Oil Pastels – A Versatile Medium for Painters

by | Nov 21, 2022 | Blog | 0 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. 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 brand for Oil Pastels

There are different brands of oil pastels, and each one has a different quality of creaminess or tackiness. Since I like to build up layers, I avoid using Neopastels, which are as gooey as lipsticks, and don’t tack up quick enough to allow multiple layers. My favorite brand in the past was Guitar Oil Pastels, but that company went out of business years ago. The closest substitute I had found (until trying these by Arrtx) was Holbein. Holbein makes a wide range of high quality colors but is very pricey.

However there is a new kid on the block called Arrtx. After trying out their oil pastels with several techniques and applications and comparing them by quality and price to other brands, I’ve put this brand at the top of my favorites list. I tried their 72 Oil Pastel Set. I love sets because it makes it easy to store, is portable in the lightweight box, and fun to have a range of colors at your fingertips.

Pictured above is the Arrtx 72 Oil Pastel Set. The range of colors is wonderful. Lots of subtle neutrals along with a good range of brights. These pastels are not too gooey and not too tacky – just the perfect balance to pile one color on top of another. Scraping back to reveal underlying layers of color was also easy to do. And you can’t beat the price. At the time of writing this, both Arrtx and Holbein oil pastels had these on sale, so I could do a good price comparison. Turns out you can get five Arrtx oil pastels for the price of one Holbein oil pastel!

Here’s a link to purchase the Arrtx Oil Pastels.

Other links to purchase this set:
Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3fsjduP
Amazon CA: https://amzn.to/3RZeCyh
Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3rM86jh
Amazon DE: https://amzn.to/3CRbZZo
AliExpress: https://bit.ly/3RWNiAT

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.

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 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.


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 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.


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

How to Seal Art Materials

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Complete Painting Instruction

Learn everything you need from your first brushstroke to the finished painting. Acquire techniques and ground breaking concepts to shape your artistic vision.

Special Offer

Complete Painting Instruction

Learn everything you need from your first brushstroke to the finished painting. Acquire techniques and ground breaking concepts to shape your artistic vision.

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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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