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.

First let’s make sure we don’t 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.

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.

Above is a 24″ x 30″ painting I made using acrylic on canvas, based on the 8″ x 10″ oil pastel model below.

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 solvent you may want to work on a surface that is sealed by priming with gesso.

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.

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.

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! Happy painting with oil pastels!

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.