Oil Pastels – Discover a World of Brilliant Color

Oil Pastels – Discover a World of Brilliant Color


Oil pastels are a fairly new art medium. In the mid 1920’s, the first soft pastel was developed. Called Cray-pas, this soft pastel was considered an upgrade from crayons. It wasn’t until 1947, upon the request of the artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Goetz, the materials manufacturer Sennelier set about to create a soft, artists’ quality pastel.

Picasso wanted a pastel stick that could be used on a variety of surfaces, like wood, clay or canvas. Goetz want a pastel which could be used with directness and immediacy, and would allow him to work directly on a surface, without brushes, palette knives or any other kind of tool.
Sennelier came out with a soft oil pastel in 1949. It had a desirable soft consistency, was available in a broad range of brilliant colors and the pigments were of a professional permanent and acid-free quality. Sennelier’s oil pastels were the seminal oil pastel sticks from which all other brands have originated. More recently, a larger oil pastel stick was developed which enables artists to create large, colorful works, without the accoutrement of oil painting: turpentine, linseed oil, rags, brushes, palettes, and palette knives. The qualities of immediacy and directness have made large oil stick popular among many contemporary artists.

The pigments in hard pastels, oil pastels and oil sticks are the same as those used in oil paints. The essential difference between oil paints, hard and soft pastels and oil sticks is the binder ingredient used to hold the pigments together. Oil paints are basically pigments in a base of linseed oil and drying agents, liquid enough to be extruded from a tube. Hard pastels have less oil and wax binder than oil pastels. Oil pastels, having more oil and wax content, are softer in consistency and body. To date, oil pastels are available in two qualities: student and professional.


Chalk or hard pastels have been around longer since the Renaissance. (Leonardo DaVinci wrote about pastels and many of his drawings were done in red chalk.) Hard pastels can be blended with the finger or with a small blending stick to produce subtle shadings of subtle and delicate shading and highlight effects. Because of their hard, dry consistency, they are powdery, semi-transparent and excellent for creating smooth, “seamless” transitions of color.

Because oil pastels are softer, they are semi-opaque in nature. One color can be layered over another color and successfully cover it. Many overlapping layers can be created. integrating two colors with oil pastels can be done with networks of small lines or strokes. Because oil pastels have great covering ability, they can replicate the process of painting with oil paints or acrylics.
Oil pastels, because of their wax and oil content, never completely dry. For the finished artwork, an application of acrylic varnish will protect the oil pastel surface. An oil pastel artwork is best protected by a mat, glass and a frame. Thinned, an oil pastel’s consistency is much like water color, and can employed in washes and transparent overlays of colors. Oil pastels can be diluted with turpentine or mineral spirits. Oil pastels can be used on any porous surface. The best support for durability and permanence is an archival, acid-free, heavy weight paper, board or primed canvas.


In depicting a sunset, for example, where colors may consist of a variety of shades oranges, reds, purples and blues, integrating each color area can be done by blending one color into another by layering with small line networks. Laying down an area of light orange, then going over it with small strokes of dark orange will begin the gradation. Light orange can be brought back in over the dark orange to introduce the necessary light/dark gradations. Then the darker orange can be brought in to make the gradation more explicit. By using small, networks of lines, each color can be worked into by other colors until the desired effect is achieved. By blending colors in this way, transitions from one color to another are smooth, but the vibrant quality of intermingling line networks of colors is retained.


Another example of integrating colors with oil pastels can be demonstrated in self portrait. Upon close observation, one can see that skin has many subtle flesh colors. One area in the cheeks, for example, may be redder. Color areas around the chin may have a yellow hue. Color areas around the eyes may have blue or browns. Let’s take the cheek area, for example. A basic flesh tone has been put down in that area. A redder blush of skin tone can be produced by introducing a network of small lines of a light pink color over this. Now, the flesh tone color can be layered with small lines over the light pink. The interplay between these two color areas will produce the blush in the cheek area. Working with exchanges of these two colors, a third or even fourth color, for example, light blue or light green, may be subtly interlaced with the flesh tone and pink networks to produce subtle color passages which replicate even further the many colors exhibited in flesh.


If you choose to go out to the woods, the sea shore, or your backyard to create a colorful, painterly artwork, there is a definite advantage to using oil pastels. Just pack up your box of oil pastels, tablet of paper and head on out! In your hand, oil pastels will act quickly to catch a certain slant of sunlight. a shoreline quickly changing from green to blue because of clouds coming up from the horizon, or shadows moving across a forest landscape.

Indeed, you can see how oil pastels were the product of Picasso’s need to work quickly, with expression and using a broad range of wonderful colors. And you can use your oil pastel drawings and sketches as references for oil paintings because the colors of oil pastels translate well to the painting medium. Immediacy and directness are qualities in oil pastels that make them truly a contemporary medium.


If you are considering working with oil pastels, buy good quality (professional) pastels. They will have a dense body of pigment and stronger layering qualities. Professional quality pastels will most accurately duplicate the small-line networking color integration technique described in this article.

Cheaper student grade oil pastels have a higher wax content and because the pigment body is less dense, they are often more like crayons and will not layer or cover well. In cheaper oil pastels, often the more expensive pigments have more wax and oil binders. This keeps the price low, but also the quality. For the most part, student quality oil pastels are much more transparent and colors, even upon heavy application, will appear washed-out and faded.


The brilliance of colors, ease of use and portability of oil pastels makes this art medium a wonderful tool to try, whether you are just discovering your creative self or want to experiment with a new medium. Discover oil pastels for yourself and enjoy creating beautiful, colorful artwork!

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