In this Guide for Oil Pastels Beginners, I explain how to use oil pastels. I’ve written this guide primarily for complete beginners new to the medium, however hopefully there may be some useful information for more experienced oil pastel artists.
Let’s start with the basics!
What You Need To Know About Oil Pastels
My first piece of advice to artists new to oil pastels is to strongly consider beginning with the best quality oil pastels you can afford.
The quality of your oil pastels is important, especially for beginners. The main issue I find beginners run into is that often the oil pastels seem like kids crayons. The reason they feel like kids crayons is because a low quality oil pastel brand was used.
“Student quality” vs “Artist quality”
Student quality oil pastels can be a problem because these cheaper oil pastels don’t blend as well together, and they have a look and feel of something like crayons for kids. This discourages artists new to oil pastels and they often move on to something else, without ever really discovering how great the medium is.
So I really think that beginners need to be aware of the difference in what is called “student quality” vs the “artist quality” oil pastels, because that difference alone could be a deciding factor in whether or not to continue using oil pastels or not.
My personal recommendation is Sennelier oil pastels (which I review here). Sennelier are softer, richer and more vibrant in color, and they more easily blend together.
The oil pastels painting below was done in all Sennelier oil pastels.
I’m not saying it is a must to get the most expensive, highest quality set of oil pastels, or that it’s the only important thing. But artist-quality mediums should always be strongly considered.
I have heard from many artists who were turned off at first from oil pastels because they were using a cheaper brand. But then they later discovered they actually loved oil pastels when using a better quality.
If an entire set of high-quality oil pastels isn’t possible, the next best thing is to purchase some individual sticks of oil pastels from an artist-quality brand. You can mix different brands together as you work, and it also helps to make comparisons between artist-quality and student-quality.
What Makes Oil Pastels Great for Beginners
Moving on — what makes oil pastels great for beginners (as well as experienced oil pastelists), is how quick and easy it is to get started creating artwork.
There is no need for setting up various mediums and solutions, or brushes or much of anything else. All you need is a sheet of paper and you are ready to get started. Yes, you can use solutions, brushes and other artists tools for working with oil pastels. But it isn’t required.
As far as paper or surfaces, oil pastels work on a variety of papers.
Even though oil pastels might be viewed as a drawing type of medium, they still can be messy!
(By calling it a “drawing” type medium, I mean that you hold the medium in your hand and make marks on the surface with it)
One thing you want to have with you when first starting any new oil pastels piece, is paper towels.
Paper towels are always by my side when working in oil pastels, because the medium quickly gets on my fingers and sometimes clothing if I’m not being careful. Yes this is usually the case with most artistic mediums, but the chances for getting messy just seems to increase when oil pastels are used.
If not paper towels, at least keep an old rag or old article of clothing available. Not only is this good for wiping off yourself, but very often when working with oil pastels, you want to clean off the sticks of oil pastels too.
Another alternative is to wear some kind of gloves. Do what works best for you.
Keeping the Oil Pastels Clean
In addition to keeping yourself clean, it’s a good idea to keep the oil pastels clean, while working with them.
This is especially important when layering and blending with other colors. What happens is, the oil pastel sticks will pick up other colors onto the stick you’re using, and that can be a real problem if you use that stick later but still have a smear of another color adhered to the end of the stick.
Think of having a yellow colored oil pastel but with a smear of blue on the end of it – that little bit of blue could potentially become very difficult to wipe out later on, especially in an area where you didn’t want any blue at all there! Yes, you could blend that dab of the other color in, but it would dull the vibrance of your color overall.
Oil Pastels are truly a unique medium, and it can take some practice to learn to work with them. Don’t expect greatness right away. You might make an intention to make your first few oil pastel pieces as learning experiences.
Very often the way you might expect colored pencils to work or oil paint to work, or even soft pastels will work, isn’t going to be the same with oil pastels. So it takes a little bit of practice to begin with, just to get familiar with the ins and outs of how oil pastels are to be used.
Most beginners pretty quickly pick up different techniques for oil pastels on their own, however it can take some practice at first and getting used to how the medium works.
What to start out painting first
My recommendation for beginning working with oil pastels is still life. Grab some fruit or a flower or plant nearby, maybe set it up with some good lighting, and start drawing with oil pastels. Again, don’t expect greatness right away, just use this first time to start experimenting and understanding how oil pastels work, how they react to your marks on the surface, how they blend with other colors, etc.
Oil pastels actually blend very well, in my opinion (again, the better quality brands tend to blend better than the cheaper ones, keep that in mind). And, depending on the softness of the brand, you will find that making marks on the surface and getting a nice layer of colors doesn’t take as much time as other drawing-like mediums (as in colored pencils which can take a lot of work to cover a surface).
If you don’t have fruit or a plant handy to start painting, grab a photo reference from a website such as morguefile. Here is a link to a search for “fruits” from morguefile: photos of fruits.
What surface to start out with
With oil pastels, any paper surface can be used, however for best results I would recommend a heavier paper such as pastel paper. A toned Canson mi-tientes is a good starting paper with oil pastels, however you want to consider a heavier paper.
Thinner paper like sketch paper can be quickly stained through with oil pastels, because there is actual oil in the medium. If you are going to an art store prior to beginning working with oil pastels, I would suggest a pad of Canson XL Mix Media, or if you are feeling especially confident and ready to get serious right away, grab some Pastelbord by Ampersand (my favorite oil pastels surface!).
Another consideration is, you do want a good hard surface underneath your surface, but be careful if the paper is thin, because, again, it can wear through quickly. You can place a piece of cardboard underneath, or use a student’s drawing board.
Next steps with Oil Pastels
Assuming you have got going with your first still life drawing, try blending with oil pastels to see what effects can be created with them. There are various blending techniques you can use, and I have covered those more in depth in this article. For now, try blending with your fingers (if you don’t mind the mess!), or you might try blending with tortillion sticks. Each blending technique has it’s own results, and the point now with your first piece is to just experiment and get a feel for how oil pastels can be used.
What I love about oil pastels is that you can get a drawing started and looking nicely fairly quickly. The colors can get layered on very fast and in just a matter of minutes you can at least get an idea of where your drawing is headed.
Another great thing is that if you feel your painting isn’t starting out well, oil pastels can’t really be erased, but they can be scraped off and you just put another layer down in that area. (Again, the quality of oil pastels makes a difference here)
Finishing up and framing
When you get to the point where you have a finished oil pastels piece that you want to hang and frame, or sell to others, you might consider a fixative on top, however some oil pastelists would recommend against that. So in the beginning stages of learning to use oil pastels is the best time to get a feel for what works for you.
Sennelier makes a fixative specifically for their brand of oil pastels (although you can use it on other brands of course) – this is optional in my shopping list for beginners, but still recommended if you think this is a medium you plan to get serious about. Also, I don’t recommend using fixative made for just “pastels” or other drawing mediums. Keep in mind that oil pastels do have oil in them, and thus require special treatment as far as the fixative goes.
As far as matting and framing go, the biggest thing you want to know is that oil pastels should not be framed right up against a piece of glass, because for one they will smear against it, and two, they just need some room to breath under any glass or similar surface. Many oil pastelists go without a glass surface at all, similar to oil paintings, although in this case you might want to experiment with the Sennelier fixative.
Final words and an oil-pastels shopping list
If you have made it this far, and assuming you have got started with your first oil pastels piece, congratulations! If you are feeling discouraged with it, remember it does take practice like anything else. Some people are more comfortable with oil pastels right away than others are, but ultimately oil pastels can be a very satisfying and rewarding art medium to work with.
And now for the shopping list:
Set of oil pastels (artist quality if possible! if not, at least a few individual sticks of high quality oil pastels)