first set (horrors!).
Truthfully, I didn’t understand how to paint with them. Because they share the word ‘pastel’ with traditional soft, dry pastels, one would think that they would behave the same.
However, they have nothing in common! They look like kid’s crayons yet they are much, much more than that. Nowadays, I have ventured into the medium with gusto and I’m finding that they truly are a versatile and unique art medium with many advantages over oil paints from the tube.
Please read our informative article about the pros and cons of oil pastels and also I wrote an article where we test and sample many brands and show them side by side to help you decide which are the best oil pastel brands to invest in. Some of the brands are nearly identical, and some are head and shoulders superior.
So, you’ve decided to jump into this marvelous medium with me? That’s great!
You will soon be creating beautiful pieces of art because oil pastel! Contrary to some belief, they are not difficult, they are just DIFFERENT! You can use many techniques from other mediums with oil pastel that you can’t do in oil painting.
Surfaces And Papers For Oil Pastels
Before You Get Started With Your Oil Pastel Project
Here are some tips that will not only save you money and time but hopefully save you a few years of learning the hard way, like I did!
Personally, I find it a big help to think about how I’m going to frame my finished product BEFORE I start. Because oil pastels never truly dry, they need to be framed under glass or acrylic right away because they will be vulnerable to smearing, just like their cousin, the dry pastel medium.
They also will need matt boards or spacers set between the painting and the glass. You can buy plastic spacers and cut them to fit your frame. They are easily cut with scissors and have a peel-away back with sticky glue on it to effortlessly adhere to the glass. It provides just enough breathing space so that the painting doesn’t touch the glass.
You can purchase them in large bundles of 5 foot lengths from Amazon (yikes, spendy!) here. if you frame a lot of paintings yourself, or you can purchase them for each individual frame from frame shops.
I often buy my frames from webpictureframes.com. They have wonderful frames and a great price and you can addon the spacers for just a couple of dollars per frame! It saves me a bundle and I don’t have to store the extras.
They also offer non-glare acrylic ‘glass’ for their frames. It is lightweight, shatter-resistant and looks just like museum glass (which is very, very expensive!).
If you are planning to ship your framed painting or enter into a contest and exhibition, framing with non-glare acrylic may be the only framing option accepted by the gallery or show. That is because of breakage during transport and handling during show hanging.
It IS possible to store your unframed art made with Oil Pastels if you layer them in between sheets of glassine ( a specially treated paper that looks like wax paper, but is slipperier and made for art storage). You can find that paper here. I use it to create layers to separate my drawings, charcoal portraits, pastels and oil pastels so that they can all stack up in a flat pile for storage. I’ve had a large roll for years and it’s only half gone. I wouldn’t be without it!
If you intend to stack oil pastel paintings up with a lot of weight on top, (if you are like me, you don’t have space for a horizontal storage cabinet) you may find that glassine is inadequate.
Horizontal storage with glassine paper kept in a drawer is a good bet for safe longevity. I have to confess I store them with glassine separators in a vertical portfolio. They are holding up great!
Another good option is to purchase Sennelier Oil Pastel Card. They are interleaved (meaning every other sheet is a glassine spacer sheet to separate finished pastels). No need to worry about storage issues with this spiral card pack!
The paper is low tooth, though, so dry brush techniques will be a bit more limited. You can find this paper pack here.
I like to buy a few frames when they are on sale at my local big box craft store.
If there is a matt included with the frame, then all the better! No spacers needed. I keep a few different sizes on hand, and when I know I want to use oil pastels for a subject, the first thing I do is look to see what sizes and shapes are in my inventory.
This has saved me a ton of money.
I’ve learned the hard way that unless I start with a standard size art piece, the frames will need to be custom sized, which puts the total framing costs into the hundreds of dollars category. I avoid that like the plague now, after having spent over $300 per painting to have them custom framed in odd sizes.
Crumb control! Just like using kid’s crayons, all oil pastels will leave little crumbs as you stroke. It’s pretty unavoidable. The best brands won’t shed much, but the worst of them can be quite a mess.
You must NOT brush them away with your hand though, because they will partially liquefy and smear into your artwork. I generally pick up the little pieces with a contact tap with a blending stump, a folded corner of a paper towel or the tip of the oil pastel itself.
For a clean, professional-looking finish, first tape off the edges of your paper (if you are using paper) with white artist’s tape or washi tape. You can alternately use blue painter’s tape, but I find the blue really distracting while I’m trying to judge color values and families. When you’re finished painting, remove the tape by pulling slowing at a 90 degree angle.
While oil pastels never truly ‘dry’ they DO set up, sometimes overnight and can feel somewhat dry to the touch.
If you want to apply more layers on top or apply a fixative or gel coat, then I would sure let it sit for overnight or a couple of days to let it all sink in and feel dry-ish to the touch before I would add the finishing touches, but plenty of people just plow ahead and do it all on in one go!
First Steps for Using Oil Pastels:
I think it would be a good idea to explore some different techniques so that you can pre-plan how you would like to create your painting.
I would be a great idea to gather some scrap paper and sample all of the techniques I list below.
You will surely find one or two that resonate with you!
To get started, I recommend you pick a simple subject matter ( like a well-lit apple or pear, for example) that has very little fine detail and try painting it with each of the techniques. THEN start a more in-depth painting.
I typically imagine how I see my finished painting to look before I get started. It helps me narrow down which technique would work best for that look. For example, if I want to utilize oil painting-like blending, then I’m going to select a paper surface like Sennelier Oil Pastel Paper that has a fine-tooth, or perhaps a gesso board which will give me the finer texture that I’m hoping for.
If I want dry-brush effects, then I’ll need a paper with a rougher texture like Cold Press Watercolor paper that I first seal with gesso.
If I’m planning to use sgraffito, (scratching through to lower layers with a palette knife or other object) I’ll perhaps select a surface with very little tooth, like Sennelier Oil Pastel Paper or gessoed board.
If I am looking for a cross-hatch textured look that resembles rusted metal, I’ll need a cold-press surface like gessoed watercolor paper, and stick to waxier pastels, instead of buttery Senneliers and Holbeins.
More Oil Pastel ProTips:
While you can use oil pastel sticks for the entire painting, there are lots of options for mixed-media applications. I really enjoy using watercolors and thinned acrylics as an underpainting.
Not only does it help quickly establish my values and cover the white of the surface, but this also allows me to use colors that I will plan to keep in the final artwork as peek-through colors under a drybrush effect. In addition, it helps me to ‘not waste’ my more expensive sticks like Sennelier and Holbein until the last layers.
Another frugal tip is to use cheaper student-grade waxier oil pastels for the first layers and use the more oily and buttery pastels on top.
While it is tempting to use the cheaper children’s and student grade oil pastels, please be aware that they are not archival nor are they color-fast. They will change color with time and lose their vibrancy.
I only use these for non-permanent sketching or to build up layers as an underpainting if I don’t have access to my acrylic paints or watercolors.
Oil Pastel Demonstrations and Techniques To Be Sure To Try
Pointillism and trowelling
I created a demonstration using oil pastels to paint a landscape scene, where I use pointillism, blending with OMS, mixing and trowelling with a palette knife and layering. See here my tutorial for painting a landscape in oil pastel.
An impressionist oil painting approach with oil pastels
This great demonstration is long, but worthwhile to see how to get your oil pastels to look like an oil painting when it is finished. He started on a machine textured paper which he then completely fills in with oil pastels to obliterate the pattern.
Oil pastel blending and thinning with OMS
Please see our short tutorial painting Plumeria flowers where I demonstrate blending and thinning with OMS. Make sure to use a bristle brush, not a soft brush. The oil pastels need a stiff nudge that soft hair brushes just can’t muster. I found it most helpful to blot my bristle brush so that very little OMS remains on the bristles.
Layering, scratching and blending in oil pastel
Here’s a great little video showing one artist’s approach with Oil Pastel. Her methods are layering, scratching through and blending on board.
Direct painting with blending on hardboard
This one is in French by the creative director of Sennelier Art Pastels with English subtitles, but the painting demonstration is no words needed:
here is the book he referenced:
Sgraffito in oil pastel
Sometimes referred to as scratching, I bet you’ve already had experience with this in Kindergarten! Remember when you used crayons to thickly color in an entire sheet of paper in a mosaic pattern, then painted over the entire thing with black poster paint? We then scratched through the black paint and made a mysteriously colorful drawing. I distinctly remember doing this at age 5 and being astounded that I could create such magic! Well, the idea is the same here with oil pastels.
Using waxier oil pastels like Faber-Castel or Cray-Pas, or use colored inks, alcohol pens, watercolor or acrylic to create your first layer of color.
Then on top of this layer, use an oilier brand of oil pastels like Sennelier or Neo Pastel and cover the entire underpainted area. Scratch into this top layer to reveal the color below. So fun!
Here’s a great demonstration:
Mixing acrylic paint and oil pastel layers for broken color
There is more than one way to get texture and broken color into your oil pastel artwork besides using a textured paper or ground. In this demo, the artist layers oil pastels over dried acrylic paint for a highly textured finish.
Adding layers with a fixative over oil pastels
There are only so many times you can layer with pastels, be it oil pastels or dry pastels. Your choice is to scrape the oil pastel off with a palette knife and begin anew or apply a fixative (see below) and letting it dry before trying to add more layers.
Generally, rougher texture paper/surfaces can accept more layers of oil pastel because the pigment is dispersed on the tops of the paper bumps, leaving the ditches to fill up with additional layers and pressure, given an interesting broken-color effect.
Some amateur oil pastel web sites recommend using Liquitex Pouring Medium or Golden Hard Gel Medium as a top coat to give an encaustic looking finish. However, we reached out to the Golden Artist Paint Company and went to the technical chemical advisor, and asked about the advisability of doing this. Here’s what they said:
“We do not recommend any products be applied on top of oil pastels for that exact reason. Oil pastels are made with mineral oils which do not ever dry. If any of our products were applied on top, they will likely fail in the future and may crack and peel off the surface. The best recommendation would be to display them under glass. There are some companies that make fixatives for oil pastels.
Fixatives contain very little binder and are designed to moderate smudging, not really offer any protection, which is why they are usually called “workable” fixatives.
They are designed as light coats to simply hold a bit of the pastel to the surface and smudge less, but usually, you can still smudge the drawing. I have not tested these products and again, they would not offer the protection you would get from glass or a removable UV Varnish.”
That’s not to say you can’t try it if the longevity of the artwork is not an issue for you!
Using stencils with oil pastels
You don’t need to purchase stencils in order to use this technique.
Effective stencils can be made by hand from card stock or using masking tape! Using a stencil takes a second or two of practice, but it leaves a crisp, clean edge that is nearly impossible to attain in oil pastels without it.
A stencil can be as simple as just using one side of a piece of cardstock to help you get one crisp line, or using an entire cut-out.
Here is a demonstration using this idea:
Fine details with oil-based colored pencils
In order to get very fine lines with oil pastels, a different medium needs to be used. Some colored pencils are oil-based and therefore compatible with oil pastels.
My personal favorite is Faber-Castel! I use them for recreational coloring as well as fine art. I love that I can buy one pencil at a time from Dick Blick because I end up using a few of the colors down to a stub.
For best results, let the oil pastel semi-dry overnight before you apply colored pencil over the top. If the underlying layers of oil pastel are thick, you may not be able to get the pencil to work. Here is an oil pastel video where the artist uses oil-based colored pencils at the end for fine line details:
Perhaps the easiest technique of all is a dry brush technique (which is usually used in watercolor or with acrylics on rough surfaces).
By selecting a paper or surface that has a texture, just glide the tip or side of the oil pastel across the paper and the stick will deposit color on the hills of the paper (think egg carton texture) and leave the white of the paper exposed in the valleys of the paper.
Finishing Up Your Oil Pastel Artwork
Oil pastels do not need a sealant/varnish for them to be ready to frame. There are several ways to provide additional protection to the surface though, especially if you are painting on board, metal or wood and do not intend to frame them at all.
Sennelier makes a finishing spray to help seal the oil pastels. You can find it here. You will need very light coats, spaced well apart for perhaps three layers in total. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and don’t apply a heavy spray. Your finished artwork will still need framing with glass or acrylic with spacers for ultimate durability and protection.
Have a great time exploring this inexpensive and fun medium! It’s the perfect segue into oil painting later too!