How Do You Use Oil Pastels? A Beginner’s Guide

The Lorax Tree, Oil Pastel Painting by Alina Bradford.
The Lorax Tree, Oil Pastel Painting by Alina Bradford.

If you love to draw but want to get that look you can only get from paint, than oil pastels are the way to go. Here is an overview of how to go from drawing to painting with very little trial and error.

Pastel, for many artists who love to draw, is painting at its finest. There’s no water to worry about, no special brushes, no messy clean up. Best of all, though, it lets the artist who mainly draws get the look of a painting while still getting to draw.

Choosing Your Oil Pastels

To get started, of course, you will need to chose your pastels. There are a wide range of brands, but don’t let this scare you. Any brand that is not student grade will be just fine to start with. Student grade is too waxy and doesn’t blend as well as artist quality pastels. As you progress you may find that a different brand will lend itself more to the look you want.

The amount you buy, at least at first, doesn’t have to be a huge amount. A set of 24 is usually enough to get a good range of colors.

Choosing a Canvas for Oil Pastels

The next thing to think about is canvas. There are many different options for the oil pastel artist to chose from.
Many artists chose a heavy grade of pastel paper. This paper comes with a “tooth,” or a gritty surface that grabs the pigment of the oil pastel.
Others chose ordinary oil canvas, which has a raised grain to it that is perfect for holding layers of oil pastel. The painting on the right was created on canvas.
Yet another choice is sandpaper. It has a high level of tooth that allows for many layers of pastel.

The Oil Painting Process

Now that you have your main two supplies you can start to draw. Lightly sketch out your painting onto your surface using a soft lead pencil, making sure not to indent the surface. Pastel will not get caught in an area that is indented as well as the rest of the canvas, which will lead to lines of uneven color.

Next, go over your pencil lines with the main color you are going to use in that area. Also, lay down your first layer of color. This layer will be very light and transparent. Don’t worry if there is canvas showing through, that will get covered up in the next layers.

It is important to work in layers from dark to light colors so that when you are done with the painting the lightest colors won’t be muddied by the darker ones. Beware that adding too many layers will also muddy the surface of the painting because the “tooth” of your surface will no longer be able to grab the pastel. If you do make a mistake like this you may be able to save the painting by wiping out the offending area with a dry cloth wrapped around your index finger.

As you add layers and colors you can blend the pastel with your fingers or with cotton swabs. Your fingers also will add heat, melting the pastels into each other, making them more paint-like. The friction from drawing with the pastels will also melt the pastels on the surface.
To finish, let your painting sit. The time it takes for a pastel to “dry” varies on how many layers where used. You may want to add a fixative to insure the life of your painting as well.

For more advanced techniques see: Three New Oil Pastel Techniques to Try

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