Oil Pastels: History, Techniques, How They Are Made

Oil Pastels are one of the most versatile mediums in art, they are a drawing and painting medium with the characteristics of both crayons and pastels, consisting of finely ground pigment mixed with a non-drying oil and a wax binder. Said mix gives them a soft, buttery consistency that makes application extremely easy and allows the colors to remain bright and vibrant over time.

Oil pastels have a high pigment concentration, and due to their unique composition, the color can be mixed, layered, or thinned with turpentine and mineral spirits to achieve different effects, they’re super easy to use, making them great for artists of all levels and ages, plus they blend beautifully and you don’t necessary need to use solvents or other mediums since you can use your fingers, a piece of cotton or other blending tools to do it. 

This medium can be used with a wide variety of techniques, like sgraffito, stenciling, impasto,etc, and unlike traditional pastels, oil pastels don’t crumble or produce dust, however they don’t really dry and can be smudged unless protected with a  fixative or framed under glass.

History of Oil Pastels

The first Oil Pastels were invented in the early 1920s in Japan, inspired by the ideas of Kanae Yamamoto, who wanted to revolutionize the education system by introducing color to japanese children that spent many hours using black ink in their studies. For this purpose the Sakura Cray-Pas company was created, innovating the already existign crayon by improving the pigment concentration and changing the binders multiple times until reaching the ideal formulation of the early oil pastels.

Little Targets II, Oil Pastel on 1961 Picasso Print Drawing by The Master
Little Targets II, Oil Pastel on 1961 Picasso Print Drawing by The Master

After the immense popularity the medium gained, many companies tried to replicate the idea, however in the 1940’s, Pablo Picasso who had been having trouble getting oil pastels because of the war, requested Sennelier, a renowned French art materials manufacturer to create a line of “pastels” that could be used on various surfaces without fading and that had the intensity of oil paint. Sennelier agreed to Picasso’s request and created Oil Pastels that were the first of their kind and much more professional compared to Cray-Pas by Sakura, which were designed for children in school.

Henri Goetz - Large And Beautiful - Oil Pastel On Paper
Henri Goetz – Large And Beautiful – Oil Pastel On Paper

The first professional artists who used oil pastels and made them popular were not just Picasso but also artists like Henri Goetz, who supposedly encouraged Picasso to use and popularize the medium. Goetz and many other artists of the time explored the medium’s potential, fascinated by its unusual qualities and the expressive potential it offered.

As oil pastels gained international recognition, their production and improvement were taken up by various companies around the world, including those in South Korea, which contributed to the development and distribution of high-quality oil pastels for both educational and professional use.

When Were Oil Pastels Invented?

Oil paints were invented in 1924. The first oil pastels, which began to be known as such, were introduced by the Japanese company Sakura under the name “Cray-Pas.” This was done to create a medium, that was both versatile and accessible, that combined the qualities of crayons and pastels.

Who Invented Oil Pastels?

The Sakura Cray-Pas Company, founded by Rinzo Satake and Shuku Sazaki is the Japanese company that created oil pastels. The project was started with the goal of creating a new, safe and easy-to-use art medium for students and artists and ended up with the creation of the company and the invention of Oil Pastels.

How are Oil Pastels Made?

Oil pastels are made by mixing finely ground pigment with a non-drying oil (like mineral oil) and a wax binder (beeswax, paraffin wax, etc), the mixture is heated until a smooth consistency is achieved, then is poured into molds. Once they’ve cooled and are solid they’re wrapped in special paper to keep them clean, and make them easy to handle and use. FInally, the pstels are packaged into sets for distribution and sales.

Common Oil Pastel Binders and Additives

  • Paraffin Wax: Paraffin wax is a petroleum derivative that is used as a binder to harden the pastel without making it too brittle.
  • Beeswax: Beeswax is a natural wax known for its plasticity, this binder used in high quality oil pastels gives them their smooth, blendable texture.
  • Coconut Oil: Coconut Oil is a non-drying oil and a softening agent in the oil pastel making process, it helps make oil pastels creamy and easy to blend.
  • Hydrogenated Palm Stearin: This is a solidified form of palm oils, which acts as a binder and hardener in oil pastels, providing a balance to the effect of the oil content. It gives il pastels structural integrity and helps them be more resistant to temperature changes.
  • Stearic Acid: Stearic Acid is a fatty acid derived from animal or vegetable oil, it acts as a stabilizer and a thickener, improving the adhesion of the pastel to the paper or drawing surface.
  • Glycerol 1-stearate: This compound acts as an emulsifier and stabilizer in the oil pastel mixture, improving the consistency and texture of the pastels and depending on the concentration of it, making it easier or harder to apply.
  • 2,6-Di-tert-butyl-4-methylphenol: This compound acts as an antioxidant, which prevents the oils in the pastels from going rancid, preserving the color quality, lightfastness, and extending their shelf life.
  • White Mineral Oil: White mineral Oil is another non-drying oil that keeps the pastel creamy, malleable and easy to blend.
  • Calcium Carbonate: Calcium Carbonate acts as a filler and provides structure to the paste, it affects the opacity and texture, as well as the adherence of the paste on the paper or canvas.
  • Kaolin Clay: This is another filler that is used to modify the consistency and texture of the pastel, improving its adherence to surfaces, although it also influences the transparency and luster of the colors.

Common Oil Pastel Pigments

Oil Pastel Pigment List

Oil pastels are composed of a pigment mixed with a non-drying oil and a wax binder.  Oil pastel pigments provide the color for the oil pastel.  Below you can find a list of some of the common pigments used in oil pastels:

  • Titanium Dioxide
  • Pigment Red 101
  • Pigment Brown 6
  • Pigment Red 254
  • Pigment Red 122
  • Pigment Red 48:3
  • Pigment Orange 13
  • Pigment Orange 34
  • Pigment Yellow 42
  • Pigment Yellow 3
  • Pigment Yellow 1
  • Pigment Yellow 55
  • Pigment Yellow 14
  • Pigment Green 7
  • Pigment Blue 15:3
  • Pigment Blue 29
  • Pigment Blue 27
  • Pigment Violet 23
  • Pigment Violet 19
  • Carbon Black

How to Use Oil Pastels?

Oil Pastel Crayons in hand

Oil pastels are an extremely versatile medium that can be used to create art with vibrant colors and intriguing textures, but they are also very easy to use for those trying them for the first time. The application is very straightforward, all you have to do is take the oil pastel stick, and apply it directly onto your preferred surface, you’ll see how the color transfers from the pastel bar to to the paper or your preferred surface immediately, and depending on the quality of the pastel the experience could be closer to using soft crayons or firm lipstick.

You can spread the colors with your fingers, with a cotton pad, with a q-tip, etc. You can blend a color with another one directly, layer them on top of each other, or even use a palette knife to apply them for thick impasto techniques. Oil pastels are all about experimentation and exploration, there are no rules but we do have a few advices for beginners:

Artist Drawing with Oil Pastels

  • Choose the Right Surface: The best papers for pastel will be the ones that are heavier and have a good tooth. If you want to, you can use something else, for instance, canvas, wood, or fabric for various outcomes.
  • Work In A Warm Place: If you can find or afford high quality pastels, then ignore this advice, but if you don’t, usually even low quality pastels will perform better on warm places than in cold ones, so maybe pick a warm hour or work in a warm room to see better results.
  • Protect Your Work: Oil pastels will not dry and they can smudge very easily. Consider using an oil pastel fixative spray as well as a protective layer storing your artwork if you’re not putting it into a frame.
  • Have A Cloth Near You: To avoid color contamination as much as possible, have a cloth or paper towels near you so you can keep your pastels clean and avoid getting muddy colors.
  • Always Wash Your Hands Afterwards: Oil Pastels are a messy medium, so make sure to always wash your hands with soap and warm water afterwards to avoid staining walls and other surfaces.

For a full guide, see how article: How to Use Oil Pastels.

How to Blend Oil Pastels?

 

There are several ways to blend oil pastels, you can use your fingers to obtain smooth gradations and mix colors together, you can blend directly onto the surface with the pastel bars by painting on top of each other softly, you can use heavy pressure for blending, by layering two or more colors on top of each other and with more pressure create vibrant blends, you can also blend with light pressure and achieve impressionistic effects and subtle transitions, you can mix your colors in a palette beforehand and then apply them onto your surface with your fingers or a palette knife or use solvents and a brush or a color shaper to blend.

Do Oil Pastels Dry?

No, Oil Pastels don’t dry. Since they’re made with a non-drying oil and a wax binder, they remain “fresh” and can be smudged even after being applied and left alone for years. To prevent this, a fixative is needed to protect the artwork, and in case of heavy applications, framing and storing in the right conditions is a key factor as well.

How to Protect Oil Pastel Paintings

You can protect your oil pastel paintings by spraying a fixative over them, however it has to be a fixative made for oil pastels, this helps to seal them and reduces smudging. Some fixatives can change the appearance of oil pastels or give them a gloss or satin finish so test them first over a scrap piece first. If you’re painting on a sketchbook, use a layer of glassine paper to cover your pages to prevent the pastels from sticking to the next page. Some sketchbooks come with this paper incorporated before each page, but some don’t, so it’s always a good idea to have some in hand. You can also frame your work under glass, always making sure to avoid direct sunlight and to place it in non-warm places to avoid possible melting.

Do Oil Pastels Melt?

Yes, oil pastels do melt. Since they’re made with wax and non-drying oils, they are very susceptible to heat, which makes them easy to work with in warm climates, however at high temperatures, the wax and oil in the pastels can soften a begin to melt, which can happen both to the pastel bars and to works where thick layers have been applied. You can use this to your advantage using a hairdryer to “activate” oil pastels in very cold climates, or to try new techniques, however when storing your pastels always make sure to keep them away from the heat.

Oil Pastel Techniques

Oil pastel techniques include:

  • Layering: Builds color depth and complexity,
  • Underpainting: Establishes tonal foundation, guides color application, enhances depth,
  • Blending: Creates smooth transitions between colors,
  • Scumbling: Adds texture by lightly layering one color over another,
  • Sgraffito: Reveals layers beneath by scratching the surface,
  • Stippling: Uses dots to mix colors and add texture,
  • Impasto: Applies thick layers for texture and volume,
  • Wet Blending: Uses solvents to blend colors for a painterly effect,
  • Palette Mixing: Combines colors directly on the surface or palette for varied hues,
  • Masking: Protects areas from being colored for sharp edges or highlights.

These techniques manipulate aspects like color intensity, texture, depth, edge sharpness, and the overall mood of the artwork.

For a full guide on these techniques, see our article: How to Use Oil Pastels.

Underpainting Oil Pastel Technique

Underpainting is a technique where an initial layer of medium is applied to serve as a base for subsequent layers, defining tones, values and the overall compositions of a piece. This technique is very common in oil and acrylic painting, however it can also adapt to oil pastel painting by applying the same principles. Additionally, the initial layer can also be used to create texture that will peek through the upper layers, adding another quality of visual interest to the artwork.

Layering Oil Pastel Technique

Layering is a fundamental painting technique that consists of building up color, texture and depth by applying multiple layers of the medium. You can use this technique to go from light to dark, from dark to light, to blend colors, to create textures, to do optical mixing and for impasto.

Sgraffito Oil Pastel Technique

Sgrafitto is a paitnign technique that consitst of scratching the top layer of your painting to reveal a lower layer or the surface of the painting itself, this methhod is used to add highlights, add texture or work on details in the artwork. It can be don with a palette knife, a piece of carboard with a sharp edge, a toothpick or even the end of a paperclip.

Oil Pastel Techniques for Beginners

Child using oil pastels

For beginners who are just getting started with oil pastels, we recommend techniques such as:

  • Stippling: It involves creating art with dots, either by placing them too close or too separated from each other or making them overlap. This technique will also train your eyes for optical mixing.
  • Color Layering: Layering is fundamental in oil pastel work. Start with lighter colors and gradually add darker shades on top, this builds depth and intensity in the color, you can then choose to blend them or leave them as they are, experiment with different shades and see what results you get.
  • Simple Blending: Pick two colors and draw two blocks side by side on your paper. Using your finger, a paper towel, or a blending stump, gently rub the interface where the two colors meet to blend them together. This will help you understand how oil pastels mix and the kind of pressure needed for blending.
  • Sgraffito: Block a thick layer of various dark colors on your paper as a background. Then, using a pointed tool (like the end of a paintbrush or a toothpick), scratch out a simple design, revealing the white of the paper beneath. This basic sgraffito technique shows you how to create contrast and simple images with just one color.
  • Experiment with Textures: Use the tip or edge of an oil pastel stick to create different marks on paper—lines, dots, dashes. Use different amounts of pressure and see how much pastel adheres to the paper and the effects you get. Play with the consistency of it and try creating different textures with your fingers and tools near you.

Types of Oil Pastel Grades

The different oil pastel grades are school grade, student grade, and professional grade. As you probably know, oil pastels are not all made the same, hence the difference in prices, accessibility and quality. The different grades reflect the diversity in materials used and the intended audience needs and skills.

  • Scholastic Grade: These pastels are the most affordable, safe to use and low quality of them all, designed with young children in mind, they have the lowest pigment load and are made with more wax than the others, resembling more crayons than pastels. While they have a lot of limitations, they’re a great way to introduce the medium to children and an excellent alternative to crayons.
  • Student Grade: These pastels are designed for art students and hobbyists that don’t have the budget to get professional grade oil pastels but want to try the medium or explore different techniques without breaking the bank. They have an average rating value for lightfastness and permanence and offer a wider range of colors and while they don’t have the softness or color intensity of professional oil pastels they are a great option for artists on a budget.
  • Professional Grade: Professional grade oil pastels are made with the highest quality materials, from pigments to oils, which makes them have that extra creamier, smoother consistency and those bright, vibrant colors we love. These pastels are made with higher quality standards, have better lightfastness ratings and offer a much wider color range, on the downside, that also makes them much more expensive than student grade oil pastels.

Artists that Use Oil Pastels

The main historical art figures that utilized oil pastels were Pablo Picasso and Henri Goetz.

Besides Picasso and Goetz, who have a recognized history with the medium, there haven’t been a lot of other artists who have embraced oil pastels as their medium of choice, this is due to the “age” of oil pastels, being present only for a century and being born in the middle of a war, haven’t seen the widespread adoption by many historical figures in the art world that more traditional mediums have enjoyed.

These factors had led to some level of confusion, particularly when discussing the use of pastels in art. You might find artists like Edgar Degas, Jean-François Millet, or Mary Cassatt listed in discussions about oil pastel art and history, however these artists actually worked with soft pastels and soft pastel pencils and those works were done before oil pastels were even invented. This “confusion” that leads to widely spread misinformation comes from the general term “pastels” which encompasses both oil and soft pastels. The poor research behind this leads to the “assumption” about the artists mediums of choice without considering the specific type or historical context.

This is truly regrettable as it can obscure the genuine contributions and innovative techniques of artists who truly did work with oil pastels, like Henri Goetz, who was instrumental in popularizing them among modern artists, and Pablo Picasso, who embraced them in his later years.

Oil Pastel Painting Ideas

Some Oil Pastel painting  ideas you can try whether you’re a beginner or have some experience already are still lifes, portrait paintings, landscapes, seascapes, animal studies, floral compositions, painting sunsets, and cityscapes at night. The color intensity, blendability, layering ability and texture of oil pastels makes them the perfect medium to try these ideas. You can create gradients, blend with your fingers, apply colors smoothly and layer them on top of each other easily, so just grab your pastels and start painting!

Oil Pastel Still Lifes

Oil Pastel Still Life

Still lifes are artworks that showcase arrangements of inanimate objects that can include household items, fruit, flowers, etc arranged in an aesthetic composition. Oil pastels are great for still lifes due to thei vibrant colors and the combinatiosn you can achieve wth them, you cna workon boh detials and cover broad areas, and play with light and shadow as well as create depth with them.

 

Oil Pastel Portraits

Oil Pastel Portrait

Portraits are pictures of people that intend to capture their looks, a glimpse of their personalities and the moment they’re painted on, usually focusing on the person’s face. The blendabiity and texture of oil pastels make them excellent for portraits as they can both capture the essence of a aperson as well as create impressionistic effects on the feature of the face.

 

Oil Pastel Landscapes

Oil Pastel Landscape

Landcspaes are pictures of outdoor scenes, like fields, forest or cities. Oil pastels have a broad range of colors that helps you bring nature to life in your canvas, plus the unique composition of oil pastels makes adding texture to your work a delight.

 

Oil Pastel Seascapes

Oil Pastel Sunset

Seascapes are pictures that show the sea or the ocea, they can show water moving, waves or beaches. Oil pastels are perfect for seascapes because they let you make water look dynamic. You can show how light dances on the waves and make the water seem like it’s moving.

 

Oil Pastel Sunsets

Oil Pastel Sunset

Sunsets are pictures that captures the sky when the sun goes down below the horizon, filling the sky with dramatic colors and light. Oil pastels are amazing for sunsets because their strong colors help show the beautiful sky colors as the sun sets, from orange to pink to purple. Their consistency makes it super easy to blend these colors together smoothly and create gradations for different sky colors.

Best Oil Pastel Brands

Based on our research, the best Oil Pastel brand is Harbor Art Supplies.  They have two lines of oil pastels, the Elite Artisan (for more professional artists) and the Studio Starter (for students and beginners).

For more information and our complete buying guide, see our full article on the Best Oil Pastels.

Crayons vs Oil Pastels

Crayons are usually made from paraffin wax and a little bit of pigment, the wax is used as a binder, resulting in a firm texture, that makes it harder to break ean easier to use for the public they’re intended for: children. They are impossible to blend and don’t have the coverage oil pastels offer, however they’re non toxic, and much less messy than oil pastels, making them great for the classroom and more durable for day-to day use.

The only similatrity they share is their shape and way of use, they both share the same concept and apply the same way, although with completely different results. Defnitely not the right choice for artists but a great choice for little kids and schools.

Oil Pastels vs Soft Pastels

Oil pastels and soft pastels are both artistic mediums used to create vibrant art pieces, however they are completely diferent in composition and texture, while oil pastels are made with non-drying oils, wax and pigments, soft pastels (also known as chalk pastels) are made from pure pigments wiht a small ammount of binder that results in a powdery texture that is basically like dust getting caught into the paper’s crevices. They both can create vivid colors, require fixatives to protect them beforehand and they’re both highly lightfast, making them the choice of many different professional and beginner artists.

Oil Pastels vs Hard Pastels

Oils and hard pastels are two art mediums that can be used different of ways as they have different textures and applications. Oil pastels are made up of pigments, oil, and wax. They have a creamy texture which is perfect for smooth blending as well as for building up layers. They work great for vivid and expressive painting, but can be smeared easily, and need careful handling. While on one side, soft pastels tend to be softer and require less binder, hard pastels have more binder content, making them more firm and better for precise work with a matte finish. Their colors are less vivid than oil pastels, and while they don’t require the same amount of cleanup as other mediums they’re still quite messy. Both of these mediums support layering and can be used in mixed media, though your choice will depend on whether you want the bolder, more textured feel of oil pastels or the finer, cleaner lines of hard pastels.

Scroll to Top