oil pastels Pet Portraits in Oil Pastel oil pastel tips
oil pastel tips

Oil Pastel Painting

"He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head and his heart is an artist."
-- Saint Francis of Assisi

I am very touched to receive kind emails from fellow artists and art students enquiring about oil pastels and my own techniques painting animals. Although I try to answer as many as I can, I've also added this page for those who may be interested in the few tips and personal preferences I can put into words. For further information on oil pastel and more in depth resources, please look over some of the pastel books listed in my Bookshelf, visit the Oil Pastel Society, see John Elliot's oil pastel FAQ page or Wikipedia's oil pastel information page. The Oil Pastel Forum at Wetcanvas is also definitely worth a visit, as there are many talented artists in the community offering inspiration and personal advice.


oil pastel


Please click below to see Coco's portrait from start to finish...

oil pastels painting

oil pastel

OIL PASTEL BRANDS: There are many brands of oil pastel available today in a variety of grades. The greater the quality, the higher the ratio of pure pigment to its oil & wax binder, and the finer the quality of ingredients - allowing for richer colours and finer technique. Student or hobby grades are relatively easy to find in your local art supply store - Van Gogh and Sakura Cray Pas Expressionist are both very popular. Artist grade oil pastels from Holbein, Sennelier, and Caran D'Ache can be harder to find and significantly more expensive, but they are the finest quality and ensure your paintings will last a lifetime.

I begin by using Cray Pas to block in larger areas and sketch some of the base work, then move on to the development of the painting at which point I switch to Sennelier and Holbein. Sennelier, originally developed in collaboration with Picasso in the 1940's, are extremely soft and rich, often referred to as having the consistency of lipstick. I've found them particularly effective for finishing work and bright highlights. Holbein are harder, but have a beautiful smoothness and an incredible range of colours. Their square sticks are very useful for creating finer lines.

oil pastel

oil pastel painting detail  

I am often asked about achieving realistic detail with oil pastels, as the medium is relatively soft, making it difficult to maintain sharp edges with which to create fine lines. While this softness means oil pastel is excellent for bold work and heavy impasto effects, artists who work in detail must turn to a variety of methods in an effort to overcome this characteristic.

I approach each painting by first laying down the main areas of colour and tone. Still using the oil pastel sticks, I then go back and begin building up further layers, slowly mixing colours, adding tiny swirls and strokes of oil pastel at a time and always keeping texturing in the correct direction for the hairs of the subject. After this, I begin working the surface with my fingers (best for large smooth areas), sharpened blenders and rubber colour shapers (kept damp with a nearby sponge to help them glide more easily over the surface), gradually blending together the various layers of colour into a seamless texture with many, many strokes of these tools.

Be sure to take note of the type of hair you are painting, as all hair is not created equal! Long, flowing tails and coats are best reproduced using long, smooth natural strokes layered upon each other...while shorter hair and partings in an animal's fur, as well as areas where hair is pointing out toward the viewer, can be achieved with scumbled marks and shorter, tighter strokes.

The finest details around the eyes and mouth, and highlights, are painted by picking up tiny amounts of oil pastel with the tip of a blender or the sharp edge of a white eraser and applying them this way, rather than using the oil pastel stick. Scraping back through layers of oil pastel with a hard, fine blending tool (sgraffito) can also be very useful for creating the texture of individual hairs. Letting a painting sit for a day or two to allow its surface to slighty cool and harden (although oil pastel will never dry completely) also helps if you need to add fine lines over a previously worked area. For creating soft edges around a portrait, I've found it useful to use a rounded white eraser to catch the edge of the oil pastel and drag it out in curves and lines fading over the paper like hair.

Although I do not employ the technique personally, many oil pastelists work by thinning down oil pastel with turpentine or mineral spirits so that the medium can actually be painted with a brush or used as a wash. This is a very effective method and opens up several new creative possibilities - but keep in mind if you are thinking of experimenting with this technique, it is most important that you only do so in a properly ventilated area as the fumes can be harmful.

One further tip - if there is an area of a painting you wish to keep light, or you are experimenting with composition, it's often advisable to lay a fine layer of white oil pastel over this area of the paper first. This allows you to then scrape back and begin again if need be, as darker pigments in further layers of oil pastel will not have been able to stain the paper quite as much through this white base.

oil pastel

PAPER & SUPPORT: There are so many different varieties of paper available and it comes down to personal choice and approach in the end. Many oil pastelists choose Canson papers of which there are several varieties (some specially for pastels) and tints. One of the beauties of oil pastel is its versatility and ability to bind to a support, allowing you to paint on a variety of other surfaces such as wood, glass or canvas.

Since heavily textured papers can cause oil pastel to 'clump up' in the depressions or skip over them (very effective for some styles of painting), I prefer to use smoother papers with only a subtle suggestion of texture, so that it does not interfere with the detailing I aim to achieve in my portraits. Specifically, at the moment I enjoy painting on 300lb, hot pressed Aquarelle watercolour paper by Arches. It has a gorgeous surface with just the right balance of smoothness and texture.

oil pastel painting

If you haven't yet tried oil pastels, please pick up a set and try experimenting with this wonderful medium. I hope the above has been of a little help at least. Have fun, good luck and enjoy!

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