When art students and devotees of popular mediums such as watercolor or oil paint come across boxes of oil pastel at the supply shop, they’re often perplexed. Just what is oil pastel, what can you use it on, and what kinds of effects can you achieve with it? Books on pastel painting are rarely much help; they focus on traditional, dry pastel and often treat oil pastel as an inferior art product not unlike children’s crayons. In truth, oil pastel is a fun, versatile medium that can allow you to make quick sketches, detailed masterpieces, or anything in between. Here are some tips for getting started.
Choosing a set . As with all art products, prices and quality among brands varies greatly. The old adage, buy the best you can afford, applies here. The top brands of oil pastel, Sennelier and Holbein, are professional quality, contain the best pigments, are high-rated in lightfast tests, and provide thick, consistent color. They’re also very expensive, so watch for sales and online auctions. If student brands are more to your budget, Van Gogh offers a good line of smooth, rather lightfast colors. Grumbacher’s line is nice to work with, too. If you must buy an inexpensive set, be warned that the lighter colors will not cover darker ones, so pick up a couple sticks of professional-grade white and yellow if your art supply store sells them from open stock. These will be invaluable for creating small highlights and touching up mistakes.
Choosing a surface. What kind of paper (or “ground”) should you use with oil pastel? Anything goes, but stick to non-yellowing, acid free papers. Try a thick sheet; oil pasteltends to seep through thin papers. You can draw directly on the paper, or put down a layer of gesso first for support and/or texture (some pastellists swear by gesso because it primes the paper and makes it more likely to stand the test of time; others don’t like the way oil pastel slips over it. Try it, and decide for yourself.) Textured papers (especially rough watercolor papers) will leave little ridges or dotted patterns in your drawing; if this effect isn’t for you, stick with something smoother. Some fine art paper manufactures, such as Canson, offer papers specifically formulated for oil pastel. Clay-coated papers and museum board also make fine grounds. Don’t overlook primed canvas and canvas boards!
Application. The simplest thing to do is the most obvious: take a stick and draw! Experiment with blending one color on top of another directly, or by using a tightly-rolled paper “stump” (available at art supply stores) to mix colors into each other. Note that once you get a stick going across the paper, the friction generates a bit of heat that makes blending easier. If you want another color to lay on top rather than blend into an area, wait a few minutes for the surface to cool down before applying. To fill in a large area without using up a lot of expensive pastel, use a brush dipped in solvent (such as turpentine) to spread the color around. This technique is good for creating “painterly” effects, and is nice for staining the paper directly. Oil pastel applied directly over such a wash can be scraped off with a craft knife, fingernail, or other scratching tool. This is good for fixing mistakes, sharpening up edges, and creating fine details. Don’t forget that you can break off a piece of oil pastel and use it lengthwise to create broad strokes of color. Some artists even carve the ends of their sticks into fine points for intricate detailing. Using these art techniques, there’s no limit to the realistic effects you can achieve; good oil pastellists create works that rival the best paintings in acrylic and oil!
Finishing and storing your work. You’ve created a lovely drawing in pastel; now what do you do with it? Oil pastel never completely dries out. In fact, if you wanted to make changes to your picture years down the line, you could. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to let your finished work sit out for about two weeks; in that time, it’ll dry out as much as it ever will. Should you coat your work with varnish? No. There are new spray fixatives, specifically designed for oil pastel, on the market, but they can be tricky to use and often alter the colors in your work. More than one oil pastellist has ruined a picture with it, so if you want to give it a try, practice on a test drawing first. A better option is to have your picture matted and framed; if that’s not possible or practical, store your work lying flat between sheets of acid-free tissue paper. Your paintings will be somewhat susceptible to damage, but will certainly be more durable than those created with dusty, dry pastel.