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An Introduction to Oil Pastel Painting Techniques

Posted on Fri 12 Dec 2008

Oil pastels - how to paint with this colourful and versatile medium

Not to be confused with soft chalk pastels, oil pastels comprise Artists’ quality pigments mixed with a small amount of wax, which is softened with a smaller quantity of oil. The sticks are not chalky or powdery to touch and they are dust free, which is ideal for those with allergies. They are not to be confused with oil sticks, which are oil paint in stick form.


Oil pastel

When beginning any new medium, it’s always false economy to start with cheap materials so buy the best quality you can afford. The beauty of oil pastel is that you don’t need too many colours to get started.

Each leading brand has its own characteristics and over the years I have settled on two makes: Sennelier and Caran d’Ache.

Although Sennelier produces over 100 colours, buying its basic set of 12 sticks will take you a long way. Sennelier’s products are creamy and easily blendable.

Caran d’Ache makes a range of pastels that are harder by differing degrees. Its Neopastel range is a little harder than the Sennelier sticks. In addition, it makes Neocolor I, a range that is harder still.

Oil pastels never truly dry, so applied with basic techniques they will always possess a degree of workability. It is for this reason that they must be protected from damage either by framing or by using special fixatives.


Oil pastel is designed to be painted on almost any surface, although textured grounds are the most popular. Paper and card are common surfaces but oil pastel can be used on fabric, wood, metal or glass. There are also papers specifically made for it, including Sennelier’s oil pastel card and a surface from the US, called Wallis paper.

I have chosen a range of surfaces on which to apply the pastel and I will use these throughout this series of articles. When dragging a finger across to blend the colours, notice how the different surfaces respond. Often, the smoother and more absorbent the surface, the more resistance it has to blending. Oil pastel seems to slip most easily over textured and non-porous surfaces.


There are numerous ways to apply oil pastel. Here, we look at using the sort of techniques that would be a direct substitute for soft pastel. If I were using soft pastel, my first task would be to remove all the wrappers. With oil pastel, I simply break them in half, keeping the wrapper on one side as prolonged handling can make them soft, leading to unwanted heavy deposits of pigment on the paper. There are several key strokes that are useful to create a painting.

side stroke

The side stroke is difficult as a sticky build up of pigment can appear on the surface. Not allowing the pastels to get too warm in your hand is the answer. Try keeping them on a flat ice pack.


Scribble is using the tip of the wrapped oil pastel, either to draw with or apply pigment more accurately.


The roll
You can create interesting edges by rolling the wrapped pastel through your fingers. The resultant line is quite variable and useful for twigs, highlights and such like.


Scumbling is dragging the side of the pastel over a pre-worked textured surface so that skipping occurs.


Dashing is a technique applied towards the end of a painting where I literally stab the surface to force more pigment onto the paper.


For gradual gradation and smooth colour, rub in oil pastels with your fingertips. It takes a little more effort than soft pastel, and sometimes a rag is necessary.


Red Tomato

To show the basic oil pastel technique, I painted this simple tomato on a sheet of cream Stonehenge paper. This surface has very little size and takes multiple layers easily.


  • Paper
    Stonehenge, cream 8x8in. (21x21cm)
  • Neocolor I
    Golden yellow
    Orangish yellow
    Flame red
    Bluish green
    Emerald green


Step 1

1 Draw the shape of the fruit using brown Neocolor I. As this is a hard pastel, nice loose line work is achieved.

2 Appy the background using the sides of Neopastel golden yellow and orangish yellow.

step 2

Step 2

1 Block in the fruit colours using flame red and carmine. The texture of the paper is already helping to determine some of the highlights on the fruit.

2 Add the stalk with bluish green, emerald green and white.

step 3

Step 3

1 Rub in the background with your finger or a cloth, then scumble more of the same colour over the top.

2 Rub around the edge of the fruit, following the curve of the tomato with your fingers. Leave the texture of the paper to show through in the centre.

3 Develop the stalk by carefully applying more pigment with the tip of the pastel.

4 Finally, portray the highlights with dashes of white.

Jan 09

For further articles on pastel techniques, click here
An Introduction to Oil Pastel Painting Techniques


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