Oil sticks vs oil pastels

Oil Sticks vs Oil Pastels: What are the Differences?

Oil paint sticks and oil pastels share several attributes. Both mediums can be held in the hand to draw with, meaning you don’t need extra tools like brushes! This gives artists a tactile experience whilst painting. They also both contain oil and pigment. The two are excellent choices for artists wanting to draw with vibrant colours to create expressive paintings with gestural marks. 

There are several differences between the two mediums, however. Learn what these differences are to help you make a decision about which medium to use and how to use them to get the best results. 

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Oil sticks vs pastels: What are they made from?

Oil paint sticks, also called oil paint sticks, pigment sticks and oil bars are made from the same materials as regular oil paint. This consists of pigment and a drying oil binder which is usually linseed oil. The bars are encased in wax to maintain their shape, which enables artists to hold in their hand to draw onto the surface. 

Oil pastels are made from pigment and a binder of oil and wax. Pastels usually contain more wax than oil and the contents of the binder depends on the brand artists buy. For example, the professional grade brand Sennelier contains quality pigment, mineral wax and a non drying oil. 

What are the main differences between oil sticks and oil pastels?

Oil pastels contain more wax

The first difference between oil pastels and oil sticks is that oil pastels contain mostly wax in the binder of the pastel, whereas oil sticks contain mostly oil and only a little wax. The small amount of wax in oil sticks is what makes them mouldable into a stick shape.

Oil sticks are just oil paint in a different format, which means that they should be treated like oil paint—using similar techniques and materials. Whereas oil pastels contain inert, non drying binders like wax and non-drying oils which means the layering techniques differ and artists can use them on mostly any surface.

Drying time

Oil sticks dry like regular oils whereas oil pastels are non drying so they require a fixative to seal. Regular oil paint takes around 2 days to harden and become dry to the touch, the paint then undergoes a process of curing, whereby the drying oil oxidises. Oil paint sticks dry in exactly the same way, so the paint will be dry to the touch in a couple of days. Pastels, however, will never feel dry to the touch, they will remain workable until they are sealed with a fixative. This is due to the non-drying oil binder. 

Oil pastels and oil sticks differ in size

Oil sticks are much larger than oil pastels, at around the size of a tube of oil paint. Artists can choose to draw with them directly onto the canvas to make thicker marks, or dip their brush, either with a little linseed oil or neat into the stick, then paint directly on the canvas for more detailed marks. However some pastel manufacturers, such as Sennelier make extra large sized pastels that are almost the size of oil sticks. So for artists who like to work on a large scale, but prefer using pastels, the large pastel range could be a great option. 

Handling properties of oil sticks vs oil pastels

Oil sticks are much softer than oil pastels. The paint bar feels thick enough to hold its shape, but exactly the right viscosity to transfer buttery marks to the paper.

Oil pastels, however, range in softness between brands. For example, Sennelier pastels are extra soft compared to Holbein oil pastels which are slightly drier in texture. 

When pasted on the surface, the marks from oil sticks will appear like regular oil paint. These marks can be worked with a brush or palette knife to spread across the canvas. 

Oil sticks require surface preparation before use

Oil sticks are made from the same materials as oil paint. The drying oils used in oil sticks and oil paint can damage fibres of wood and canvas over time if surfaces are not prepared first. This is because drying oils sink into the fibres and oxidises, which can cause wood, canvas and some papers to rot. If you’re working on raw wood, canvas or paper with oil sticks, you will need to seal the surface first, then paint a few foundation coats of gesso. Discover how to prepare a surface for oil painting in our guide. 

Oil pastels contain less oil than wax in the binder and the oil is inert and non-drying. This means that pastels won’t damage fibres of wood, canvas or paper. You don’t need to prime the surface when using oil pastel. This gives pastels an advantage for artists who prefer the flexibility of being able to choose to paint on any surface they feel and the sense of immediacy that comes with being able to get started without preparation and planning. 

Tips for painting with oil sticks

Remove the waxy casing

Because oil sticks contain a small amount of wax, the outer layer dries to form a skin, or wax casing. This needs to be removed, either scrape the hardened wax away with a craft knife, or remove it with a paper towel.

Protect your hands

Oil paint sticks can get super messy! Wear gloves when painting to avoid getting the paint on your hands. Certain pigments used in paint such as Cadmiums are toxic metals and whilst these pigments cannot be absorbed by the skin, they shouldn’t be ingested. It’s best to protect your hands in case you accidentally touch food with the pigment on your hands before eating for example. Keep toxic colours out of reach, if you have kids or pets coming into the studio. You can find information about the pigments used from the manufacturer’s website, if you want to avoid using toxic pigments completely.

How to layer oil sticks

Oil sticks can be used for drawing the initial layers of a painting before thicker paint is applied. They are really useful for sketching out compositions.

When layering oil sticks and even when working alongside oil paint, always work with the fat over lean principle in mind. Apply thin paint first, either thinned with solvent or applied in thin layers directly from the stick. Then apply thicker paint with more oil content on top, for example you could opt to add some medium, such as linseed oil to a brush, then mix the paint from the oil stick to create a runnier texture on the canvas. This oil-rich layer would be considered a ‘fat’ layer that should be layered after thinner layers. However, if you want to layer oil sticks and paint, unaltered with solvent or medium in roughly the same thickness to the surface in each layer, this is a sound way of working too.

How to paint with oil pastels

Oil sticks vs oil pastels review

Oil pastels are soft and range in opacity, meaning that they can be layered on the surface with ease. Certain colours will have greater covering power than others, but more transparent colours can be used for glazes.

Because the medium is non-drying, artists don’t have to worry about rules like layering fat over lean like they would with oil sticks or oil paint. Layers can be used with oil pastels to build colour, refine shapes and add details. 

Colours will blend into one another, unless a workable fixative is applied to fix colours in place to achieve separate layers. Use a fixative between layers to achieve hard edges, fine lines and separate colours. 

It’s easy to mix colours on the surface, by blending two different pastels into one another. Experiment with colour mixing and blending techniques to find your preferred way of working. When drawing the lightest highlights, leave the paper blank beneath in order to achieve the lightest areas. The colours from layers beneath may show through otherwise. 

What are the benefits of using oil sticks?

Oil sticks benefit artists that enjoy painting with gestural marks in a loose, expressive style. They can be used to create abstract marks and textures. It could also benefit artists that prefer the action of drawing on the surface, rather than painting with a paint brush or palette knife. They are an incredibly fun material to experiment with that can be used alongside oil paint.

What are the benefits of painting with oil pastels?

Oil pastels are small, lightweight and portable. Artists can pack them away in a case and take them to paint and sketch en plein air. They are relatively fuss free in terms of set-up and clean up. This allows artists to pick up their pastels spontaneously, whenever inspiration to paint strikes. Artists don’t need to worry about surface preparation, or waiting for canvases to dry. They are a versatile medium that can be used on a range of surfaces and in mixed media applications. 

What are the similarities between oil sticks vs oil pastels?

The similarities between oil pastels and oil sticks are in the vibrancy of colours and the pigments used to make the sticks. Oil sticks and oil pastels are handled in relatively the same way to create marks and textures on the canvas. They can both be held comfortably in the hand to draw with, using gestural strokes. Vary the pressure to impart more of the pastel or stick onto the paper to create thicker lines. 

How are oil sticks priced?

Oil sticks are priced in a similar manner to oil paints. They are allocated series numbers. Sticks with lower series numbers cost less due to the expense of the pigment. The volume of oil sticks is measured in ml, just like regular paint tubes. Brands commonly come in sticks of 38ml and R&F offers 3 colours in 188ml. Comparing the two most popular brands, R&F sticks are significantly more expensive than Sennelier. R&F, the high end option, starts at around $11 for a low series number. Sennelier oil sticks start at around $8 each for a low series number, however fewer of their colours are higher in price. Artists can cut costs by starting out with a limited set of primaries and mixing colours on the canvas.

How much do oil pastels cost?

Oil pastels are much cheaper than oil sticks per item. So artists can afford to get a larger range of colours for their money. Sennelier pastels, considered a high end artists brand, start at around $4 per pastel. A set of six Sennelier pastels will set you back between $12 and $18, check the link to see if there are any deals or offers on. 

There is a greater selection of oil pastel brands available compared to oil stick brands. Artists can find sets for much cheaper than what Sennelier prices their sets at. For example, Sakura Cray Pas pastels, a beginner range sells their oil pastels for ultra cheap, starting at $0.76 each. This brand can be a great option for complete beginners who want to try out the medium.

What materials can you use with oil sticks vs oil pastels? 

The best brands of oil sticks

R&F is an ultra high end brand that uses the maximum amount of pigment possible, without the use of fillers or driers. This means that this brand dries slightly more slowly than other brands, like Sennelier. R&F sticks are handmade, milled in small batches with pure pigment linseed oil and natural beeswax. They come in three different sizes in a spectrum of 103 mostly single pigment colours. The sets are worth checking out, find earth tones, opaques, translucent colours and the essential primaries. 

R&F Pigment Sticks - Opaque Colors, Set of 6, 38 ml sticks

Sennelier manufactures 55 brilliant colours that provide excellent lightfastness. The oil sticks are made from quality pigments, siccative vegetable oils and mineral wax. Sennelier sticks contain additional dries to reduce the open working time, but on average, paint will dry in around 2 days. The colours range in opacity and some wonderful sets are available. 

Brands of oil pastels

Sennelier Oil Pastel Set - Plein Air Set, Wood Box, Set of 36

There are lots of different oil pastel brands to choose from. Sennelier makes professional quality, extra soft oil pastels that feel creamy in texture and appear vibrant on the paper.

Holbein Artists� Oil Pastel Set - Assorted Colors, Set of 15

Holbein manufactures a huge range of pastels—artists 225 different colours to choose from. The pastels by Holbein are on the expensive side and a little harder and drier in texture compared to Sennelier pastels which can be compared to a lipstick-like texture. 

Sakura Cray-Pas are worth checking out, due to their low price point. Get a set of 12 for just $6! They use fine quality pigments, waxes and oils and are perfect for beginners who want an introduction to the medium. The lightfast ratings are not as high as Sennelier, so if you want an oil pastel to use for professional work, go for a professional quality brand. 

What surfaces can you use with the two mediums?

You can use similar surfaces with the two mediums. The only difference is that you will have to prepare raw wood and canvas with a sealant and gesso before painting with oil sticks, but you can paint straight onto raw canvas or wood with oil pastels.

Winsor & Newton Professional Cotton Canvas - 8

Artists can buy canvases and wooden panels that have been primed by the manufacturer and are ready to paint onto. Winsor & Newton cotton canvases are fantastic quality and are primed and ready to paint onto.

Ampersand Gessobord - 12

Most canvases available to buy from art stores with come primed with gesso. If you prefer the idea of painting on primed wooden panel with oil sticks, Gessobord is a great option, as is the Ampersand smooth primed panel

Ampersand Pastelbord Panel Pack - 5

Although you can use oil pastel on lots of different surfaces, it works best on surfaces that have tooth. Papers and boards with a slight sanded texture to them will enable oil pastel to adhere better. Pastelmat has a velvety texture that oil pastel adheres to beautifully, allowing for multiple layers and seamless blends. If you want something a little sturdier, check out Ampersand Pastelbords, which come in cradled and panel varieties.

I would recommend getting a fairly sturdy surface, whether that is card-like paper, such as Pastelmat, thick panels, boards or canvases. A sturdy surface will allow you to make gestural, expressive marks without worrying about damaging the support. The advantage of using Pastelbord is that you can prop them up on an easel without mounting.

Use solvent with oil sticks and oil pastels

Artists can use solvents to dilute pastel and oil sticks. Thinning oil or wax mediums to create underpaintings is a great technique to use for the first layer of the painting. Use artist grade thinners, like turpentine, oil of spike lavender or odourless mineral spirits and brush over the area you want to dilute to create thin washes of colour. It’s important to ventilate your space properly and read all safety instructions when using solvent.

Always work with thicker paint over the thinned paint to avoid cracking once the painting has dried. If you want to create a thin wash of colour as a base, upon which to layer textures and thicker colours, then using solvent could be a great choice.

Can you use brushes with oil sticks vs oil pastels? 

Oil sticks can be used by drawing onto the canvas or panel with the stick, then brushing the wet oil paint marks made on the surface with a brush. Stiff or springy brushes work brilliantly for tasks like this. You can also use mediums like extra linseed oil with oil sticks. Mix linseed oil with some of the paint from the oil stick on a palette and brush the runny mixture onto your surface.

If you use solvent with oil pastel or oil sticks, it’s essential to use a brush that is resistant to solvent. Use a springy hog brush that has stiff bristles that is able to work thicker paint into the canvas.

Can you use oil sticks with oil pastels?

Artists can use the two mediums in conjunction with each another. It is advised to use oil pastel over dry oil paint and not the other way around. This is because oil pastels never fully dry and oil paint won’t adhere to the pastel properly, which could lead to paint peeling from the surface over time.

Can you use oil sticks with oil paint?

Oil sticks and oil paint work beautifully together. The small amount of wax in the oil stick increases the stability and flexibility of the dried paint film. This means that they can be layered over dry oil paint. However, if you are layering oil sticks over thick layers of oil paint, or oil paint that has been mixed with extra oil medium (fat layers), you should add additional oil medium to the oil stick paint to adhere to the fat over lean rule. 

Can you varnish oil sticks?

When the paint from oil sticks is dry, you can varnish artwork just like regular oil paints. Gamvar is an excellent oil paint varnish that comes in three finishes. Choose the glossy finish to make colours appear deeper and richer, or opt for a satin or matte finish. The great thing about Gamvar, is that you can apply it as soon as the painting is touch dry and solid. 

How to seal oil pastel drawings

To prevent oil pastels from smudging and to protect paintings from environmental damage, artists must seal finished paintings. Use a fixative like the Sennelier Oil Pastel fixative which comes in both spray and liquid form. 

If you don’t want to seal your pastel drawing, you can frame it behind museum glass to preserve it. Make sure when handling a pastel drawing for transportation, that you cover it with glassine paper to protect it from dust and smudging. 

Techniques to use with oil sticks

Impasto

Paint from the stick can be applied thickly to the surface to create impasto style paintings. The addition of wax to the stick makes it more viscous in consistency, as opposed to some brands of tube oil paint like Schmincke, which are more on the runny side. This means that thick paint from oil sticks will retain marks and texture on the canvas better than some tube paints. If you choose, you could paste the paint from the stick on the surface with a palette knife for extra thick marks. 

Underpainting 

Oil sticks are great for creating underpaintings. It can feel more natural to draw on the canvas in the first layers of the artwork when you are planning out the placement and structure of the piece. Brushes can distance you from the artwork. Oil sticks bring you closer to the canvas, allowing you to create in a free form and flowing way. This can be especially important in the formative stages of a painting. Of course, you can brush a little solvent over the oil stick marks to thin the paint too in the first stages if you wish.

Glazing with colourless stick

R&F Oil Blending Medium, 188 ml stick

R&F makes colourless glazing sticks and mediums. The colourless sticks are made for blending, as they contain no pigment. Work the colourless blending stick directly into another colour to increase the transparency.

Oil pastel techniques 

Oil pastel techniques

A number of techniques can be used with oil pastels. Blend pastels together to create wonderful seamless gradients and colour mixes. Draw with them like a pencil to create details and stipple on the surface. Or use the sgraffito technique: grab the end of a paintbrush to scratch off the pastel colour to reveal the white of the paper beneath. 

What is the difference between oil pastels and soft pastels? 

Another two mediums that often get confused with each other are oil pastels and soft pastels. They are in fact completely different mediums and don’t work together in mixed media applications. Soft pastels are extra soft and made from pigment with a small amount of binder. The binder usually consists of chalk and gum arabic. Oil pastels are made from pigment with wax and oil. Chalky soft pastels are more delicate, drier and dustier. They can be used to make beautiful matte drawings with amazing blends and details. Soft pastels are considered a fine artists medium and there are more expensive, high end soft pastel brands available compared to oil pastels.


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