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

Not to be confused with soft pastels (see our guide to soft pastels here), 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.

Getting started - what do I need?

Oil pastels

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:

Sennelier produces over 100 colours, however, 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. The Neopastel range is a little harder than the Sennelier sticks and Neocolor I is harder still.

Daler-Rowney Oil Pastels are smooth, easy to use and have been carefully colour-matched to their Artists’ Soft Pastels range.

Royal Talens Van Gogh Oil Pastels are very soft and have a high pigment saturation and therefore a high tinting strength.

Top tips

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.

Read our top tips on fixatives.

Discover framing for pastel paintings.


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.

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.

Getting started - oil pastel painting techniques

There are numerous ways to apply oil pastel.

Start by breaking your oil pastels 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.

Below are several key strokes that you will find useful.

The side stroke

side stroke




This can be 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.





This technique is done 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.





This technique is created by dragging the side of the pastel over a pre-worked textured surface so that skipping occurs.





A technique applied towards the end of a painting where you 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.

Watch a video demonstration and learn to paint an apple using oil pastels.

Demonstration - Red Tomato

Now try painting this simple tomato on a sheet of cream Stonehenge paper. This surface has very little size and takes multiple layers.