Oil Pastels for Beginners – A Step-by-Step Tutorial

Painting with oil pastels is a magical experience, the colors are bright and vivid, the texture is soft and creamy and the possibilities are infinite. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced artist, trying a new medium like oil pastels without the proper guidance can be intimidating. 

In this tutorial, we’ll explore the world of oil pastels, starting with the essential materials you’ll need. From there, we’ll delve into basic techniques that will help you build a strong foundation. You’ll learn how to blend colors, create textures, and use different strokes to bring your artwork to life.

Finally, we’ll put everything together with a step-by-step tutorial. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a beautiful piece of art to show for your efforts and the skills to continue exploring this versatile medium on your own. Let’s get started!

Materials Needed

Oil Pastels

Oil Pastels are a unique art medium made of pigment suspended in a non-drying oil binder, they are very soft, creamy and highly pigmented, and while they might be intimidating for beginners, they are actually super easy to use. However not all oil pastels are made the same, there are school-grade oil pastels, student grade oil pastels, and professional grade oil pastels.

Oil pastels are so great that even little kids can use them, however we don’t recommend the brands that make oil pastels for children, since their consistency is more the one of a crayon than an oil pastel stick.

Student grade oil pastels are perfect for beginners, they have a creamy consistency, are easy to apply and the colors are intense and vibrant. The only downside is that they’re not as lightfast as professional grade oil pastels, and their color range is limited, however this makes them much more affordable than the professional brands.

Some popular options for beginners are Harbor Art Supplies, Cray-Pas, and Mungyo Gallery.

Look for sets that include a variety of colors. A set with at least 24 colors will provide enough variety to start exploring different techniques and color blending, but if possible try to go for sets with 36 colors or more so you can try different subjects and styles.

Choosing the Right Paper for Oil Pastels

Choosing the right paper can influence your painting experience, the results you get and how your oil pastels behave. Factors like the texture and weight of the paper are important to keep in mind while buying paper for oil pastels, as regular copy paper, sketch paper or even cardstock won’t do.

  • Papers with a bit of tooth, such as pastel paper or watercolor paper, hold the pigment well and allow for multiple layers. Canson Mi-Teintes and Strathmore 400 Series Pastel Paper are excellent choices.
  • Mixed media paper is also a good alternative, however try to pick one with an uniform tooth and that is thick enough to handle multiple layers and heavy blending.
  • Smooth surfaces like Bristol board can also be used, though they offer less grip for the pastels and recommended for experienced artists who are trying certain techniques. 

Additional Supplies

While your fingers will most likely be enough most of the time, having other supplies can make your experience smoother and less messy:

    • Blending Tools like Tortillons and Q-tips will help you blend small areas with precision. They are also great for correcting mistakes and working on details. Cloth or Cotton Pads can help blend larger areas smoothly, but will most likely grab all the pastel if you’re not careful. Your Fingers are one of the most accessible and effective blending tools you have, just make sure to keep a cleaning cloth nearby to avoid staining your work or your other colors.
    • A Fixative Spray is used to set the finished painting and prevent further smudging, while they’re not a must, it’s always useful to keep a can if you’re planning on working with oil pastels frequently. Look for fixatives specifically designed for oil pastels. You can also use wax paper to store your work and prevent it from staining other pages of your sketchbook or other pieces you’ve worked on.
    • Erasers and Pencils for Initial Sketches are always good to keep in hand, however if you can, try sketching with your pastel sticks instead, since the pencil will always get covered and might smudge and stain your lighter colors.
  • Masking Tape will keep your paper secure and help you when blending with your fingers or a cotton pad, it’ll be useful to mask certain areas you want to preserve and will give you sharp, clean edges when you finish.

Basic Oil Pastel Techniques

Holding and Handling Oil Pastels

  • You can hold your pastels as you’d hold a pencil, the closer your hand is to the paper, the more precise you will be, the further your hand is from the paper, the more loose and expressive your strokes will become.
  • Oil pastels come nicely wrapped in a special paper, designed to keep your hands clean and to make it easy to grab, grip and hold the pastel sticks, however they are also designed to be ripped, peeled and discarded, so don’t be afraid of peeling your pastels to use them in all their glory.
  • Hold the pastel on its side to cover larger areas quickly and smoothly. This is useful when working on big pieces, large backgrounds or broad strokes.

Blending Techniques

There are several ways to blend oil pastels, however for beginners most of the blending will happen directly on the paper. You can use the following techniques:

  • Pastel Blending: Apply two colors together and blend them with each other or with a third color by applying pressure directly on the paper.
  • Finger Blending: Use your fingers to blend colors directly on the paper. This allows for a more uniform blending since the warmth of your fingers make the pastels easier to blend. Careful with smearing and staining your work with other colors, remember to always clean your fingers after blending with them.
  • Cloth Blending: A soft cloth can be used to blend larger areas more smoothly than fingers alone. It’s less messy but it can also grab most of the creamy pastels from the surface so it’s not recommended when looking for an impasto effect.
  • Other Blending Tools: Tortillons and blending stumps are excellent for small, precise areas where finger blending isn’t practical, but you can also use q-tips.

Layering Colors and Creating Texture

While you can work from dark to light with oil pastels due to their high coverage, it’s recommended to start with lighter colors and gradually layer darker shades on top. Oil pastels are semi-opaque, so layering allows underlying colors to influence the final hue. 

Work in layers, always leaving the details and darker colors for the end.

To create texture on your paintings you can use different techniques, the most recommended for beginners are Stippling, which consists of dabbing the pastel to create small dots of color that build texture and create an interesting effect. You can also use Sgraffito which involves scratching into the top layer of pastel to reveal the layers beneath using tools like toothpicks or the edge of a palette knife to add highlights or to emphasize certain details. Finally, and while not the best technique to start with, you can use Impasto, which involves applying thick layers of color so that reliefs are created, this is great for nature, landscapes and botanical painting.

For more information see our full guide on Oil Pastel Techniques.

Oil Pastel Tutorial (Step by Step): Sunset Landscape

Today we will create a sunset landscape in oil pastels.  Each step will be outlined with instructions and images to guide you along.  Enjoy!

Step 1: Sketching the Outline

Using a very light yellow color, sketch a simple outline that consists of a water body, mountains in the background, some clouds, and an island with some vegetation in the foreground.

Step 2: Apply the First Layer of Colors

Apply light yellow, bright red and light orange as the first layer of colors. Apply it lightly emphasizing the highlights in the middle of the water.

Use a light orange color to blend along with the light yellow, to create a first layer we can work on.

Step 3: Apply the Second Layer of Colors

Grab a more intense red, mauve and purple colors and apply them on top of the first layer, since the layer underneath is light, the colors are bound to lighten as well. Blend with your fingers using horizontal movements as you deepen the colors, creating water-like effects.

Step 4: Work On the Sky

Mask the water area to prevent smudging and repeat the previous steps for the sky using more saturated colors.

Use circular moments when blending to achieve a soft gradient.

Step 5: Add the Mountain In the Background

Mask the water area once again and with a deep blue color, draw the outline of a mountain in the background. Fill it in and apply a layer of black to the base.

Step 6: Add the Foreground Island 

Using your black oil pastel stick, sketch and fill the shape of the visible part of an island on the foreground. Fill it in completely, applying enough pressure but without smudging the color underneath.

Step 7: Add Vegetation

Using the sharp side of your black stick, pull some lines from the island to make grass, using your small blending stump, define the grass blades and pull some smaller lines from the black area.

Step 8: Add Some Clouds

Using a mauve color, add some clouds to the sky. Use your finger and your large blending stump to soften the edges with circular movements.

Step 9: Final Touches

Use a dark purple to add dimension to the clouds, and to add a reflection of the mountains in the water. Take a step back and observe your work, fix any details or mistakes and remove the tape carefully. You can now use a fixative spray to set the oil pastels or a piece of wax paper to protect and store your sunset landscape.

And that’s it! We hope you’ve enjoyed this oil pastels tutorial for beginners, and that it was a good introduction to this unique art medium.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oil Pastels

Below we’ve included some Frequently Asked Questions about oil pastels that address some common queries we get from students.

What are the Best Oil Pastel Brands for Beginners?

The best oil pastel brands for beginners are Harbor Art and Mungyo Gallery. These two brands are very easy to use, apply nicely on the paper, are easy to control and are also very pigmented. Feel free to check our Best Oil Pastels guide to find professional, budget and alternative options that suit your needs and budget. 

What Art Mediums are comparable to Oil Pastels?

Oil pastels are an unique medium, however other mediums share similar qualities, like soft pastels, which offer vibrant colors but are dry and powdery in contrast with the creamy nature of oil pastels. Oil sticks are also very similar to oil pastels, however sine they are made from oil paint they do dry and can be mixed with oil paints. Crayons are also similar to oil pastels, they are shaped similarly and are also wax-based, however crayons are harder, less pigmented and intended for children, resulting in less vibrant colors and poor blending qualities.

How do Oil Pastels compare to Soft Pastels and Hard Pastels?

Oil pastels, soft pastels and hard pastels share a common quality: They all are professional art mediums that have a high pigment load, lay down easily on paper and are highly blendable. Oil pastels are creamy and blend easily. Soft pastels are powdery and higly blendable, but also smudge easily, need specialty paper, and a fixative. Hard pastels are firmer, better for details and precise lines in pastel painting but also need specialty paper and fixative.

Does Artchive have other Art Tutorials?

Yes! Artchive has many other art tutorials covering many different art mediums and expertise levels.  See our full list at our main Artchive Art Tutorials page.





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