What Is Oil Pastel and How Can It Be Used for Painting?


Oil pastels fall halfway between being a tool for drawing and painting. They are a practical, enjoyable, and very exciting tool that is often recommended for beginners but also used by professionals.

In this post, you will discover how to get the most of this tool and learn about its unique qualities for creating paintings and illustrations. You will also learn the fascinating story behind its creation.


What is oil pastel?

Oil pastel is a tool for painting and drawing. Each pastel is a small stick or thick crayon of paint, made of pigment mixed with a non-drying oil and wax binder. Oil pastels are a very practical type of pastels, however, they are not the only option.

An artist interested in working with pastels can also choose to experiment with:

Hard pastels. These are used for specific strokes.

Soft pastels. These can be used to paint larger surface areas and dissolve quickly.

Pastel pencils. They fall between soft and hard pastels, have a protective wooden casing, and are usually used for sketching and details.

Oil pastels are noticeably much chunkier than these other pastels. They are a relatively recent creation.
Before oil pastels became popular, only artists tended to use pastels. By 1720, pigments and binders could already be bought from places like La Maison du Pastel, however, the artistic crayon–as oil pastels are known–was created in the 20th century.


What materials can I use as a canvas?

This versatile tool, which comprises a smooth and oily substance, can be applied to a range of materials such as:

– Any type of drawing paper
– Colored paper
– Canvas
– Wood
– Sandpaper

Why do so many artists love oil pastels?

Artwork created using oil pastels is very popular as it is a medium that allows an artist to express themselves freely. Many painters and illustrators explore the versatility of this tool in both abstract and realist works of art.

It is a material that offers endless possibilities to transmit personal thoughts and emotions through shapes and color. This is actually why they were created.

A tool for creative freedom

Oil pastel was born in response to a search for a tool that would allow complete creative freedom. This search began at the end of World War I when Japanese artist Kanae Yamamoto proposed an overhaul of his country’s educational system. He felt that children were spending too much time drawing ideograms with black India ink and believed that this contributed to producing passive, obedient, robot-like personalities. He wanted to promote a less restrictive system, a vision he outlined in a book that described the Jiyu-ga method of “learning without a teacher.”

Teachers Rinzo Satake and Shuku Sasaki read Yamamoto’s work and became followers. They were determined to put his ideas into practice. They decided to produce an improved wax crayon that would enable children to draw fluidly. In 1921, they founded the Sakura Cray-Pas Company and began experimenting.

The first crayons they produced did not turn out very well, however, over time, they perfected their method. In 1924, they decided to develop a very oily crayon: the oil pastel. They made winter pastels that contained extra oil to prevent them from hardening in the cold and summer pastels that contained less oil to prevent them from melting in the heat.

Schools weren’t very receptive to this method, however, artists became fascinated. When these Japanese crayons arrived in Europe, immediately they were a commercial success and some brands began to copy them. The Japanese brand contacted avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso to introduce them to the technique.

It was Picasso who, in 1947, having been unable to get his hands on oil pastels for many years due to wartime conditions, convinced the French manufacturer Henri Sennelier–a specialist in high-quality art products–to develop a more sophisticated fine-art version. In 1949, Sennelier produced the first oil pastels intended for professionals and more experienced artists. The viscosity of the wax, their texture, and the quality of the pigment used meant these new pastels produced more consistent and attractive results.

How can I paint with oil pastels?

Artists usually begin by sketching out their idea. To do this, they will use a very soft pencil to avoid scratching or damaging the surface of their canvas. The condition of your surface is very important as it will affect how the oils are applied. In general, artists carry out a lot of tests and trials before getting started on a final version. It’s a good idea to draw out what you want to create on a smaller scale first. Then, you can use colored pencils to test out palettes. Create a few different sketches that you can compare and decide which looks best. Once the drawing is finished and you know what colors you are going to use, apply your colors softly so that they are almost translucent.

Keep in mind that oil painting works best when you apply the paint in layers. However, overloading your work with too many layers can ruin a piece. That’s why it’s important to plan both the colors you will use and how your overall piece will look. If necessary, you can always remove some of the pigment either using your fingers or a spatula, however, it is best to avoid doing this.As your piece starts to take shape, you can also try out additional resources and techniques that will help you to create interesting effects, such as:

Take advantage of natural friction. When you have built up your layers, you will discover that the colors blend as a result of friction, in other words, naturally. The results may surprise you and help feed your creative process.
Use your fingers, cotton, fabric, or sponges to perfect any blending.
Turpentine oil makes it easier to blend colors and creates an effect similar to traditional painting.
Heat your pastel. This enables you to create certain textures. You can apply the hot, melted oil paint sticks with a palette knife to create a paste-like effect.
Scrape the tip of your pastel and use the paint powder it produces.
Combine techniques. You combine oil paint and oil pastels. However, the oil paint should be applied first and the pastels afterward.

What to bear in mind when working with oil pastels

– If you are going to paint outdoors, work in the shade and protect your paints from the sun. Pastels easily melt!

Work from the center of your canvas outwards and keep your hand clean to avoid dirtying your work. Protect the areas you have finished with blotting paper.
Stop before it’s too late. When you’re in the final stages of your creative process, it’s time to accept any imperfections. Otherwise, you risk ruining the piece if you keep trying to fix things.
– Due to its oily composition, oil pastels can stain your hands, your clothes, your furniture, even other pastel colors. Keep a paper towel or cloth handy so you can keep wiping your hands and your tools. It is a good idea to keep cleaning your oil pastels while working with them. Don’t leave them dirty for too long!

Do you want to learn modern ways of working with oil pastels? Sign up for Fortuna Studio’s Domestika course, Creative Drawing with Oil Pastels.

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