Oil pastel sticks look like crayons. Some are a bit larger than the familiar “Crayola” colors we used as children, but when you pick one up, your mind will most likely go right back to childhood. Remember the excitement of getting a brand new box of crayons? How many of us drooled over the 64-crayon set? I know I did. Because I couldn’t draw, I relied on crayons and coloring books for visual creativity.
To be blunt, though, I wasn’t very good at coloring. My only visual skill lay in choosing the right colors. When it came to actually applying them on the paper… well, that was a different story. Still, it was fun, and it was as close to “art” as I could get.
Now, wonder of wonders… I’m all grown-up and people say I’m an artist. I’m still not sure how it all happened, but here I am, sitting in an awesome art studio filled with every sort of art supply imaginable. That includes not only Crayola crayons for the grandkids but two sets — soon to be three — of oil pastels. I think of them as “crayons for big people”.
I bought my first set — Daler-Rowney’s “Simply” brand — at Walmart. Yes, they’re inexpensive. A set of 25 — the set I have — is available for less than $10.00. It’s designed as an “entry level” product, so it was perfect for me when I began studying art.
When I bought the set, I didn’t know there were two very different types of “pastels” — the oil-based and the “soft pastels”, which resemble chalk. I didn’t know how to use pastels either — oil-based or soft. Surprisingly, my first attempt wasn’t too bad.
Call it “beginner’s luck”, I guess, but I was pleased when I “painted” this scene. Now, this is one of those things that always intrigued me about oil pastels. Artists don’t really draw with oil pastels; artists paint with them. The finished art is not referred to as an oil-pastel drawing, but an oil-pastel painting.
After my initial success, however, I struggled. I remember watching a video at The Virtual Instructor and trying to follow along with Matt Fussell. I wasn’t getting the results he was getting, so maybe it was my “inexpensive” oil pastels… you think? No, of course not, but I wanted to use the same oil pastels Matt was using. That’s why I bought the “Expressionist” set.
Of course having better-quality oil pastels did nothing to improve my art.
Later, in April 2016, I was able to do a landscape using my Expressionist set. It was part of a “Live Lesson” at The Virtual Instructor and took four hour-long sessions to complete. In the end, I was quite happy with it. So was my brother-in-law when he saw it.
My husband helped me frame the painting and it’s now hanging on my brother-in-law’s living room wall.
That, however, was my only oil-pastel success. I tried doing other landscapes — all on my own, trying to remember any tips, tricks, and techniques that Matt had demonstrated. All I did was make a lot of messes. I did make a few online searches looking for “how-to” information. I found very little instruction for oil pastels, and what I did find didn’t seem to help me. Finally, I shrugged. I was never going to be very good with oil pastels. I put both sets away and since then I’ve very rarely picked them up. The few times I have tried using them, I’ve been beset all over again with the same questions.
- How much pressure should I use when applying oil pastels?
- How do I blend them?
- Do I work from dark to light or from light to dark… or does it really matter?
- How do I keep from making messes with “pillage” — those shavings and flakes that go everywhere?
As you’ve seen, I got out my oil pastels several weeks ago to do a floral drawing. I wasn’t sure how to do the background, but I actually liked how the tulips and vase turned out.
I had fun with this drawing — uh, painting, that is — so instead of putting my pastels away again, I kept them out. I used the Expressionist oil pastels for this parrot tulip, by the way.
So then, following Sketchbook Revival, I found myself in a “daily practice” class led by Joy Ting. The subject was flowers, and the medium was oil pastels. Oh, this should be fun!
But, it wasn’t fun at first. All those “how-to” questions came right back, along with a few more. Once again, I went searching for answers, and this time I found a lot more information.
From Easy Peasy Art School — a site designed to encourage young artists — I picked up this first, and most important, tip:
OIL PASTELS ARE NOT CRAYONS
The first thing to remember is that oil pastels are not crayons. They are very different in what they are made of and how they are used. Oil pastels use oil and wax to hold them together. This creates the soft, creamy texture of an oil pastel and enables them to be coloured and blended. Crayons use wax to hold them together which makes them much harder and a little more difficult to use.
– From Easy Peasy
From the same site comes the next tip. Learn how to hold the sticks. It’s not a pencil, it’s an oil pastel. You should hold it as though it were a key you were fitting into a lock. This keeps your hand off the page to prevent smudging, and also allows you to press harder.
Notice those words… press harder? This was always my question with oil pastels. The proper technique, according to Easy Peasy, is to think of “squashing” the oil pigment onto the page. We’re not “coloring” with a back and forth motion. We’re “squashing” color with short, firm strokes.
And then, there’s blending, which is a very important part of oil-pastel painting. When blending colors, always start with the darker color first — except for black — and here you’ll want to use a “messier” technique. You can “color” using longer strokes and less pressure. Then apply the lighter color with those “squashing” strokes to create a smooth blend.
Using this blending technique, white can be added as highlights, and once you have an area blended, you can then add black, blending it with the original hues to create a shadowed effect.
Blending is considered one of the most important techniques to learn with oil-pastels, and here is where it’s good to understand more about the various “grades” and qualities of different brands. Oil pastels range from very hard to very soft. The harder oil pastels are easiest to use for drawing. You can practice with them, turning them in different ways to learn how to make thick and thin lines. Softer oil pastels are better for blending.
And how do you blend? In addition to the tip above — blending lighter colors into the darker ones — there are a few specific techniques.
- Use your fingers. This is probably the easiest method of all. Your fingertips hold a bit of oil, so it makes for smooth, simple blending. At least it’s supposed to. I haven’t had a lot of luck with this technique.
- Use a tortillon. Yep. The same “blending and shading” tool we use for graphite drawing can be used for oil-pastel painting. The problem I have with this method is that it’s difficult to keep the tortillons clean. Of course, you can sometimes use this to your advantage as you can create a lot of subtle blending effects with this method. On the other hand, you can also ruin the blending if you introduce too much “smudgy color” from a dirty tortillon.
- Use a cotton swab. For me, this method works best. Cotton swabs are inexpensive. They’re very handy to have around the studio, and they’re easy to use for oil pastels.
- Try “softening” the pigments with solvents. Use a bit of mineral oil or baby oil to create smoothly-blended areas. I’ve also been told that alcohol can be used in this way, but I’ve never had any success with it. I have yet to try using any oil. I’ll probably do that later today during my oil pastel painting time.
- Grab a palette knife or spatula. These tools are often recommended for blending oil pastels. Any implement, in fact — such as the rounded end of a paintbrush — can be useful.
Because learning to blend is so important, and because I want to try working with the highest-quality oil pastels I can get, I have a third set on the way. It’s a small set by Sennelier, a company known for producing very high-grade pastels, both in oil and soft types. I’ve been fortunate enough to get my hands on a few Senneliers in soft-pastel at different workshops I’ve attended, and they are incredible! I’ve never tried their oil pastels, but I’m sure they will be excellent, too. It will be interesting to see how they differ from my less expensive sticks.
There’s a lot more that can be said about oil pastels and how to use them. There are many additional techniques, but for now, this is a good starting point for me.
Oil pastels are versatile and can be applied to many different materials. For the most part, oil pastels are used with a rough surface paper. I’ve also ordered a pad of multi-toned sheets from Strathmore.
I’m eager to get my new art supplies, and I’m looking forward to trying them out. I think the tips I’ve learned here will help me a lot. I hope you find them helpful, as well.