Oil pastels are pigment in a binder of oil and wax formed into a small stick. They can be used to make gorgeous artwork that is similar to drawing because you aren’t using a brush but more like painting because you can cover large areas and work in shapes, not just lines. They have some things in common with coloured pencils and soft pastels.
Like coloured pencils, oil pastels are also made with a wax base and sometimes oil. Like soft pastels and coloured pencils it is best if oil pastel artworks are protected behind glass in a frame to prevent smudging damage. You might want to read this earlier article about Oil Pastel Fixative.
The name ‘oil pastels’ sometimes gets confused with different types of oil paint. Unlike oil paint which is made from one of a number of oils that dry to a hard film by oxidation (linseed, poppy, safflower, walnut), oil pastels do not dry, but only harden a bit with time. Oil paint in a stick form can be called ‘oil sticks’, ‘oil bars’ or ‘pigment sticks’, but they are all oil paint, not oil pastels.
Oil pastels are a very flexible material- they can be used to draw with, they can be applied thickly and smeared around with a finger or tool, they can be used with a solvent like Zest-it either by brushing solvent on top of the drawing or by dipping the stick in before applying. You can even melt them with heat like encaustic. They also stick to many surfaces so artists use them on canvas, paper, wood and more.
Like all art materials, each brand is a different formula with its own characteristics. Oil pastels range from very soft to nearly as hard and dry as a coloured pencil. Three brands that demonstrate this variety of hardnesses are Sennelier Oil Pastel, Caran d’Ache Neopastel, and Caran d’Ache Neocolor 1. Some artists stick with one brand because they like how it works. Other artists use a combination of brands for different parts of an artwork depending on whether they need a harder oil pastel or a softer one, similar to the way soft pastel painters combine brands for the same reason. Some oil/wax pastels are water-soluble; none of these three are.
I drew some shapes on white Stonehenge paper, a favourite paper of coloured pencil artists. I blended one with my finger, one with a brush dipped in solvent (Zest-it) and left one un-blended. The photos show the three shapes before and after blending for each brand of oil pastel.
Sennelier Oil Pastel
Sennelier Oil Pastel is a super soft pastel, the one I usually work with. It smears very easily and responds very well to solvent. I found it harder to get a light application because it is so soft. Loads smushes on very quickly.
Caran d’Ache Neopastel
Caran d’Ache Neopastel is one is the medium-soft of the three. I found it the best of both worlds: it applies softly and easily and responds very well to solvent but I could get a light application more easily because it is not so smushy. I had more control than with the Sennelier. (I hadn’t used it before and it is my new favourite.)
Caran d’Ache Neocolor 1
Caran d’Ache Neocolor 1 is the hardest and driest of the three, almost like coloured pencil. I had to rub twice as long to get colour down, it is quite hard. It doesn’t smear much at all, doesn’t blend much with rubbing. But the colour is really beautiful and it really glows when blended with solvent. The hardness allows a lot of control and so a light application is much easier. If you like a gradual application rather than a fast smear then this is the oil pastel for you. Because it gives good control and responds well to solvent, I shall be experimenting with this more in the studio.
Soft, Medium, Hard
I will continue to use the Sennelier oil pastels and add the two Caran d’Ache makes to my colour assortment as they each perform in a way that will be useful. I think it would be good to use them together in a single work and use each to its strengths, like soft pastel artists usually do.
Click on the underlined link to go to the Oil Pastel Department on the Jackson’s Art Supplies website. Postage on orders shipped standard to mainland UK addresses is free for orders of £39.