Beginners Guide

Little Hawk

“Little Hawk”
Oil Pastels artwork by Eric D. Greene

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!

oil pastels on paper towels

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

Oil Pastels Still Life

Oil Pastels Still Life
by Eric D. Greene

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.

Next steps

Oil Pastels Beginners 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

Pointillism in Oil Pastels

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!

Shop For Oil Pastels Now

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!

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About Eric D. Greene

Eric D. Greene

Eric D. Greene

Eric is an oil pastels artist living in Folsom California.


Oil Pastels Artists Facebook Page

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

pamela garry November 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Thanks, Eric. Your info is very helpful. Though I’m experienced with many mediums, including soft pastels, the oil pastel thing is very new to me – just began trying it last night with student quality Cray-pas (all I can afford right now). I learned many years ago while studying both airbrush and water color that quality supplies are very important. Perhaps the Cray-Pas thing is why I’m already discouraged. I want to do a portrait (my specialty) of my grand-daughter, and can’t imagine how I’ll be able to get fine detail with these thick, blunted Cray-Pas. Thanks, again!


Eric November 21, 2012 at 3:18 pm

You’re welcome, Pamela. Yes, the quality of your oil pastels are likely a factor in what has you discouraged. You might try just picking up a few better quality in individual sticks, so you can see the difference at least. I would recommend at a minimum: white and one of each primary. If you can do two of each primary in different hues, then try that too. Thanks for your nice comments and best of luck! – Eric


Shae December 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm

So happy to find this! I work with oil pastels to do portraits and have sennelier and Holbein oil pastels. John Eliot is amazing! I took a one on one weekend class from him a couple of years ago, and it was the weekend of a lifetime! I have a Facebook page, Oil Pastel Portraits By Shae’ W Cannon


Eric December 5, 2012 at 11:08 am

Hi Shae I am glad you found this useful in some way! I will look for your page on Facebook. Yes I think John Eliot’s book is great, very useful and one of the few solid oil pastels books available today. I bet it was great to do a weekend class with him.


Heather December 22, 2012 at 11:40 am

Thank you so much for the advice! This has really helped me a lot. A quick question, though: would it be better to faintly outline what I’m going to draw with pencil or just go right ahead with the oil pastel? Thanks!


Eric December 26, 2012 at 8:49 pm

I don’t see a problem with making a faint outline in pencil first. I would advise to make sure it’s really faint, because you don’t want it to show through too much. Use a 4H or lighter pencil for the outline. Good luck!


Sharon January 11, 2013 at 1:02 am

I received a small batch of Pentel brand oil pastels a few years ago, and am just now breaking into them. Your information is very helpful, but alas I am an absolute novice at this and have no experience in determining an artist-quality brand from a student-quality one. Could you perhaps provide a quick list of common brands for both quality levels, so people like myself have an idea of what to look for and what to avoid? Thank you.


Eric January 12, 2013 at 11:36 am

Hi Sharon one thing I have on my to-do list for this website is to provide a comprehensive shopping list of oil pastels supplies, both for beginner/student quality and a list of artist quality professional materials.

As a very quick answer to your question though, you can often make a quick judgment based on the price of the oil pastels. So if you find a 50-count set for $10 somewhere, for example, that is very likely to be a lower quality set. Whereas a more pricey set is probably better quality. I know that doesn’t answer the question of having an exact list of specific brands, but like I said that is one item that is my list of content to produce for this website.

That being said, two high-quality, professional artist brands to look for would be Holbein oil pastels, and Sennelier oil pastels. Most professional oil pastelists will have one or the other, or both, as their brand of choice when working with oil pastels.

Hope this helps, and thanks for your question Sharon! – Eric


Samantha February 9, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Hi I am a huge fan of oil pastels, and I found this website to be very helpful. I’m in highschool and trying to get in to a university for art. Is there anything you would recommend to draw for a portfolio with oil pastels? And also I have used a black colored pencil to make finer details and small dark shadows, is this a good idea and if not what should I use for the finer detail work?


Lynn July 4, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Hi, I just received my first batch of oil pastels yesterday and was expecting them to be like crayons (man do I feel stupid now) anyway, I have been trying to get my pastels to blend together and instead I just push the oil pastel away and it leaves a stained piece of paper. Any blending tips?


Carmen September 7, 2013 at 12:11 am

I just tried oil pastels last night. A friend sent me a set of 12 Pentel sticks and I tried them on a portrait over Gesso and Gouache. I’m in love at first try! I feel a bit daft though as I used a stiff brush to blend and actually found your article by googling which brushes would be best for blending. *Red face* I’ve found this post really informative and am now off to read your blending article and will be looking into the pastels and book you mention. Thank you :)


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