oil pastel techniques

Oil Pastel Techniques: The Ultimate Guide

Practise these oil pastel techniques to enhance your skills and create beautiful pieces of art.

Oil pastels are a unique medium, they are made from pigment plus an oil and wax binder. They can feel smooth and buttery to use, but they also provide artists with a wonderful sense of immediacy, encouraging artistic expression. Draw with the pigment straight onto the surface, without worrying about picking up a brush, or doing any preparation beforehand. 

They are a versatile medium, as they can be used alongside watercolour, over gouache and acrylic paint. Some of the techniques on the list give an insight into the process of oil pastel painting. For example, you could start with an underpainting, then blend and mix colours and finish with the brightest highlights. While some of other techniques on this list are incredibly fun to experiment with, to achieve interesting and unique effects.

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Layer oil pastels

Oil pastel techniques

Oil pastels can be layered to create wonderfully vibrant and rich looking paintings. Textured papers that have a ‘tooth’ like Pastelmat, can hold multiple layers of pastel without the colours looking muddy. The first layer of pastel won’t cover the texture of the paper. So use consecutive layers to build colours, refine values, clean up shapes and add detail. 

Oil pastels are generally an opaque medium, so you can layer with ease. However, their ability to fully cover colours beneath can vary. So if you want to create some ultra light highlights in your pastel painting, leave these sections of your paper blank. This will ensure that none of the colours from layers beneath show through.

Underpainting with oil pastels

This is a layering technique, whereby the loose form of the shapes are established in the first layer. Think about the composition of the painting and how different elements relate to one another. You don’t have to be too precise with the underpainting, but make sure you draw in the main elements first. Establish the values in the first layer, roughly sketching in where the deepest shadows will be.

Thin oil pastels with solvent

Thinning oil pastel with solvent is a great trick to use for the underpainting. It means that you can cover the white of the paper, then layer thick pastel on top. Use a solvent such as odourless mineral spirits or turpentine to get the best results. Solvent makes oil pastel layers wet and extra runny. Choose to brush a little solvent over the pastel with a brush, or brush a tiny amount of solvent onto the top of the pastel then draw with it to make it release more intense colour. 

When using solvent with any medium, make sure to properly ventilate your space. Ideally, solvent should be used in a room that has two windows you can open to allow air to circulate. Compared to turpentine, odourless mineral spirits like Gamsol emit fewer of the aromatic hydrocarbons that make solvent bad for health. However, you should still ventilate your space while using them. 

Another thing to note about using solvent with oil pastel, is that they will dull the colours slightly. This is why it’s best to use in the first layer of the drawing that will be mostly covered up. Solvent can also make colours bleed into one another. If you use linseed oil to make oil pastel colours runnier, colours won’t bleed into one another in the same way.

Blending oil pastels

Oil pastels are fantastic for blending. Blend directly on the surface by applying some pressure to the pastel. By applying pressure, more of the pastel will be released, giving a smoother blended appearance. There should be a smooth transition between the two colours you are blending, with no harsh edges. This means that you need to overlap the pastel. You can use a paper stump, or tissue paper to help with the blending process.

If you want your pastel painting to have an extra smooth appearance, brush a little linseed oil over the oil pastel. This is an incredibly fun way to blend and it allows you to paint with your oil pastels. The finished results will appear more like an oil painting rather than an oil pastel painting. Bear in mind that linseed oil fully dries and oil pastels remain open, so if you use linseed oil in your drawing, make sure to use it in every layer. Otherwise you may run the risk of some layers peeling off. 

Colour mixing: oil pastel techniques

oil pastel drawing

As you blend colours into the surface, they will naturally mix together. The more pressure you apply, the more the colours will mix.

Optionally, you could use a palette knife to cut small sections of pastel off, and mix together on a palette before applying with a brush or palette knife to the surface. By using more pastel in this way, you can create texture in your painting.

Blend shades that are close together in tone for more seamless looking gradients. For example, if you want to create a sky blue that is lighter towards the horizon, you could use multiple shades of blue and colour in strips across the sky section. Blend each shade into the next with pressure to achieve a smooth gradient. 

Mixing lighter colours over darker colours, won’t completely cover the dark shades, but it will lighten them slightly. To retain the brightest areas of the painting, layer the lighter colours over the paper, then work in the mid tones if you need to. 

Often, large pastel sets will come with a huge variety of colour sticks, meaning that colours will be closer in tone to one another. This makes mixing and blending easier, it also gives you the ability to create artworks with more realistic looking colours and tonal transitions

Stippling

Stippling is a type of shading. Use this technique to create some interesting textural effects. The stippling technique can be achieved by dotting the pastel onto the surface. Dots that are closer to one another and that have been applied with more pressure can be used to create dark shadows. Use a stippling action to create dots further away from one another for highlighted areas. 

Scumbling

Scumbling is an oil pastel technique that can be used for shading, or to create loose colour mixes. Layer small circular marks on top of one another. Previous layers of colour will show through. These layers will appear blended together when you step back from the drawing, but when you look up close, you will be able to see the texture. 

Sgraffito

Sgraffito is the technique of scratching into the thick pastel that has already been applied to the paper. You could use this technique to create tiny details or highlights. Use something with a point, like the handle of a paintbrush, or something sharper like a knife. Apply light pressure if using a knife, so as not to damage the surface. 

Oil pastel resist with watercolour

Oil pastels can be used alongside watercolour. The oil pastel will create a resist, so that the watercolour will not adhere to the paper. Use a white oil pastel to create whitespace in the drawing, then paint over the top with watercolour. 

This is fairly similar to the technique used by Paul Klee, the Swiss-German painter would create an oil transfer on paper, then paint over with watercolour. Oil is hydrophobic, so it naturally repels water. 

Oil pastel is such a great medium, because you can use it for various different mixed media applications. For example, you could paint with oil pastel over dried watercolour, gouache, or even matte acrylic. 

Frottage (texture rubbing)

This is a simple technique that involves holding the pastel on its side, then rubbing lightly to pick up the texture of the surface beneath. This works especially well if you’re working on a surface like rough watercolour paper, or Pastelmat that has visible texture.

Heat the oil pastel

Oil pastels can be heated to release more of the pigment, oil and wax onto the surface. Hold the pastel about an inch away from a lit candle, or close to a radiator. You don’t have to heat it much for the pigment and binder to release more easily. With more of the pastel coming off onto the paper, you can start to build texture on the surface.

Oil pastel tips

Vary pressure

To create light marks and loose sketches, apply pressure delicately. For thicker oil pastel application apply more pressure. You will probably find that you will need to apply more pressure with consecutive layers, as you can start with a light underpainting then finish by heavily blending colours together. 

Oil pastels are different from soft pastels in that oil pastels are sturdy and more resistant to crumbling and breaking. This means you can afford to apply heavier pressure than with soft pastel. Soft pastel on the other hand requires an extremely light touch to release colour.

Think of values (shadows and highlights)

The way that artists create the impression of realism, is with natural looking colours and realistic looking tonal transitions. Focus on the relationship between the light and dark areas in your painting and work on improving the composition for a more aesthetically pleasing piece. When working from a reference photo, it can help to edit the photo so that it is in black and white. This will allow you to perceive tonal transitions better, without the distraction of the colour. 

Don’t forget the details

It’s incredibly difficult to create fine details with oil pastel. They are more of an expressive medium that yield looser, more painterly effects. Oil pastels like Holbein that are cuboid in shape have sharp corners and so they allow artists to apply thinner lines and finer details. 

Choose the best oil pastels for your painting practice

The best oil pastels will be pigment rich and look vibrant on the surface. Sennelier oil pastels are a joy to use, they are used by professional artists worldwide. However, oil pastel is an accessible medium for beginner artists. It doesn’t matter what your skill level is, as you can start creating unique artworks with very few supplies. A good beginner pastel that is high quality but super affordable is the Sakura Cray-Pas Expressionist pastel.

Further reading

Check out the Virtual Instructor’s Oil Pastel Cherry Drawing to see oil pastels being used in practice.

This book Beginner’s Guide to Painting with Oil Pastels by Tom Fisher


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