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How to use oil pastels, what you can do with this under-estimated medium.

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How to use oil pastels, what you can do with this under-estimated medium.

I love everything about oil pastels: The textures and colors are gorgeous, they are affordable, portable, not too messy … You might have noticed if you do a google search though that not many professional artists seem to use them and an image search will return mostly kids drawings. I think you can do much more than that with oil pastels! Here are a few ideas of what you can do with this underestimated medium and how to use oil pastels.

You might also like: Preparing your paper for oil pastels, watercolor and mixed media. A comparison between clear gesso and gel medium

How to use oil pastels

I recently started to go through my life drawings and see if I could re-work them with mixed media. I tried oil pastels on a few of them.

I am a Blick Art Materials affiliate and I receive a small compensation for sales. That does not effect in any way the cost of the purchaser’s order but it helps me keeping the content of this blog free.


Holbein Academic Oil Pastel Sets

These superior student grade oil pastels feature smooth, even pigmentation and no hard spots or bubbles. They handle, blend, and clean easily. Holbein Academic pastels can be used on virtually any surface. Ideal for quick sketching and student use.

oil pastels on life drawings

The main issue with oil pastels seems to be the conservation of the artworks:

There is a bit of conflicting information on the internet about this. Oil pastels are made with inert oils and wax and are not supposed to damage paper as oil sticks would (oil sticks are usually made with linseed oil). But if you want to make sure your artwork is archival, then it can be safer to protect your paper by brushing on a layer or gesso or acrylic medium.

From the Holbein Company:

I emailed Holbein to ask about archival properties of paintings dome with oil pastels and this is what they replied:

Holbein Artist Oil Pastels are produced using pigment, paraffin, and mineral oil. The mineral oil content ensures the user that Holbein Artist Oil Pastels will never fully dry and will remain absolutely inert. Holbein recommends that all finished paintings done in their Artist Oil Pastel be mounted behind glass as varnishing will only detract from the intensity and vigor of the colors used. Although Holbein Artist Oil Pastels are inert, Holbein recommends that Artists prime their substrate to ensure the lasting qualities of the Holbein Artist Oil Pastel line.

How to use oil pastels

So basically, if you want to be safe, brush a layer of gesso or medium on your paper before applying the oil pastels. I like better medium because it dries transparent and I can still see the life drawing underneath. Then don’t apply varnish and frame the artwork under glass.

It is better to apply a layer of gesso or medium before drawing with pastels

Brushing a layer of medium that will dry transparent allows you to still see your drawing when you will start working with pastels.

I am a Blick Art Materials affiliate and I receive a small compensation for sales. That does not effect in any way the cost of the purchaser’s order but it helps me keeping the content of this blog free.



Liquitex Acrylic Mediums

Gel mediums are ideal for extending a heavy body paint, to create impasto, relief, or sculptural effects. – Gel Medium, Gloss

oil pastels never dry totally

Oil pastels are spreading well on dry medium.

Oil pastels never completely dry so they will remain a bit soft, that is why framing is the best option.

I like painting with oil pastels because of the softness and the creamy texture you can get, especially when mixing colors or layering colors.

How to use oil pastels : Layering colors

you can layer colors with oil pastels

It is difficult to get a very white white with oil pastels as they tend to get dirty, but it is not necessarily a problem for me as I like a bit of broken color anyways.

layered colors have more depth with oil pastels

You can layer colors for nice effects like on the exemple here, a layer of reddish brown underneath a layer of black.

color fields with layered oil pastels

You can get really nice colors effect by layering colors to mix them. I usually start with the darker color and then use the lighter color to blend.

life drawing reworked with oil pastels

You don’t always need to use many colors, this painting is done only with three colors.

What medium can you use with oil pastels?

As long as you follow the rule of “fat over lean”, you can mix different media without trouble.

I used acrylic, watercolor, pencil, markers… under oil pastels, but you can’t do the opposite.

How to use oil pastels

Before painting over my life drawings, I go over the pencil lines with a black fine line marker. That way I can better see my lines when I will start using the pastels.

I am a Blick Art Materials affiliate and I receive a small compensation for sales. That does not effect in any way the cost of the purchaser’s order but it helps me keeping the content of this blog free.

Sakura Pigma Micron Pen

Pigma Micron pens are acid-free and archival, making them ideal for any application requiring precision and permanance. Pigma ink is derived from a single pigment to ensure color consistency, and is fadeproof against sunlight or UV light. – Set of 6, Black

black marker underneath oil pastels

It is not possible to paint acrylic over oil pastels because the oiliest medium should always be on top but you can paint oil pastels over acrylic.

How to blend oil pastels

If you want to smooth out colors, you can either use a soft cloth and try to blend colors mechanically. You can also try a a bit of turpentine or baby oil will also work very well.

how to blend oil pastels with baby oil

You can mix colors by layering them, here green and blue, but you always get a bit of a “broken” color.

how to blend oil pastels with baby oil

Blending colors for a smoother effect with a cloth or a Q-tip and a bit of baby oil.

Have you tried oil pastels? did you like it?

Do you have any tip about how to use oil pastels you would like to share?

Feel free to post a link to your oil pastels paintings!

3.6/5 - (10 votes)

Comments (34)

  1. Mary in Minnesota

    I recently began experimenting with oil pastels, and love the creaminess, the textured’s all so Zen. ;-)) I would like your opinion if covering the entire area with a coat of White oil pastel is recommended? Aside from it being ‘alot of application’, is there a reason i should NOT do so? Also I read here to use a medium over drawings before laying down oil pastels, but if I’m painting without a drawing, is there a benefit to use a medium? “Oil pastels make me ‘sparkle’.” :’))

    1. Sandrine Pelissier

      Hello Mary, yes I also love the creaminess of oil pastels:)
      I would not cover the area with white oil pastels as it is a lot of work as you were saying and I am not sure what good it would accomplish.
      The reason I used medium over the paper is to prime it and create a protective barrier between the paper and the oils, for conservation.

      1. Mary in Minnesota

        Thank you for your expert advice. Also, thanks for sharing your advice regarding the medium. Did you know Sennelier offers a spray varnish for oil pastels…have you tried it?

  2. Lori Benson-Marks

    I love oil pastels!!! I never thought of using them over acrylics, great idea! The trick I use if I dont want the darkest shade to penetrate the paper is to use white as a base and layer the color on top of it. It tones down some of the bright, dark colors making blending much easier.

    1. Thanks Lori for the tip ! That is a great idea 🙂

  3. T.j. McDuffey

    Can you use oil pastels to do a sketch for an oil painting?

    1. Sandrine Pelissier

      Yes, I don’t see why not.

  4. Jacky Felder

    I have just started using oil pastels. I have done 1 picture that had alot of critisism from my artist friends that use watercolor, oil paints and acrylics. I thought it turned out pretty good. I am realizing that oil pastels are really different from those other mediums.

    1. Sandrine Pelissier

      Yes, each medium has its own characteristics and pastels are not used the same way as paint. Hopefully you are the most important person to please, and art apreciation is subjective so follow your instinct if you like your painting.

  5. Glenda Hendry

    I recently heard a speaker/artist instruct oil pastel users to thin with safflower oil. Here you mention mineral oil. Someone else online mentioned using olive oil. Does a certain oil produce an archival effect? Is one type of oil superior to another? Thanks!

    1. Thanks Glenda for your question.
      Oil pastels are made with mineral oil, wax and pigments so it makes sense to use mineral oil to blend them, but I am sure other oils will work too. One advantage of mineral oil over vegetable oils is that it will never go rancid and smelly.

      1. Glenda Hendry

        Okay! Thanks. No one wants a stinky picture.

  6. Vanessa

    I have started using oil pastels over acrylic paintings. Using them to bring more texture and colour into the piece. I also love use them to do shadow edges on the images in the painting. They blend out beautifuly with your finger… they are becoming a lovely addition to my art ….love them…

    1. Thanks Vanessa!, I think I am also addicted to the physical sensation of painting with oil pastels 🙂

  7. Mary Radtke

    You’ve inspired me to dust off my neglected oil pastels, Sandrine. Are you familiar with George Shipperley? He’s a master oil pastelist; you may want to check him out. 🙂

    1. Very nice, thanks for introducing me to this artist. I love his style, beautiful forest paintings too!

    2. Jean

      Vanessa, yes thanks for telling us about George Shipperley. I checked out his work and it is really neat. I wonder how he makes such fine lines with pastels.

      1. Jean

        I love your work too Sandrine.

        1. Thanks Jean 🙂

  8. Thank you for sharing your artwork and technique – I have life drawings that I want to play with now that I’ve seen your technique. You are an inspiration!

    Here’s a link to one of my oil pastel portraits I have up on Instagram (hope the link works).

    1. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing your painting, it is nice to see how oil pastels can be used for a realistic portrait as well.

  9. jaz

    um do you have to use baby oil

    1. What is the problem with baby oil? Oil paint thinner should work as well.

  10. m_a_mcinnes22823200

    I’m a huge fan of oil pastels. Until I read your blog I thought only a few people used them.
    I’m a devotee of Sennelier. I use both the large and normal sizes. I am building up to a full range. The softness of Sennelier suits me fine as I blend with my fingertips as you would with soft pastels. I tend not to work on paper. I like canvas board. If I don’t want the texture I cover the surface with gesso or medium. My favourite tool is my trusty cheese knife which takes off as much or as little as I want.
    I’m a totally amateur leisure paper and I attend a weekly art group here in deepest rural France and, would you believe it, my Prof has worked a lot in oil pastel combining great sweeps of colour created with oil pastel diluted with turps with marks made by drawing with oil pastel. Amazing.
    Love your blog and demos. I love yupo too !!!!!

    1. Thanks m_a_mcinnes22823200! Nice to hear you are part of an Art group in rural France, in what area? My dad was part of a group in Auch (next to Toulouse)
      I plan to invest in more Sennelier, I agree with you they seem to be the best pastels out there 🙂

  11. pynkeye85638700

    So when you frame an oil pastel painting behind glass, do you have to make sure the glass isn’t right against the painting? Won’t the glass “stick” to the painting? (If you ever want to change the frame) I know nothing about pastels so just wondering…

    1. Yes, that is exactly what is recommended: To frame them under glass with a space between the painting and the glass.

  12. Kristine

    I’ve been working with oil pastel for 5 yrs. It is my favorite medium. I use colored pencil with the oil pastel without any issues. I prefer Sennelier oil pastels as they are creamy and easy to blend. I also seal my paintings with a spay Sennelier recommends. I have framed paintings without glass and haven’t had any issues. There are more and more brands coming out and I’m looking forward to laying with the Neo Oil Pastel, Caran d Ache brand that can be sealed with acrylic spay. They also have a line that can be activated with water!

    1. That sounds great! Thanks Krisitne. I will also keep an eye on that Neo oil pastel. Very interesting that it can be sealed with acrylic based products!

  13. Diane O

    They are fun to use. However, I used oil pastels on an acrylic painting which was on stretched canvas. They do rub off and I wasn’t sure what to use on them to make it more permanent. Only displaying them behind glass is acceptable?

    1. I would display oil pastels under glass only for the reason that they will never totally dry up. To add on an acrylic painting on canvas, maybe oil sticks would be a better choice as they do dry over time.
      I guess just a touch for an outline would work but not a thick layer.

      1. Diane O

        Ok, thank you! I’ll make a note of that.

    2. Lisa Balesteri

      Golden makes an Absorbent Ground and an Absorbent Ground for Pastels that can be used to reground a piece after applying something non-absorbent like acrylic paint. A layer or two of ground over the acrylic paint would make the area absorbent like paper. They’re excellent products if you like doing mixed media with pastels.

      1. Diane O

        I’ll have to check that product out, Lisa. Thank you!

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