Something New to Play With

From the time I first heard of them, I’ve been curious about oil sticks.  Recently, I decided to get a small set and find out first hand how to use them.

While these look very similar to oil pastels, they’re much different. An “oil stick” — also called a “paint stick”, an “oil bar”, or a “pigment stick” is made from pigment and oil — usually safflower or linseed — with mineral wax added to create a solid stick. Oil pastels, however, use a non-drying mineral oil in the manufacturing process. Oil pastels never dry completely. Oil sticks — or bars — will dry and cure like any other oil paint. When used lightly, the oil sticks will actually dry much more quickly than traditional oil paint.

As soon as I received my set of six — the colors shown above — I couldn’t wait to come to the studio and start playing. I didn’t stop to read any “how-to” information first. I just wanted to open them up and have fun.

So, I grabbed an old painting. This is a little 5 x 7 canvas I’d used for a bit of tree-painting practice. I thought maybe I could use the black paint stick to darken the shadows a bit… which, I did, but not after a bit of trial and error.

First, I couldn’t get any pigment from the stick to the canvas! Oh, wait. Yes, there’s a small “skin” that develops over the paint. Essentially, the exterior of the stick dries in such a way that it actually “seals in” the fresh pigment. That skin or “film” has to be removed before the stick can be used. This can be done with a palette knife, or as I did, by simply rubbing the stick with a tissue or rag.

Finally I was able to start applying pigment from the stick onto the old painting. I darkened the shadows on the left side of the trees, darkened the shadow in front of the trees, and added a black shadow area under the distant trees on the right. I got a bit too heavy-handed there.


And while I wanted to use the sticks to work more on the trees, I would first need to use a palette knife to cut the top into a very fine tip. I didn’t do that this morning. For right now, I just wanted to try a few colors, make a few strokes, and learn more about what these oil sticks can do.

So, next I grabbed the green from the set — it’s my favorite sap green — and applied a bit over those distant trees. I found it a little awkward. I was getting rather “splotchy” effects, but I could see how easily I might put pigment onto a canvas with these oil sticks and then blend it with a bit of medium. I played with a palette knife, too, scraping a little texture onto those trees.

Then, having learned that I would need a little more instruction before I would be able to use these sticks successfully, I went looking for information.

Here’s a short video I found from Dick Blick that shows you just what oil sticks are and how they can be used. You can also see the three sizes available: mini, standard, and jumbo.

One question I do have is how well these oil sticks will blend with my water-soluble oils. I don’t anticipate having any problems using the two types of oils together. Oil sticks can also be used in combination with oil pastels, and I’ll certainly be trying that, as well.

Although I don’t plan to do any fabric art, oil pigment sticks can be used on fabric, and also on wood. As shown in the video, they’re a great choice for stenciling.

I’m planning to use my oil sticks mostly for color blocking after I’ve sketched out the basic lines and shapes of a composition. I might use them also as a “finishing touch” to add highlights or to increase the depth of the shadows in a landscape painting.

I am definitely intrigued by oil sticks, and I’m heading back to my easel now to play with them a little more. They are pricier than oil pastels, but comparable in price to a tube of oil paint. And, if you’re curious about them but don’t want to purchase a set, they are sold individually.

I bought the “basic colors” set which includes the following:

  • Napthol Red
  • Azo Yellow
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Sap Green
  • Ivory Black
  • Titanium White

You can also find “fluorescents” and “iridescents” and “metallics”. A number of sets are available ranging from sets of 3 to sets of 54 sticks.

What I’m most excited about is the convenience these sticks offer. I do want to try more plein air painting. I’m always hesitant and it’s mostly because of the difficulties involved in transporting oil paints. I think it will be much easier for me to venture outside with a canvas panel and a few oil sticks. It will be very easy for me to carry these sticks along with me when I head out to the hiking trails nearby.

Now, I’m ready to go play and have fun with my new “art toys”.

What’s new in your studio?



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