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How to use oil pastels

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!

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

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

Layering colors

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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, or you can try a bit of turpentine or baby oil will also work very well.

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

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You can blend 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?

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

 

 

 

 

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Vanessa March 13, 2017, 3:22 pm

    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…

    • Sandrine Pelissier March 13, 2017, 3:26 pm

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

  • Mary Radtke March 13, 2017, 3:06 pm

    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. 🙂

    • Sandrine Pelissier March 13, 2017, 3:24 pm

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

    • Jean March 13, 2017, 4:29 pm

      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.

  • Virginia March 13, 2017, 12:16 pm

    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).
    https://instagram.com/p/BKPJAOmBfrD/

    • Sandrine Pelissier March 13, 2017, 2:34 pm

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

  • jaz June 14, 2016, 8:12 am

    um do you have to use baby oil

  • m_a_mcinnes22823200 February 8, 2016, 9:43 am

    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 !!!!!

    • Sandrine Pelissier February 8, 2016, 6:49 pm

      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 🙂

  • pynkeye85638700 February 2, 2016, 6:06 am

    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…

    • Sandrine Pelissier February 2, 2016, 9:49 am

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

  • Kristine February 1, 2016, 3:46 pm

    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!

    • Sandrine Pelissier February 1, 2016, 5:35 pm

      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!

  • Diane O February 1, 2016, 2:13 pm

    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?

    • Sandrine Pelissier February 1, 2016, 2:38 pm

      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.

      • Diane O February 1, 2016, 2:58 pm

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

    • Lisa Balesteri May 11, 2016, 1:16 pm

      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.

      • Diane O May 12, 2016, 5:41 am

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

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