Nancy’s Painting Blog

Oil Pastel – A Great Medium for Painters!

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 –chalk pastel. Both oil and chalk pastels are small size chunks about 1 to 2″ long and about 1/2″ thick. Chalk pastels are mostly pigment loosely held together with a small amount of binder. They are fragile when you use them, and fragile once applied to a surface. These need toothy surfaces to grab the chalky particles, and will not work at all on smooth glossy surfaces.

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 pastels!

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

17 thoughts on “Oil Pastel – A Great Medium for Painters!

  1. 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

  2. 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 🙂

    1. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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!

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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

    1. 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!

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