Oil Pastels – An Amazing Medium for Painters

by | Nov 21, 2022 | Blog | 9 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 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 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.


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
Review of Arrtx Oil Pastels
Review of Paul Ruben Oil Pastels
Review of Lightwish Oil Pastels
Article on Drawing Materials “Make a Mark”

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  1. Rose Weeden

    Hi Nancy

    I was given oil pastel crayons . I’m not sure which paper product is best for them. I use acrylic paint when I do my chicken egg shells. I design whichever picture I come up with at that time. I use a shalak over the eggs after a 24 hour drying time. I makes the shells firmer so they don’t break as easy. Would crayons be too hard to use on them? I’d love your advice on any of these techniques. Thank you

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Rose,
      Your painted egg shells sound lovely! Regarding best paper for oil pastels you can use just about any paper. Some paper comes very smooth like Smooth Bristol. I like these the best because I can smear more easily. Other types of paper come with a tooth. Having tooth means it will grip drawing materials, including the oil pastels, better. Paper with tooth works best for charcoal, pencils and soft pastel (chalk) but will work well with oil pastels too. Try both types of paper to see which you prefer. Again any type of paper will work, it’s whatever feels better for you – a glidier feel or feeling like it grips more. Also, regarding your painted egg shells sealed with shellac, you can use the oil pastels on them, but you would need to seal over the pastels when you are finished using them on the shells. Oil pastels stay soft and malleable so if you use them over the shellac you would need to seal them as a final protection coating.

  2. doodle jump

    Oil pastels are great for creating vibrant, expressive paintings. Not only are they easy to use, but they also let you create detailed masterpieces that seem like you painted them by hand.

  3. Marsha Harrison

    For producing colorful, expressive artwork, oil pastels are a terrific medium. They are simple to use and even enable you to produce intricate works that simulate brush painting.

    • Nancy Reyner

      I totally agree with you Marsha! Thanks for posting.

  4. Noah Enholm

    Oil pastels can be used on canvas as long as it has a rough surface that will help the pigments adhere to it better. To get better coverage and a smoother finish with this grittier texture, oil pastels with a creamier consistency are needed.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Noah,
      Thank you for your suggestions with oil pastel! It is much appreciated.

  5. Hogan

    Were you given these for free or paid for endorsement? I noticed the same exact post on your review on Amazon.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Hogan,
      Thanks for the reminder to add the disclaimer to my blog article. I just added that yes, this box of oil pastels was given to me for free, in exchange for a review. I also added the same paragraph about these pastels to my review on Amazon. I did not get paid any additional fees for the review. Just want to add that this is an honest assessment of the oil pastels. I did try them out, and also compared them in a variety of techniques to the other brands I already have. Thanks again for the reminder to add that to my article.

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About Nancy

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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