Playful Oil Pastel Techniques for Beginners and Art Supply Explorers That Will Leave You Weak in the Knees

Oil pastels are the weirdest art supply. They look like little crayons, but once you start using them they act like thick paints. Also, they are much different than regular soft pastels, which are chalky, powdery, and less intense color-wise.

They have the creamy, vibrant look of acrylic or oil paint, but they aren’t going to be useful if you want to work very detailed. Think of them more as an expressive, painterly crayon with much more pigment and better flow. This is precisely why I love them so much – you literally cannot be fussy and precious with oil pastels. They force you to make bold, playful marks and indulge in their shameless color vibrance. My goodness, I feel like writing a poem about oil pastels.

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But before I do that, I wanted to provide a little guide of ideas for how to use these bad boys. If you haven’t tried oil pastels, you’re in for a treat. If you have, you’re still in for a treat, because there is no bad time to play around with art supplies.

If you have yet to buy oil pastels, go for one of these:

Oil Pastels


straight line of several sennelier oil pastels

Sennelier

These super-soft and creamy (dare I say buttery?) oil pastels will ruin you for all others. They melt into the paper and deposit the most vivid, rich colors you can imagine. ( Someone once likened them to painting with lipstick!) They will make all of your oil pastel dreams come true with their yummy high-quality ingredients. Sennelier oil pastels

open oil pastel box with lid

Neopastels

While not as soft as Senneliers, I love Neopastels for their smooth application and excellent blendability, and fantastic color range. Some people prefer them to Sennelier; it’s a matter of personal preference, of course.

When comparing the two brands, you can feel the extra wax (I believe) in these, which makes them more sturdy. This does not detract from their quality, and these are excellent oil pastels! Neopastels

set of oil pastels in box with drawing on the table in front of them

Paul Rubens Haiya

I bought these on a whim to try after seeing someone else raving about them. I must say, I’m surprised at how creamy and pigmented these little fellas are. And they are CHEAP for oil pastels.

These would be my choice for hobbyists, art journalists, or kids and teens. Paul Rubens

Li’l Tidbit: Oil pastels are made of pigment, non-drying oil, and wax. They were first invented for classroom use by Sakura in 1925. Later, Sennelier created a higher-quality oil pastel for Pablo Picasso, and oil pastels have been simply all the rage since.

Oil Pastel Techniques

Making a simple color chart of your oil pastels is a good place to start. Not all oil pastels are created the same, so there will be color differences and consistency differences between brands. A color chart is a great way to get a feel for the colors you possess, how they lie down on the paper, and you can also use it to refer back to when in the throes of pastelling.

Because I am a sucker for color charts, here is the Sennelier color chart. If you have all the Sennelier colors, first of all, I’m extremely jealous, but second of all, make a color chart. Here is one that you can have for free that I created.

color chart of oil pastels by Sennelier art supplies

Blending

After you make a color chart, jump into blending. Blending simply means combining two or more colors or values that are next to each other. There are several techniques for blending oil pastels, and you can use your fingers or a tool. Oil pastels blend beautifully because of how soft and malleable they are (like my belly).

Try this: Lay down two similar colors or shades next to each other and work each side back and forth into each other to mix them and soften the dividing line.

My favorite tool to blend with is a finger! (Preferably your own finger, but if someone is sitting next to you doing nothing, grab their hand to use.) The next best thing to use is a chamois cloth for larger areas, or cotton swabs or silicone blending tool for smaller areas.You’ll also see that to an extent you can blend oil pastels together just when you use one over another on the paper.

Many people use a tortillon (paper blenders wrapped like tight cones), but there is something about using these that gives me the willies. It’s definitely just the paper-on-paper feel, and does not bother some people in the least. 

In any event, when blending oil pastels, go slowly, and be patient. Introduce the two colors or shades to each other a little bit at a time, and you’ll get the best results. Do a little bit of blending, stand back and look at it, then go back in if you want more blending. I feel like most of my tips with oil pastels are going to be about being patient and going slowly. It’s easy to go a little bonkers with oil pastels, so try to not be heavy-handed with them at first. 

Sgraffito

This is a fun, fun, fun technique where you scratch through one layer of oil pastel to reveal the layer underneath. Typically, this is done using black over different colors, but you can experiment with your colors.

Try black over a few colors the first time you do this, just to get the full-drama effect. I drew random shapes of a few lighter colors, smudged them together to blend them and mash them into the paper, then used a super-dark blue over the top. Be heavy-handed with the top layer so you have a lot to scratch through.

Scratch through gently using a tool like the end of a paintbrush, a wooden orange stick, skewer, a pen that has run out of ink, etc. I keep a tissue nearby to wipe my scratch tool onto. (The blending tools I linked above have one end that would be very fun to use as a scraper.)

Flat edge

Use the side of the oil pastel to lay down large areas of color. You will be able to cover a big space and get a lighter application of color that you can layer with other colors or smear into the paper or leave it as is.

Hatching and cross hatching

Just like with graphite pencil and colored pencil, you can make hatch marks with oil pastels to create areas of shading. The result will be different because of the chonkiness of oil pastels, but the same idea is there. Hatching and crosshatching work fantastically when you want to blend different colors of oil pastels!

Scumbling

Scumbling is an art term that just means drawing or painting in tiny, quick circular marks over the top of another area to soften it up a bit. This whole little piece (right) was just scumbled into existence, one color over another. Oil pastels tend to naturally blend themselves together when layered.

Masking

Tape off an area of your surface, oil pastel your little heart out, then remove the tape to reveal the perfectly-preserved paper color. You can get crisp, straight lines this way, or use roughly-torn irregular tape shapes for a looser masked result. Here is some good tape.

Pointillism

Again, this is similar to when you do pointillism with other art supplies, with different results. Pointillism with oil pastels will give you fatter marks, and instead of just tapping the pastel onto the paper, you need to press it against the surface a little more (making a little daub instead of an actual tap).

This is a fine way to build up shading as in hatching, and also to mix colors. It’s closer to stippling with paint than with pencils or pens. You’ll see that when you start you can build up more and more layers of dots and soften any harsh-looking lines by adding more dots.

Layering

It sounds basic, but layering oil pastels will give you different results depending on how you approach it. Play around with layering light over dark, dark over light, and one color over another. If you geek out on color mixing, here is where you can have fun discovering new colors.

I very loosely drew a vase-shape and lightly lay down a layer of medium blue sky. Then I lightly colored in the table color. I then went over the sky with white in places, over the vase with a light yellow, and over the table in a darker color. I drew a little ‘halo’ around the vase for extra fun.

Oil Pastel Resist

Oil pastel can work to resist water-based paints like watercolor and watered-down acrylic. This is best done with more waxy oil pastels, because the softer oil pastels will tend to smear around the paper, and you won’t get a crisp resist area.

Draw your little oily-pastel designs, then just use the paint over the top! Do experiment with different color combos, but also try the classic white oil pastel with colorful paints over. If you are using acrylics, water them down to the consistency of watercolors, or they may end up just covering over the pastels.

Transfer

Oil pastel transfer is soooooo fun. Did you ever do this with crayons when you were like 6 years old? Lay down lots of colorful colors of oil pastel on a piece of paper, place another paper over it onto which you draw with a pencil or other hard tool, then, voila! You have transferred your drawings onto the back of the paper with oil pastel.

This works better with the cheap oil pastels, as the soft pigment-loaded pastels tend to smear, but the harder pastels will just transfer the lines over.

Try This!

Now that you are an oil pastel aficionado, here are some more ideas to explore. Oil pastels, like every single other art supply, will only make sense to you the more you use them.

Don’t be afraid to use an entire box on exploratory drawings, where you go through each of the techniques above over and over. Each time you do this, you will learn so much about how the art supply acts, the colors you prefer, what you can do to manipulate it, and what you may want to try next.

This is where you may want to grab a box of the Paul Rubens pastels, so you aren’t experimenting your way through $300 of Senneliers. 💃🏻

Mixed media

Now that you have experimented with all of these fun oil pastel techniques, throw some more supplies in the mix! Oil pastels are the ultimate social butterfly of art supplies. Pair them with collage, painting, drawing, art journaling, etc etc etc. Even little accents of oil pastel here and there in your artwork can lend that je ne sais quoi to your finished piece.

Tinted and black papers

Oil pastels look fantabulous on colored papers. Do an experiment where you use the same colors, and same techniques, on white/tinted/black and behold the results! (Tinted here just means a variation of gray or really any other color. Try these Canson papers.

Double up on Techniques

Ooh! This is where you start getting adventuresome. Go back to some of your experiments and mess with them:

  • Take your pointillism piece and smear part of it to blend the dots together.
  • Scrape larger sections out of your sgraffito-ed piece and then draw over that with a different color.
  • Completely scrape away the color from a blended piece (there will be a thin film of oil pastel left on the paper) and do a little pointillism or hatching drawing over that.
  • Use a q-tip or paintbrush and a tiny bit of Turpenoid to blend and soften oil pastels.
  • Try oil pastels on different surfaces: canvas, card stock, kraft paper, etc. Cut these up and make collages!
Thanks for sharing! 😍

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