In this Oil Pastels Beginner’s Guide, I explain how to use oil pastels.
Artists new to oil pastels should begin with the best quality oil pastels they can afford, and if an entire set isn’t possible, at least purchase some individual sticks of oil pastels from an artist-quality brand such as Sennelier to make comparisons with the student quality. I have found that beginners with oil pastels are often frustrated with using oil pastels when they first start out, and it’s often due to the cheaper quality medium. I really think that beginners with oil pastels need to be aware of the difference in what is called “student quality” vs the “artist quality” oil pastels, because that difference alone could be a deciding factor in whether or not to continue using oil pastels or not. Read my oil pastels brand comparison here.
Recommended brand: Sennelier Artist Oil Pastel Set of 50 in wood box
That being said, what makes oil pastels great for beginners (as well as experienced oil pastelists), is how quick and easy it is to get started creating artwork. There is no need for setting up various mediums and solutions, or brushes or much of anything else. All you need is a sheet of paper and you are ready to get started!
Always have paper towels handy!
What most beginners with oil pastels want to know first is, how to use oil pastels and what are the differences from other mediums to be aware of before beginning a new piece of art. Probably the biggest consideration is the fact that even though oil pastels might be viewed as a drawing type of medium (in other words, you hold the medium in your hand and make marks on the surface with it), they still can be messy! Therefore the one other extra you want to have with you when first starting any new oil pastels piece, is paper towels.
Paper towels are always by my side when working in oil pastels, because the medium does quickly get on your fingers and sometimes your clothing if you aren’t careful. Yes this is usually the case with most artistic mediums, but the chances for getting messy does increase when oil pastels are used.
Definitely have some paper towels handy, or if not, at least an old rag or old article of clothing available. Not only is this good for wiping off yourself, but very often when working with oil pastels, you want to clean off the sticks of oil pastels too. Especially when layering and blending with other colors, the oil pastel sticks will pick up other colors onto the stick you’re using, and that can be a real problem if you use that stick later but still have a smear of another color adhered to the end of the stick. Think of having a yellow colored oil pastel but with a smear of blue on the end of it – that little bit of blue could potentially become very difficult to wipe out later on, especially in an area where you didn’t want any blue at all there!
Moving on to the next most important thing for beginners with oil pastels – don’t expect greatness right away. Oil pastels are a unique medium that can take some practice to work with. Very often the way you might expect colored pencils to work or oil paint to work, or even soft pastels will work, isn’t going to be the same with oil pastels. So it just takes a little bit of practice to begin with, just to get familiar with the ins and outs of how oil pastels are to be used. I think most beginners will pretty quickly pick up different techniques for oil pastels on their own, however it just takes some practice at first and getting used to how the medium works.
(Visit my Oil Pastels Store for useful art supplies!)
What to start out painting first
My recommendation for beginning working with oil pastels is still life. Grab some fruit or a flower or plant nearby, maybe set it up with some good lighting, and just start drawing with oil pastels. Again, don’t expect greatness right away, just use this first time to start experimenting and understanding how oil pastels work, how they react to your marks on the surface, how they blend with other colors, etc. Actually oil pastels blend very well, in my opinion (again, the better quality brands tend to blend better than the cheaper ones, keep that in mind!). And depending on the softness of the brand you will find that making marks on the surface and getting a nice layer of colors doesn’t take as much time as other drawing-like mediums (as in colored pencils which can take a lot of work to cover a surface).
If you don’t have fruit or a plant handy to start painting, grab a photo reference from a website such as morguefile. Here is a link to a search for “fruits” from morguefile: photos of fruits.
What surface to start out with
With oil pastels, any paper surface can be used, however for best results I would recommend a heavier paper such as pastel paper. A toned Canson mi-tientes is an excellent starting medium with oil pastels. Thinner paper like standard white printing paper can be quickly stained through with oil pastels, because there is actual oil in the medium. If you are going to an art store prior to beginning working with oil pastels, I would suggest a pad of Canson toned paper, or if you are feeling especially confident and ready to get serious right away, grab some Pastelbord by Ampersand (my favorite oil pastels medium!). See below for my beginners shopping list for oil pastelists.
Another consideration is, you do want a good hard surface underneath your surface, but be careful if the paper is thin, because, again, it can wear through quickly. You can place a piece of cardboard underneath, or use a student’s drawing board.
Assuming you have got going with your first still life drawing, try blending with oil pastels to see what effects can be created with them. There are various blending techniques you can use, and I have covered those more in depth in this article. For now, try blending with your fingers (if you don’t mind the mess!), or you might try blending with tortillion sticks. Each blending technique has it’s own results, and the point now with your first piece is to just experiment and get a feel for how oil pastels can be used.
What I love about oil pastels is that you can get a drawing started and looking nicely fairly quickly. The colors can get layered on very fast and in just a matter of minutes you can at least get an idea of where your drawing is headed. Another great thing is that if you feel it isn’t starting out well, oil pastels can’t really be erased, but they can be scraped off and you just put another layer down in that area. (Again, the quality of oil pastels makes a difference here)
Finishing up and framing
When you get to the point where you have a finished oil pastels piece that you want to hang and frame, or sell to others, you might consider a fixative on top, however some oil pastelists would recommend against that. So in the beginning stages of learning to use oil pastels is the best time to get a feel for what works for you. Sennelier makes a fixative specifically for their brand of oil pastels (although you can use it on other brands of course) – this is optional in my shopping list for beginners, but still recommended if you think this is a medium you plan to get serious about. Also, I don’t recommend using fixative made for just “pastels” or other drawing mediums. Keep in mind that oil pastels do have oil in them, and thus require special treatment as far as the fixative goes.
As far as matting and framing go, the biggest thing you want to know is that oil pastels should not be framed right up against a piece of glass, because for one they will smear against it, and two, they just need some room to breath under any glass or similar surface. Many oil pastelists go without a glass surface at all, similar to oil paintings, although in this case you might want to experiment with the Sennelier fixative.
Final words and beginners shopping list
If you have made it this far, and assuming you have got started with your first oil pastels piece, congratulations! If you are feeling discouraged with it, remember it does take practice like anything else. Some people are more comfortable with oil pastels right away than others are, but ultimately oil pastels can be a very satisfying and rewarding art medium to work with.
And now for the beginners shopping list!
- Set of oil pastels (artist quality if possible! if not, at least a few individual sticks of high quality oil pastels)
- Canson mi-Tientes pastel paper (a pad, or a few individual sheets)
- Paper towels
- Fixative (Sennelier or other brand that specifically states it is made for oil pastels) *optional
- Drawing board *optional
Finally, there is a great book available for oil pastel beginners, that is the book Oil Pastel for the Serious Beginner: Basic Lessons in Becoming a Good Painter. John Elliot has written a really excellent beginners book for oil pastels, and I will eventually give a full review in a future article here.
Any questions, please feel free to let me know! Happy oil pasteling!
About Eric D. Greene
Eric is an oil pastels artist living in Folsom California.
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