Lots of people start their experience with oil pastels in relatively humble ways. Often, they are a present bought for Christmas or birthday that are inexpensive and are often grouped with other kids’ art stuff like crayons.
Bright colours, short, round and wrapped, it is easy to see why kids might think they weren’t a grown-up art option – but this isn’t the case. Oil pastels are economical compared with artist grade coloured pencils and can be used for so much.
Where did oil pastels come from?
The first oil pastels were created by Sakura back in 1925 and were called Cray-Pas because they were a combination of the dustless ease of crayons and the saturated colours of traditional soft pastels.
A few years later, Talens of Holland released a set, but it wasn’t until Picasso, and painter Henri Goetz spoke to Henri Sennelier about making pastels with traditional artist pigments that they took off.
Goetz wanted something to start an oil painting – a sketch medium that would blend in with the other layers of the painting.
Picasso, on the other hand, just wanted to ditch the paintbrush or paint straight onto canvas.
The result was a set of 48 colours that featured a lot of subtle greys, and earth tones Picasso requested and the artist bought three-quarters of them. The remaining ten went into his shop and were sold quickly, so he kept making them.
Who makes them today?
Unlike soft pastels or artist pencils, top quality oil pastels are not produced by lots of different manufacturers and each company that does make them has their own proprietary formula. Sakura still makes the Cray-Pas in different grades from children’s products through to professional, and these are the hardest oil pastel sticks you can find.
Two of the old brands, Holbein and Sennelier, still use mineral pigments such as cadmium and cobalt, which are toxic. Others use non-toxic materials in their pastels.
Tips for using oil pastels
There are lots of tips for painting with oil pastels depending on the brand of pastel you use, the style you want to achieve and more.
Firm brands of oil pastel such as the Cray-Pas Specialist or Erengi are ideal for the early layers of a painting where fine details and control is important.
You can then use softer products like the Holbein or Sennelier when the surface tooth is fully saturated.
You can use oil pastels on wet or dry canvas, paper, board, or even on glass, metal, wood or rock sometimes. Some surfaces work better if you add a coat of gesso for preservation but you can confidently use oil pastels on almost any surface.
You can blend colours completely across the surface then scrambled over each other in layers. You can also blend them on the palette and then add them with a tool or a knife.
You can even get special tools to get fine details and painterly effects. Examples include rubber tipped colour shapers or the Clay Shaper that have different textures that make them ideal for pushing colour around and adding those fine details.
Finishing the piece
When you have finished your piece, it is always advisable to glaze it because, unlike traditional oil paints, oil pastels don’t cure over time. Some brands do harden to a degree, but the surface can still be smeared. You can also use a product like a hard clear varnish such as the one produced by Sennelier to add a protective coat to your artwork.
Oil pastels are easy to take with you when you travel – although you might want to call them artist crayons when you declare them. They are safe, lightweight and easy to take with you wherever you go.