Materials & Techniques

Experimenting with Oil Pastels

There’s nothing quite like opening a new set of crayons and seeing them laid out all beautiful and pristine ready to use for the first time. I was offered some art materials to test out for Caran d’Ache, and was happy to do so, because although I don’t do a great number of reviews on Artful Adventures, nevertheless good quality free art materials never go amiss, and I genuinely thought I could turn it to use as a piece that would be of interest to readers. For some reason I was expecting pencil crayons to arrive, but what actually turned up was a set of Caran D’Ache Neopastel artists quality oil pastels.



Now oil pastels are fairly unfamiliar territory for me. I remember I loved them as a child – their soft oily texture and the richness and depth of their colour meant that I used them again and again, but strangely as an adult I gave up using them and I’m not sure why.

So on receiving these, it was time to break out of my comfort zone and see what I could do with them. Before I could get my hands on them though, my younger son got there first.  So what does a 6 year old do with a new set of oil pastels? Try every colour in the box straight away. He used them in the way most children do, to draw and colour with them like any other crayons. And of course you can use them very like wax crayons, for rubbings for example, or for classic sgraffito work (scratching through the top layer to a different coloured layer beneath), or for resist work with water based paint.


My 6 year old’s first go – trying out all the colours!


His next experiment, combined the oil pastels with the watercolour sprays to create an island scene.


He particularly enjoyed using them with the watercolour spray inks which he loves, while my elder son also seemed to appreciate the bold, rich qualities of the crayons to produce bold graphic drawings.



But as I discovered when I finally got my opportunity to try them out, oil pastels are very much more versatile than wax crayons, capable of being used for a wide range of different styles. I decided to use them to render a seascape from some photographs I took on our last visit to the west of Scotland. The weather was mixed, being early in the year, but the atmospheric effects caused by flurries of snow, sea spray and stray gleams of light from the cloudy sky were quite beautiful, and I thought might suit oil pastel. I started work with the intention of being purely experimental in my approach, rather than being too concerned about the finished result. Always the best way I find, for myself at least.

I decided to use a textured paper intended for use with oil or acrylic paint. The linen look of the paper I thought lent itself well to the pastel, and showed off it’s texture beautifully. I roughed in the background with a few strokes of blue and grey, and then added to it with gray and purple to suggest the distant mountains.



Next, I blended these together with my fingers to soften the effect – the ability to do this with pastels is for me one of the things I most like – it enables you to get directly hands on – personally I always find I do my best work when I can actually use my hands directly, even if it can leave them a bit messy.



After this, I added some dense highlights to the clouds and the water with pieces of white pastel, and blocked in the darker areas of the sand and dunes in the foreground.

I had read that it was possible to use the crayons with white spirit or turpentine, so I dipped a soft brush in white spirit and used that to blend the colours further. I decided that I liked it better if this technique was used sparingly – as I found it made the crayon areas where I used it denser and less delicate, though it was useful for blending large areas quickly, and could always be worked over again to give more texture if necessary.

To add some dynamism to the scene, and give the impression of sleet and spray, and foreground texture, I scratched into the pastel with a knife.



By this point, I had the urge to add some mixed media to the drawing, so I lightly sprayed some watercolour ink around the edges. This was of course resisted by the oil pastel, so it beaded on the surface  giving yet more texture. I also spattered some white acrylic across the scene to represent the flurries of sleet and snow.



Although the finished result is by no means a masterpiece, I learned a lot from the whole process of creating it.  The experience has turned me into a convert to oil pastels once again, and I would like to explore their use with mixed media a little more. However I must admit that I did find it a little challenging using such a very limited range of colours (there were just 12 in the set) but I see that there are larger sets available of up to 96!

I think oil pastels are a great portable solution to take travelling especially, because they are compact yet versatile, and would allow you to produce sketches quite quickly, especially using a tinted paper background. (It’s also worth mentioning at this point that ideally finished oil pastel drawings should be protected with fixative spray to prevent the surface from rubbing off).

For children, they are a great way of covering large areas of bright dense colour without using paint, and are therefore potentially a little less messy. You can also get water soluble oil pastels now too, which I haven’t tried, but which I understand you can use with washes of water on top to turn it into paint, in the same way as using turpentine on traditional oil pastels. Water soluble pastels would arguably be more suitable for young children, though of course you would lose the ability to use them for resist work, so I suppose it depends what you want them for.

If you’ve not tried oil pastels, why not give them a go?



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