How to Use Oil Pastels: 10 Easy Steps for Beginners

If you want to learn how to use oil pastels, I have been using oil pastels for so many years and I can guarantee you that what I have summarized in 10 simple steps below is all you need to know:

  1. Choose a surface: Choose a surface that is suitable for oil pastels. This can be canvas, primed boards or paper designed for oil pastels. If you use the wrong surface the oil in the oil pastel can get soaked up and prematurely dry out the pigments leading them to fall off.
  2. Starting Color: Begin with a lighter shade. Add darker colors and shades as layers.
  3. Pressure Application: Apply less pressure initially, as you move in a certain direction start to apply more pressure to make the oil pastel color darker and more opaque.
  4. Color Layering: Layer different colors, blending until the desired look is achieved. As I said previously, start with lighter colors first and end with the darkest colors and shades.
  5. Blending Tools: Blend using fingers, a brush, paint knife, or even fingers directly. Do not blend too hard, if you find that you need to blend more then consider using an oil painting medium.
  6. Add Oil Painting Medium: Alter pastels with some oil painting medium, this will make the paint in the oil pastel more manageable because oil pastels are basically the same as oil paints in stick form.
  7. Thinning: Use a thinner such as Gamsol or Sansodor (not turpentine) to thin pastels for glazes or washes.
  8. Drawing Protection: Cover with a smaller scratch paper or wax paper to protect your work.
  9. Drying Layers: While oil pastels aren’t like paint, you can allow them to dry but it is not needed. If you must, allow a layer to dry (possibly 3 days) before coloring over.
  10. Smooth Edges: Achieve smooth edges by gently smearing along the edge with a finger.

Understanding How To Use Oil Pastels

What Are Oil Pastels

Oil pastels are a unique medium made of pigment, wax, and a non-drying oil, usually linseed oil.

They come in a variety of colors and resemble regular sticks for easy handling. Ideal for both beginners and experienced artists, oil pastel sticks offer a diverse range of creative possibilities.

The Unique Medium of Oil Pastels

The blend of pigment, wax, and oil in oil pastels sets them apart from other art mediums. This unique combination allows artists to easily blend and layer colors.

Unlike traditional oil paints, oil pastels don’t require any solvents or brushes, making them easy to use and mess-free. Their versatility and convenience have made them increasingly popular among artists.

Some key features of oil pastels include:

  • Easy blending
  • Layering capabilities
  • Rich, vibrant colors
  • No need for solvents

Oil Pastel Vs Wax Crayons Vs Traditional Soft Pastels

When comparing oil pastels, wax crayons, and traditional soft pastels, each medium has distinct characteristics to consider:

Oil Pastels:

Oil pastels contain paint pigment mixed with a non-drying oil and wax binder. The balance of these components gives oil pastels their unique consistency and workability.

Here’s a bit more detail:

  • Pigment: This provides the color. The quality and vibrancy of the pigment can vary between different brands and grades of oil pastels.
  • Non-Drying Oil: The oil helps to bind the pigment and gives the pastel its smooth texture. Unlike the oils used in oil paints, the oil in oil pastels does not harden over time.
  • Wax: Wax helps to hold the shape of the pastel, making it firm yet pliable. It also contributes to the stickiness of oil pastels, which helps them adhere to surfaces.
    • The precise formulation can vary between different brands and types of oil pastels.
    • Some oil pastels may contain additional substances to modify the texture or other properties of the pastel.
    • The proportion of oil to wax can also affect the hardness and workability of the pastel.
    • Higher quality oil pastels might have better pigment load and finer ground pigments which provide better color payout and blending capabilities.

Wax Crayons:

  • Dry, waxy texture
  • Less suited for blending and layering
  • Targeted towards children and casual use

Traditional Soft Pastels:

  • Dry, powdery texture
  • Can produce a chalk-like finish
  • Requires a fixative to prevent smudging

When choosing the right medium for your art, consider your desired outcome and technique preferences.

Oil pastels offer a unique blend of smooth application, easy blending, and vibrant colors, making them a versatile choice for artists of all levels.

Getting Started with Oil Pastels

Choosing the Right Oil Pastels

Selecting the best oil pastels for your artwork can be a bit overwhelming due to the variety of options available.

Start by considering the quality of the oil pastels and your skill level. Sennelier oil pastels are outstanding for their smoothness and blendability, making them a favorite choice among professional artists.

Thankfully, several art supply retailers, such as Blick Art Materials, offer a wide range of oil pastels to choose from.

Another consideration is whether you prefer water soluble oil pastels or traditional ones.

Water soluble oil pastels allow you to create a range of effects due to their ability to dissolve in water, opening up new techniques and possibilities in your artwork.

Oil Pastels for Different Skill Levels

When acquiring an oil pastel set, consider your experience level and the artwork’s intended purpose. A simple table can help you in understanding the differences:

Skill LevelType of Oil PastelsRemarks
BeginnerStudent-grade oil pastelsLower in cost and provide a good starting point for learning the medium
IntermediateArtist-grade oil pastelsContain a higher concentration of pigment and a wider range of colors
AdvancedProfessional oil pastels like SennelierExcellent quality and texture with a larger available selection of colors

Keep in mind that investing in artist-quality oil pastels is vital for creating top-notch artwork.

Now that you are familiar with the different types of oil pastels and their suitable skill levels, you can confidently select your ideal set to embark on your creative journey with oil pastels.

I love using Sennelier oil pastels, while you can find many inexpensive oil pastels, if you want to master how to use oil pastels then focus on quality materials.

On the lower end of the price range but also good are the Sakura Cray-Pas oil pastels. These are also great to use and a fraction of the cost.

Exploring Oil Pastel Techniques

There are a few simple oil pastel techniques you can quickly master, I have listed these below.

Layering with Oil Pastels

Color Layering is a key technique for achieving depth and complexity in your oil pastel artwork.

Start with a base layer of color, then add layers of different shades or tones to build up your piece. As mentioned earlier, best to start with lighter colors and add darker ones as you progress.

Apply light pressure for more translucent layers, and increase pressure for more opaque results.

Experimenting with the number of layers and varying pressure will give you greater control over your artwork’s appearance.

Sgraffito Technique

The sgraffito technique involves scratching or etching into the layers of pastel to reveal underlying colors. It comes from the Italian word for scratching.

This approach can create interesting textures and patterns in your work.

Use a razor blade, palette knife, or other sharp tool to carefully scrape away the top layer of pastel, allowing you to explore this unique effect in your oil pastel art.

Color Transitions in Oil Pastels

Smooth transitions between colors are necessary for creating depth and realism in your oil pastel pieces.

To achieve smooth color transitions, blend the colors together using your fingers, a blending stump, or a soft cloth.

Make sure to move back and forth between the two colors, blending until you achieve the desired gradient effect.

Practicing these transitions will help you produce more refined artwork.

Producing Fine Details and Thin Lines

Creating detailed features and thin lines in your oil pastel art requires precision and a delicate touch.

Begin by applying light pressure to your pastel, gradually building up the color intensity. For fine lines, use the edge of the pastel or sharpen its tip.

Working with Colours

Understanding Light and Dark Colors

When using oil pastels, color selection is vital.

Lighter colors help create the illusion of light and depth, while darker colors add shadow and a sense of depth.

Remember that brighter colors stand out, while subdued colors blend into the background.

Blending Various Colors

To create a rich and diverse color palette, experiment with blending different colors together.

Start by applying a base color, then layer a second color on top. Blend these colors together using your fingers, a blending tool, or even a paper towel.

Remember that using more than three colors might muddy the result, so it’s better to stay within that limit.

Creating Vibrant Artworks

For vibrant artworks, use a combination of bright and contrasting colors.

Begin with an underpainting, using waxier oil pastels or mediums like colored inks, alcohol pens, or acrylic. Don’t use watercolor as the oil in the oil pastel will act as a wax resist, and prevent the watercolor paint from sticking.

Next, apply a layer of oilier oil pastels, such as Sennelier or Neo Pastel, to intensify and complete your masterpiece.

Remember to choose colors wisely to achieve the desired visual impact.

Tips and Tricks for Using Oil Pastels

Tips for the First Time Oil Pastel User

When you first start using oil pastels, it’s a good idea to set up your space properly. Use a placemat or newspaper underneath your artwork to keep your area clean.

Choose surfaces like canvas, pastelbord, hardbord, wood, or mixed media paper for optimal results.

Remember to take breaks while working, allowing you to see the progress with a fresh perspective.

Achieving the Best Results

To achieve the best results with oil pastels, keep the following techniques in mind:

  • Blending: Apply oil pastels with varied pressure to create smooth transitions between colors.
  • Pre-blending: Combine colors on a separate surface first before applying them to your artwork.
  • Overlaying: Create new colors by layering one color over another.
  • Masking: Cover sections of your work with tape or paper to create crisp edges.
  • Stenciling: Use stencils to create shapes or patterns easily on your artwork.
  • Scratching: Use a sharp tool to scratch through layers of pastel and reveal the colors underneath.
  • Impasto: Apply thick layers of pastel for a textured effect.

Fill in large blocks of color first and focus on details later. It’s a great technique to create depth and interest in your artwork.

Pros and Cons of Using Oil Pastels

While oil pastels are easy to use they do come with their own set of pros and cons. I have listed some of the key ones below that I think you will find useful.

Pros:

  1. Color Intensity: Oil pastels offer vibrant colors due to their high pigment concentration.
  2. Blendability: They blend well together to create smooth transitions and new colors.
  3. Ease of Use: Oil pastels are straightforward to use, making them a good choice for beginners.
  4. Portability: They are compact, don’t require any additional supplies like brushes or water, and are great for on-the-go art.
  5. No Drying Time: Unlike oil paints, oil pastels don’t require drying time.
  6. Versatility: They can be used on various surfaces like paper, canvas, wood, and even fabric.
  7. Texture: They provide a unique texture and finish which can be manipulated for different effects.
  8. Non-Toxic: Generally, oil pastels are non-toxic and safe for artists of all ages.

Cons:

  1. Permanence: Oil pastels never fully dry, this can lead to smudging or transferring of the artwork.
  2. Difficulty in Detailing: Due to their thick and waxy nature, achieving fine details can be challenging. I have tried using a box cutter to make a sharp point but it usually snaps off the moment I apply a little extra pressure.
  3. Limited Layering: Although they can be layered to some extent, there is a limit before the surface becomes saturated.
  4. Temperature Sensitivity: They can melt or become too soft in hot temperatures.
  5. Cleaning: They can be messy to work with, and cleaning hands or clothes afterwards can be a bit of a chore.
  6. Fragility: The tips can break easily, and the pastels can become damaged if dropped.
  7. Expense: High-quality oil pastels can be quite expensive. Unless you’re really into oil pastels, maybe try oil paint.
  8. Surface Staining: They can stain the drawing surface, and it might be challenging to erase mistakes.

Taking Care of Your Art Supplies

Taking care of your art supplies is vital for keeping them in top condition. To maintain your oil pastels, follow these tips:

  • Storage: Keep oil pastels in a cool, dry place away from heat and direct sunlight.
  • Cleaning: Wipe pastels gently with a clean cloth or paper towel to remove excess pigment and avoid smudging.
  • Protection: Use a sealant, such as a fixative, on your oil pastel artwork to protect it from fading or smudging.

Following these tips and tricks for using oil pastels, you can create beautiful artwork while keeping your supplies in great shape.

Mediums That Work Well with Oil Pastels

how to use oil pastels

Oil Pastel and Linseed Oil

Linseed oil is a popular choice when working with oil pastels. It helps soften the pastels, making blending and layering colors smooth and easy.

To do this, you just need to mix a small amount of linseed oil with your chosen oil pastel color.

The result will be a paint-like consistency that is easier to manage on the canvas.

One key thing to remember is that you should keep small amounts of oil on your palette to avoid a slippery or overdiluted outcome.

Oil Pastel and Baby Oil

Baby oil, a mild and harmless method for blending oil pastels, is beneficial to artists who want a safe and affordable option.

Simply dip a small brush or cotton swab in baby oil, and gently smooth it around your oil pastel to blend and soften colors.

The oil pastel will take on a paint-like texture, allowing you to explore various techniques in your artwork.

The advantage of using baby oil over other oils is primarily its safety and accessibility.

Oil Pastel and Mineral Oils

Mineral oils are another option when working with oil pastels.

They can be found in most art supply stores and have a similar effect to baby oil, softening and blending the pastels easily.

To work with mineral oils, dab a small brush, cotton swab, or even your finger into the oil and gently blend it with your oil pastel colors.

This technique leads to smooth transitions and unique visual effects in your artwork.

Oil Pastel and Acrylic Paint

Pairing oil pastels with acrylic paint can create interesting mixed-media artwork.

When using this combination, you generally apply acrylic paint as the base layer.

After the paint dries, you can add oil pastels on top to create vibrant colors and interesting textures.

Be advised that mixing the two mediums directly can cause the paint to not adhere properly or lead to uneven drying.

By keeping the two layers separate, you can explore the visual possibilities and enjoy the benefits of both mediums in your artwork.

Working on Various Surfaces

Choosing the Right Paper

One key factor to consider while using oil pastels is the paper. For better results, always choose a pastel paper as this provides the needed texture.

The texture of the paper helps in creating interesting effects and holds the pastel better. You can try experimenting with various paper textures to find the one that works best for you.

The color of the paper also matters, as it can impact the overall appearance of your artwork. Choose a color that complements the colors you plan to use in the pastel.

Keep in mind that lighter colors allow for more vibrant effects, while darker colors create a more subtle result.

If you’re working on watercolors, watercolour paper is the best choice. The thicker surface is necessary for water-based media, and it provides good support for oil pastel layers.

Exploring Different Surfaces

The beauty of oil pastels lies in their ability to work on a variety of surfaces. Experimenting with different materials can yield unique outcomes.

Along with pastel paper, consider trying surfaces like:

  • Canvas: Oil pastels blend well on a canvas surface, producing a smooth, painterly effect. Remember that working on canvas might require more effort to achieve the desired values and colors.
  • Smooth surface: Smooth papers or Bristol boards provide less tooth for the pastel to grip, resulting in a more delicate effect. Be gentle when applying pressure to avoid damaging the surface.
  • Paper towel: This might sound unusual, but a paper towel can offer an exciting and fun textural experience! Just be careful not to press too hard, as the oil pastel might tear through. Don’t do this if you want to make an artwork that lasts.

While selecting the right surface, remember that it is vital to try different combinations to see what suits your preferences and the project in question.

Sealing and Protecting Your Artwork

Using a Fixative Spray

Sealing your oil pastel artwork is necessary to protect it from smudging and to maintain its pristine condition.

One method you can try is using a fixative spray on your work of art. Here’s a guide on how to use it effectively:

  1. Choose the Right Fixative Spray: Look for a fixative spray designed specifically for oil pastels. These sprays can be found at art supply stores or online. Read the label and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  2. Prepare the Artwork: Place your artwork on a flat surface, preferably outdoors or in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling the spray fumes. Ensure the surface is clean and dust-free to avoid any unwanted particles from sticking to the artwork.
  3. Apply the Fixative Spray: Shake the can well and hold it about 12 inches away from your artwork. Spray a light, even coat, moving side to side and up and down, making sure to cover the entire surface. Be careful not to oversaturate the piece, as this can cause discoloration or damage.
  4. Allow to Dry: Give your artwork enough time to fully dry before moving or touching it. This could take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the type of fixative used and the environmental conditions.
  5. Repeat if Necessary: If needed, apply a second coat following the same process and allow it to dry completely. This can help to ensure the artwork is thoroughly protected from smudging or damage.

By using a fixative spray, you’re taking the vital step to protect and preserve your oil pastel artwork, making it appear polished and professional while maintaining its original integrity.

That’s it! Thats how you use oil pastels. They are simple and fun and can be used by kids and adults of all ages.

My daughter started using oil pastels and wax pastels when she was a toddler and she loved them.

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