What Are Oil Pastels? (2023)

oil vs oil pastels verycreate.com

Introduction To What Are Oil Pastels:

What are oil pastels and why would you choose to paint with Oil Pastels instead of working with other paint mediums such as oil paints?  There are several advantages to oil pastels!  We’ll clearly point out the differences and you can decide for yourself which is better for your uses… oil pastels or oil paints.  We’ve used BOTH for many years and they are quite different from each other!

For our complete how-to guide in using Oil Pastels, please read our article here, in addition, you might like our demonstrations and tutorials here and here.

Here’s our list of Pros and Cons for both mediums.

Oil Pastels Pros and Cons List:


  • Oil Pastels are fairly clean to use – very little mess and no spills
  • Oil Pastels are fast!  You can get coverage fairly easily and quickly
  • They are the perfect transition for children to segue into better paints than tempura, kids watercolors and crayons
  • No toxic chemicals needed to blend colors
  • No paintbrushes to clean up
  • No varnishing of the finished product
  • They are compact enough to travel in a purse
  • It is possible to use many drawing techniques with oil pastels like cross-hatching, stippling and drawing strokes
  • No fumes to deal with
  • Oil Pastels can be used on a variety of surfaces and papers including metal, plastic and glass (keep in mind that they will never dry, however, so they are always vulnerable to smearing)
  • You can get dry brush effects if you use a textured paper or surface
  • You can get sgraffito and scraping texture with oil pastels quickly and easily
  • It’s fun to use other methods of applying the paint like stencils, for example, that you just can’t do with oil paint
  • They are lightfast and archival
  • The colors are intense and high chroma
  • Finger blending is possible
  • With the addition of a bristle brush with a tad bit of OMS on the hairs, it is possible to nearly liquefy the oil pastel for a more watercolor-like effect. However, you’ll need to make sure you are using a surface or paper that will tolerate OMS or it will soak out into the surrounding areas and make a stain.
  • Affordable unless you delve into high-end artist-grade brands like Holbein


  • This one is a biggie:  They never completely dry out.  Yup, because of the particular oil that is used in the sticks, they remain smudgeable and require framing under glass or plexiglass with spacers so that the painting does not touch the glass, for optimal protection.  It is possible to mitigate this a bit, using a fixative spray by Sennelier but it’s not truly, truly dry.
  • Getting the perfect shade may not be possible because you can’t blend your own colors with infinite variety like you can with paints.  You need a large (say, over 80) variety of sticks, especially if you want lots of pastel hues and grey tones.
  • Most Oil Pastel sets have sticks that are very vibrant high chroma.  If you want pastel hues and you don’t own sticks like that you will need to layer white over the colors and blend them out, repeating the process until you are satisfied with your value and hue….so very dry, waxy pastels won’t perform very well with this method.
  • You’ll need to switch to an oil-based colored pencil if you want fine lines and tiny details, as the oily sticks are really quite large (think crayons for toddlers). It is difficult to use them on top of oil pastel, however, as the oil pastel remains smearable.
  • The kind of paper or surface that you draw/paint on makes a big difference in how well the paints blend together and what the final texture look will be.
  • Bristol board is not very effective with oil pastels…they just skate across the surface and don’t lay the color down dense enough to make a vibrant impact. You need a surface with at least a little tooth.
  • If you plan to blend out the colors with OMS, you need to apply gesso the paper first, or use a paper specifically for oil pastels.

My Own Oil Pastels Brand Test:

For an in-depth look at the performance of all the brands that we tested and to see our recommendations of the top 15 brands on the market, please read our articlehere

We took several brands and made a chart so we could compare hue intensity, blend-ability and see if we could uncover enough differences between brands to narrow down our recommendations.  The results were surprising!

To make this as clear as possible, we used a paper by Arches intended for artist-grade use for Oil Paints and Oil Pastels.  It has a medium texture tooth, is bright white and is made to withstand OMS and other mediums for oil painting.

If you are interested in seeing how this paper handles with oil paint, check out our review and tutorial here, where I paint a scenic landscape of the famous Columbia Gorge near where I live.


So, all the oil pastels brands performed in a similar fashion on the Arches Oil Paper.  I tried to use the same hue from each brand.  The most intense bright red was in the Cray-Pas Expressionist, but reds WILL vary from brand to brand, depending on the base pigment they use.

sample test on oil paper best oil pastels verycreate.com
Our sample test on Arches Oil Paper

Conclusion About Oil Pastels:

Of course, it comes down to personal opinion, but with my own experience, here’s when I will opt to use oil paints:

  • If I want a true ‘oil paint look’ for the finished product
  • If I plan to show obvious brush strokes loaded with paint
  • If there will be fine detail and lines
  • For glazing techniques
  • Adding more layers once the first layer is drying or dried
  • For thinned paint and luminous colors
  • For larger work that does not need to be framed
  • Subtle blending

Here’s when I will decide to use oil pastels:

  • When I have a small work with a frame and spacers that I plan to use
  • When I want to create a finished painting in a few hours and frame it right away
  • When I have no room to get out all the oil paints and the mess that goes with it
  • If I want to use the texture of the paper for dry-brush techniques AND have it look like oil paints as well
  • If I’m planning to use high chroma (bright intense ) colors with little subtlety
  • There will be very little to no fine line details
  • I plan on ‘direct painting’ with very few layers
  • When I prefer a low-odor working environment


Morisot Which Is Better? Oil Paints or Oil Pastels?
Obvious brush strokes are a feature of this painting in oil by Berthe Morisot titled In The Bois de Boulogne



dutch floral Mignon Which Is Better? Oil Paints or Oil Pastels?
The tight level in detail like this painting is best suited to oil paints, not oil pastels. Flowers In A Metal Vase by Abraham Mignon c 1670



bright city pic Which Is Better? Oil Paints or Oil Pastels? verycreate.com
The high chroma colors in this city scape by Thomas Chan (unsplash) would be ideal to paint with oil pastels!



madonna with machine gun Which Is Better? Oil Paints or Oil Pastels?
The lack of thin lines in this painting titled Madonna With Machine Gunn by Karlis Padegs c.1932 would be a good fit to study with oil pastels


purple canyon Which Is Better? Oil Paints or Oil Pastels?
The vibrant colors in this photo entitled Antelope Canyon by Peter Secan (unsplash) would be fun to replicate with oil pastels!


Anita HC

I hope you are enjoying this article! I love helping creators learn. My goal is to help you find the knowledge and inspiration you need. Check out our library of articles and visit often...I'm adding articles every week! Thank you again for reading!

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