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. Below I’ve listed all the reasons that make them my number one go-to medium.
What is the Difference Between Oil pastels and soft pastels
It’s easy to get confused between oil pastels and the other type of pastel – soft pastel. Both pastels offer beautiful appearances and both are actually soft providing an easy application, but each 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 available in small size pieces or chunks about 1″ to 2″ in length, 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 create a delicate surface especially when working with many layers. These are most durable when used on toothy surfaces which can grab the pigment particles holding them in place, and will not work at all on smooth glossy surfaces. The pigments in the soft pastels refract light in a way that no other medium does. This makes for vivid colors and a very attractive surface quality. 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 than 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 even after years, 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 use with small size surfaces. 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 portable. I like to use them for outdoor landscape work, creating a small (8” x 10”) painting with them, then using that small size painting as a model to later enlarge in my studio to an acrylic or oil paint work on canvas.
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 colored layers of oil pastel. I like to build up layers of colors, one on top of the other, then use a slanted blade x-acto knife to 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 white surface. Blend colors together 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. It’s OK to get messy with these as they clean off your hands easily with baby oil. You can also purchase blending sticks, but fingers are warm making blending 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.
The oil pastels can make a mess on your hands, but are easy to clean. Some oil pastels can be removed off your hands with a baby-wipe. You can also use baby oil and a paper towel, which works with all types of oil pastels. Baby-wipes are super convenient for painting outdoors.
Which Brand to use
I have tried Holbein, Arrtx and Paul Rubens. In my opinion Holbein makes the best oil pastels. Gorgeous colors, large array of colors to choose from, perfect creaminess, and easy layering. They are pricey, so I tried out the other two more economical brands to compare. Arrtx and Paul Rubens both sent me oil pastel sets to try out for free in exchange for a review. Click on their links above to read their separate reviews.
Bottom line is that I liked them all! I am now using all three brands at the same time when creating a new oil pastel painting. They all mix and combine with each other really well. They all have great choices of colors. The Arrtx and Paul Rubens prices are similar to each other, and both offer frequent special promotions and discounts, while Holbein prices are about twice as much. I recommend getting a small set of pastels for each of the three companies. Try them out and decide for yourself. The different brands have slightly different feels for each, which makes it up to you to pick your favorites.
Finishing – Varnish or Framing?
The best way to finish your oil pastel painting is to frame it behind glass. 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.
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!
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