Oil Pastel – A Great Medium for Painters!

by | Nov 13, 2017 | Blog | 43 comments

Oil Pastels are Versatile

Oil pastels are still my number one favorite medium, even though I also paint with acrylic and oil. When working with oil pastels I feel as if I am able to combine both painting and drawing qualities using just this one medium.


Oil pastel vs soft pastel

It’s easy to get confused between oil pastels and the other type of pastel – soft pastel. Both pastels offer beautiful appearances but are very different in nature. Soft pastels are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “chalk pastel”, but “soft pastel” is the correct term. Both oil and soft pastels are availble as small size chunks about 1 to 2″ long and about 1/2″ thick. Soft pastels consist mostly of pigment loosely held together with a small amount of binder. They are substantial and strong when you use them, but can create a delicate surface especially when working with many layers. These are most durable when used on toothy surfaces to grab the pigment particles, and will not work at all on smooth glossy surfaces. The pigments refract light in a way that no other medium does. This makes for vivid colors and a very attractive finish. The best way to protect a pastel painting is to frame it behind glass. Spraying with fixative will often remove white and light colored soft pastel.

Oil pastels are very different then soft pastels, but also provide a beautiful surface sheen. Oil pastels have a lovely creamy quality when applied to a surface, feeling (and looking) somewhere between lipstick and crayon. They are made with wax and oil, so they always stay workable, but do dry enough to be stable, and stay on the surface fairly well. Since they are always workable it is recommended to either frame them behind glass or spray fix them with any clear fixative when your image is finished. Oil pastels can be applied on just about any surface, whether absorbent or non-absorbent, matte or glossy, smooth or textured, painted or unpainted.


Best Surfaces for oil Pastel

My favorite surface for using oil pastels is a smooth Bristol cardstock. Oil pastels are fairly small in size, and are best for small size applications. There are ways to make your own oil pastels in larger sizes, but I found that I liked using them as drawing materials in the small size they come in, which fit my hand better, and are easily portable. I like to use them for outdoor landscape work, creating a small (8” x 10”) painting, then using that small size painting as a model to later enlarge in my studio to an acrylic or oil paint work on canvas.

oil pastel on bristol paper, 8″ x 10″
24″ x 30″, acrylic on canvas, using the oil pastel for reference

8″ x 10″, oil pastel on bristol paper, used as a model for a larger painting

This 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas, used the oil pastel as a model.


Working on a smooth surface means I can use one of my favorite techniques; scraping back the oil pastel to reveal the original surface or underlying layers of oil pastel. I like to build up layers of colors, one on top of the other, then using a slanted blade x-acto knife, I carefully scrape off one color after another until I like the way it looks. The knife can scratch in white lines if you scratch deep enough to the original surface. You can also blend them with a small amount of solvent on a brush and work into them like oil paints. I like the fact that oil pastels are non-toxic, so prefer to blend with my finger and skip the solvent. You can also purchase blending sticks, but fingers are warm and can blend easier. If you do use solvents with the oil pastels, make sure to work on a surface that is primed with gesso or sealed in other ways.


Which brands to get

There are different brands of oil pastels, and each one has a different quality of creaminess. Since I like to build up layers, I avoid using Neopastels, which are gooey as lipstick, and don’t tack up quickly enough to allow multiple layers. My favorite brand is Holbein and they make a super wide range of colors.


Clean up

The oil pastels can make a mess on your hands, but are easily cleaned off using a baby-wipe. You can also use baby oil and a paper towel, but baby-wipes are super convenience especially if painting outdoors.


Finishing – Varnish or Framing?

The best way to finish your oil pastel painting is to frame it behind gladd. Using any type of sealer or varnish is not advisable. Here’s a great article about the issues that may occur when varnishing over oil pastel.


Storing pastels

Avoid leaving oil pastels out in hot sun for long periods of time, or stored where they will be exposed to very hot temperatures. I left mine in the back of a car for three days while living in Phoenix in the summer where temperatures outside get to 120 degrees. This meant that temperatures were even hotter inside the car. The oil in the pastels bled out leaving a pile of chalk dust, that could not be used anymore.

Try them for yourself!


Additional Resources

Finishing tips for oil pastel

Featured course

complete guide to acrylic painting

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Featured Course

Complete Guide to Acrylic Painting

Bring your visions to life on canvas! From your first brushstroke to your ultimate masterpiece – this course has it all.

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  1. J

    How to store an oil pastel painting without framing it? Use tracing paper?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Joel, Good question because oil pastels never fully dry. This means they do need to be protected from handling and while in storage. I usually leave them to air dry for a week. Then they get stiffer and I can stack them without any damage. So I don’t use any release paper. I store them in a cool place. Heat may cause them to get soft and smear. When I am on a painting trip, I don’t have the luxury to let them air dry without stacking. So then I use freezer paper. It is not the same as parchment paper or wax paper. It has a glossy side that I face down onto the oil pastel painting surface. Tracing paper may work as you had suggested, but I’ve never tried it. Always good to experiment with something you don’t care about before using it on a valued painting.

  2. Pastel Art Prints

    Thanks for sharing the tips for oil pastel art. Excellent work and beautiful art!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you for posting your painting! Gorgeous.

  3. Stacey Perrault

    Excellent comparison and beautiful artwork. Thank you.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you for your comment Stacey!

  4. Gabriella

    Your artwork is stunning. I primarily work in oil pastels but in the Mungyo brand. That painting is incredible!! Do you know which varnish or fixative I should use for my drawing?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Gabriella,
      Thanks for getting in touch and the compliments on my work. I appreciate it! There are many choices for varnishes and fixatives. I think the best advice I can give is to try some out on scrap examples you don’t care about that may be lying around your studio. I am not familiar with Mungyo brand. I do know, however, that oil pastel paintings will visibly change once you apply any varnish or fixative over it. For my oil pastels, I will usually frame them behind glass with a nice mat. If I must seal it using a sealer, I will spray it with Golden’s Archival Varnish Gloss. Again, I want to be very clear that there are no varnishes, sealers or fixatives you can apply over oil pastel, that will not change the sheen and appearance.
      I hope this helps answer your question!

  5. Christine Warren

    Your article is extremely helpful, thank you Nancy. I love the example of your own work you gave above. So appreciated! Christine Warren

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you Christine! I appreciate your comments and glad you found the article helpful!

  6. Dianne Airey

    Your small paintings are lovely..Thank you.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you for your comment Dianne! I appreciate it.

  7. Pat

    Great information, Dorothy – thank you! How do you sign an oil pastel? I don’t care for large signatures and using an oil pastel stick seems to create a large signature.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Pat, Thanks for your comment and glad you liked my article. By the way, my name is Nancy not Dorothy but glad to help. I sign my oil pastels using a sharpened lead pencil that is dark – such as something HB or softer like 2B. It goes right over the oil pastel very well.

    • Pat

      Thank you for the info on the signature, Nancy. I apologize about the name mix-up – too much going on all at once, I suppose! Will try the pencil signature.

  8. Dorothy Genea

    And also can oil pastels be applied to a canvas? Thanks a lot keep up the good work!!

  9. Dorothy Genia

    Hello I would like to ask if oil pastel can be used on wet paint. I’m a beginner so I hope this isn’t a stupid question.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Dorothy,
      Oil pastels can be applied over dry layers of paint – whether it is acrylic paint or oil paint. I would not mix oil pastels into wet acrylic, but I think they would be fine mixed into wet oil paint. Oil pastels can be applied to any surface – paper, canvas, wood, cardboard. Hope this helps answer your questions!


    Just a note regarding soft pastel… They are not at all chalk, which is a mineral. The proper term is soft pastel, which as you said are made of pure pigment and a little binder. Also they are not at all fragile when applied. They are actually one of the longest lasting, sustainable mediums, best applied to a paper with tooth. It’s very common to paint with them on sanded papers. They are a completely different medium than oil pastel. If you’d like more information on them please check out the pastel society of Colorado at http://www.pastelsocietyofcolorado.org. We are the 3rd largest pastel society in the US with educational programs, shows, etc. and a member of IAPS.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Jeannette, Thank you for the clarification! I agree with you completely. I actually use soft pastel quite often and really enjoy the beauty and ease of working with them. Hopefully my article doesn’t sound prejudice about them, as they are a wonderful medium to use. When I mention fragile, I agree they are not fragile in application. I was referring to the final surface that pastel creates, especially if worked in many layers. I do know from experience that they are difficult to ship because the surface is delicate. The pastel can be rubbed off or shaken off if handled roughly. Thank you again for taking the time to add useful information to this thread.

  11. Carl M Brecht

    Just purchased Sennelier oil pastels. They are bright and highly pigmented I quickly realized that blending with the finger works somewhat slow, even with a blending stick. Using a thinner, and or oil, with a brush or rag is certainly easier and makes for creative results. One can certainly get some base work done with acrylics. Nice to work on a regular stretched canvas. Drawing with oil pastels certainly moves things along, and then being creative with blending. I certainly will be scraping back to expose underlying colors. Thank you

    • Nancy Reyner

      Sounds like you’ve come up with many ways to handle and use oil pastels. Thanks for sharing!

  12. cynthia

    Hi Nancy,

    I’m trying to help my studio-mate research a solution for a project she’s working on with oil pastels. She painted with the OP on canvas and is working on a collage of sorts. She carved stamps, and used ink to press the design onto rice paper to create a mountain range. She wants to adhere this to the oil paint and possibly seal the entire painting. What I’ve found so far indicates that you can’t seal an Oil Painting – that you can only use a fixture to help protect it from dust. Is that correct? Is there anything she could use as an adhesive to get the rice paper to stay on the oil pastels? Is there anything she could use that would the prevent the oil pastels from rubbing off the canvas?

    • Nancy Reyner

      I”m not quite sure which material is going over what. Adhesion depends on the direct contact between 2 materials. You mention oil pastel and then oil paint. These are different materials. It sounds like she used oil pastel on canvas, then added ink over rice paper and wants to glue the inked rice paper over an oil painting? But what happened to the oil pastel on canvas? I’m confused. I’d be glad to help if you gave me more info. There is no archival way to seal over oil pastel because it also contains wax. However, a spray varnish can be used knowing this isn’t archival. Oil paint, on the other hand, can be sealed using varnishes that are meant to go over oil. When an oil painting is sealed using a removable varnish (this is the only archival way to protect oil paint) then you are correct, the varnish can be removed for cleaning purposes. Once it is removed, new varnish is applied. As far as an adhesive that will work over oil pastels, she is welcome to try an acrylic glue. However, I repeat, there is NO ARCHIVAL way to adhere something over oil pastel. The wax in it will resist any water-based glue. Perhaps there is a solvent based glue that might work. 3M77 is a very strong adhesive spray that will probably do the job. You mention if there is anything that will prevent oil pastels from rubbing off the canvas. They should stick well and not rub off once they have allowed to dry for awhile (maybe a week or more) but then there is no way to clean them later. Oil pastels should usually be protected by glass.

  13. Dora

    Hi from NYC! I just found your article- do you have any videos in YouTube? ☺️

    • Nancy Reyner

      I have a Youtube channel with many of my instructional videos on there. At this moment, I do not have a video on oil pastels. Perhaps in the future. Here is a link to my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/nancyreyner

  14. Wagner Phoebe Sparrow

    Hi, Nancy,

    I am doing a quite large scale oil pastel painting using Sennelier grandes. Experimenting with the use of linseed or even olive oil to paint with them as I need to get very fine details. So far they are drying quite nicely after I used just a tiny bit of olive oil to paint with them. I wonder however, as I learned about using olive oil from a children’s art site, whether this will last, or should I try a different oil “solvent”?

    Also there seems to be some confusion on the internet about the early use by de la Tour, Degas and Chardin …I always believed that oil pastels were specifically developed for Picasso and not before the 1920s. Is it possible that the sites claiming degas and others used OIL pastel were simply confusing oil paint and pastels (chalk type)?


    Phoebe Wagner

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Phoebe,
      You are bringing up some interesting questions. Unfortunately I don’t have the answers to both of them – regarding which oils are best to use (I am assuming you mean which are more archival) and also on the history of oil pastels. I remember reading about oils for oil painters. Some oils turn yellow as they age, and some are better for use with fine art. There should be some expert advice online regarding which oils to use for oil paint, and these can transfer to the oil pastels. When I paint with oils I use stand oil instead of linseed. Walnut oil is also a good choice. Again I recommend finding out for yourself the difference in oil choices for art. As for the history of oil pastels I have no idea. If you do find answers to these questions please add them to your comments here. I would like to know too!

  15. Carol Colaman

    Thank you for your great information and for promoting oil pastels. I think they sometimes get a bad rap and get labeled as child’s play. I’m an oil pastel artist and love them. I think they are easily approachable but take time to master – a good thing. I actually adore Catania d’ Aches Neopastels because I can build layers. I wonder if maybe you meant Sennelier as the gooey Lipstick brand. I love them and use them as the Wow factor for the final layer. But I agree , beginning with Sennelier takes a different approach.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Glad to meet a fellow oil pastel fan! I will go back and check to see if I confused the Neopastels with Sennelier, now that you mentioned it.

  16. Alhuthaib Advertising

    This is very nice information. Suggest some designs for Digital printing as well.

  17. Mary R.

    I am excited to find oil pastels! All ‘arting” is new for me, and is so enjoyable. I am hoping you can share your thoughts on the following: I purchased a wood framed painting at goodwill. The panel is painted in. Very lovely. The image is painted on some sort of board [the reverse side of the board is rough). I am planning to apply gesso on the present image, then paint it black. I plan to use acrylic paints as an under painting. Here is the pronlem..I also want to use my oil pastels over parts of the acrylic image. I wonder can I use solvent to either the or b lend the oil pastels. If so, which solvent would be best? My oil pastels are Mungyo Soft oil pastels.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Mary,
      Sounds like a fun idea! If the painting you purchased is painted using oil paint, then I do not recommend applying a water based gesso over the painting. The gesso will not adhere to oil paint, and will flake off eventually. Wood panel is fairly inexpensive. It sounds like you want the frame but not the painting. Why not remove the panel from the frame, then purchase a new panel the same size and start fresh. I have an article on my blog called How to Prepare Wood Panels for Painting that goes over sealing the panel, then priming with gesso. There is even a black gesso you can use since you mentioned you wanted to paint the other one black. Oil pastels can be applied over acrylic or oil underpaintings. This means you can apply oil pastels over the acrylic underpainting you plan to do. You can blend the oil pastels using a blending stick or your fingers (my personal favorite). You can also use a solvent or some type of oil to blend them. I do not use solvents because they are toxic. If you feel you must use them then I recommend the non-odorous types which have most (but not all) toxic ingredients removed. I like to use (when I have to) Turpenoid as it is the least irritating for me. You may want to try some linseed oil first to see if that works instead of the toxic choices. Hope this helps!

  18. lynn cooper

    I’m new to oil pastels and been researching them to learn to use them from youtube and the web.I love to use coconut oil or baby oil to paint with them just like oil paints.I’m no artist by any means,i’m learning a lot by watching videos and practicing. I love abstracts and i’m learn something new everyday.I’m retired and that gives me lots of time.Thank you for your information.Awesome.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Glad you found it useful! Thanks for posting your comment.

  19. Annie

    I would love it if you did a dvd or online course on this… really interesting read

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you Annie! That is a great idea. I will definitely consider making a video on oil pastel in the near future.

  20. Louise

    Hi Nancy,
    If a little bit of solvent is used with the oil pastels, I suppose it is best to choose a paper or substrate made for oil painting, isn’t it?

    By the way, I really enjoyed reading your “Perfect Painting” book 🙂

    • Nancy Reyner

      Oh thank you for reminding me a good way to blend them is by using solvent! If you are only adding a small amount of solvent to the oil pastel to blend them, you can still work on a sturdy paper like the bristol cardstock. However, priming the cardstock with gesso would keep the paper from warping or curling up when you add the solvent. I will add that into the article. And so glad you liked my book Create Perfect paintings!

  21. Phyllis Jaffe

    I use them in almost every painting to add a little texture or shading. They pick up the texture of the surface beautifully. I feel like they are my secret weapon for tweaking a painting and don’t usually admit that I use them. Want to keep the mystery going. But I put them over anything…..they never let me down. sHHHH

    • Nancy Reyner

      They are a great secret weapon!

    • Joyce

      Do you seal the oil pastel. I find they never really dry

    • Nancy Reyner

      I recommend to frame your oil pastel painting behind glass. They do not ever dry. That’s one advantage working with them is that you can always layer over, or scrape away, and keep working on them. The other advantage is that oil pastels stay usable and don’t dry out. I have oil pastels that are over 30 years old and I still use them! I have used them over acrylic and oil paintings. In this case I will seal over the oil pastels using the final varnish that I apply over the entire painting when it is finished. I have sealed oil pastels with GOLDEN’s Archival Varnish Gloss which comes as a spray. All spray varnishes and sealers, even this one I use, will change the sheen on the oil pastel to a gloss. If that’s OK then you can seal them this way without having to frame under glass. One other method that works is to wait a few days after the oil pastel has been applied. Then it gets a bit dryer and not so soft. If you apply Gamblin’s Wax Medium gently using a rag over the oil pastel, it will seal it, without changing the color or sheen. Wait for the wax medium to dry, then lightly buff it with a soft rag to get it from super matte to slightly satin. This will seal it and match the oil pastel sheen prior to when you seal it.

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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner created this blog about art, painting and creativity from her career of over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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