Characteristics of Oil Pastel

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Box of oil pastels. photo credit: Lisa Marder

Oil pastel is a medium that's useful for both drawing and painting. Made of pigment mixed with wax and non-drying mineral oil, oil pastels can be used for drawing, like crayons, or blended in a more painterly way. They can be used for color studies for paintings as well as for finished artworks. Oil pastels are great for beginners because, other than a piece of paper or canvas on which to draw or paint, a piece of paper towel to clean the pastel stick between colors, and the oil pastels, themselves, no other materials are needed to get working.

As with other painting media, though, it takes practice to use oil pastels skillfully, so professional artists can still find them fulfilling.

Oil Pastels are Different from Soft Pastels

Oil pastel colors are rich, creamy, and intense. Oil pastel sticks are stronger and harder than soft pastels, so line weight can be varied to create more expressive lines by applying more or less pressure to the drawing or painting surface. 

Oil pastels require little or no fixative while working, although they are a bit greasy. They seem to harden somewhat over time, with thin layers hardening more quickly.  Heavier layers will take longer to harden, though, possibly months, and will still need some protection when finished, such as a spray varnish or glass, as they never harden completely.

Read: Pastel Painting FAQ: What Varnish Should Be Used On Oil Pastels?

Unlike soft pastels, which are powdery and chalky, smudge easily, and pose a health risk in terms of breathing powder, oil pastels are firmer and cleaner in that respect.

They hold edges more easily and tend not to smudge.

Oil pastels can be a bit messy, though, getting on your fingers, and sometimes on your clothes.  Oil pastels also pick up other colors when blending, so in order to keep your colors pure you need to wipe the ends frequently with paper towel or a rag.

A baby wipe works well for your hands.

Oil pastels come in different grades - student to professional grade. Professional grade oil pastels have a greater pigment to binder ratio and a broader range of colors. 

Pastels are bought packed in wrappers, which helps to keep them clean, and come in boxed sets of colors. Each manufacturer has their own formula for their pastels so be aware that different brands handle differently. 

Many oil pastels are affected by temperature, becoming softer in warm weather and harder in cold weather. In fact, when working outside in hot weather it is advisable to keep the oil pastels in a cooler. One type of oil pastel that is not temperature-dependent, though, is the Caran d'Ache Neopastel.

See video here on the DickBlick website about Caran d'Ache Neopastels and Sennelier Oil Pastels.

Oil pastels can be blended using your finger, a tortillon (blending stump), paper towel or tissue, or with mineral spirits, turpentine (or turpenoid, an odorless turpentine substitute) and a brush for a more painterly effect. 

Oil pastels can be used on a variety of surfaces. The effect will be different depending on the tooth of the surface. Possibilities include paper (all kinds, though thicker is better), canvas, masonite, Ampersand Pastelbord.

Since it is a bit harder to make fine lines with oil pastels, they are perfect for a loose, bold, direct approach to drawing and painting. Try them for your painting studies and see how they inspire you when translating your oil pastel painting or drawing into another painting medium such as oil or acrylic.

Further Reading

Pastel: Oil vs. Soft Pastel