Oil pastels were first popularized by Kanae Yamamoto in Japan at the end of World War I. Yamamoto was keen to introduce the world to the concept of “learning without a teacher” – also known as the Jiyu-ga method – which he discussed in great detail in his book Theory of self-expression.
In Japan, Indian ink was the preferred medium taught at schools and Yamamoto felt it did not allow students to fully explore their artistic capabilities and individuality through self-expression.
Determined to change up the art curriculum followed by Japanese schools, Yamamoto teamed up with Rinzo Satake and Shuku Sasaki, both of whom were teachers and supporters of his work, and together they founded the Sakura Cray-Pas Company and began producing their first wax crayons in 1921.
The first attempts yielded unsatisfactory results seeing as the pigment concentration was too low and did not allow for blending, but by 1924 they were well on their way to perfecting what is now known as the oil pastel.
Initially, oil pastels were intended to bring western art education to Japanese children, but their versatility soon began to intrigue professional artists such as Pablo Picasso, who had no way of getting his hands on them due to the prevailing war conditions.
Eager to experiment with this new, exciting medium, he contracted French manufacturer Henri Sennelier to develop a fine art version of oil pastels, which were finally introduced in 1949. Artists and manufacturers began to recognize the power and possibility of oil pastels, and between the late sixties and early nineties, various brands of oil pastels were introduced to the market.
Sennelier oil pastels still count as the preferred brand, as they are soft and vibrant in color, allowing for easy blending.
Although there are cheaper versions available, it is recommended to use the best, affordable quality of oil pastels – even if you are just starting out.
It will facilitate your learning curve and allow you to experiment with different methods and techniques without frustration – cheap versions usually aren’t that smooth to work with and will now allow you to discover the medium’s full potential.
To help you get started, here are a few tips:
- Prepare Your Workspace – There is no need for brushes and solutions, especially if you are new to working with oil pastels. However, you should clear a clean surface to work on and always keep paper towels or an old rag close. Working with oil pastels can get quite messy as they will stain your hands, and if you’re not careful, your clothes too. You can also opt to work with throw-away plastic gloves, just keep in mind that they will not protect your clothes.
- Taking Care of Your Oil Pastel Sticks – As you become more confident with your oil pastels, you will begin to experiment with layering and blending. Once you start playing with these techniques, it is important to clean your pastel sticks regularly, as they will pick up other colors whilst layering or blending. When you switch from one stick to another, always make sure only the original color is visible – should any other color pigments be mixed into your stick, use a paper towel or an old rag to wipe it off.
- Choose Your Surface – Oil pastels work on different types of paper, but you should try avoiding standard drawing paper and go for something with a weight of over 80lb. Mixed media paper, which can be purchased in art stores and online, is usually thicker and sturdier, making it a great choice for oil pastels. You can also invest in Sennelier’s oil pastel pads – the go-to choice for artists looking to create a quality piece of work. If you’d like to experiment with other surfaces, Ampersand’s pastel boards come highly recommended as they are extremely durable and offer a textured surface.
- Choose Your Pastels – As we already mentioned above, quality oil pastels are a must. It may seem rather daunting to spend a good amount of money on a medium you haven’t even perfected yet, but you can rest assured you will not regret investing in quality. If you’re uncertain as to whether oil pastels will become a continuing hobby, you can opt to buy individual sticks rather than a whole pack – just choose your favorite colors and get to work. Make sure you are familiar with the subtle differences between oil pastels and soft pastels when making your purchase.
Now that you’ve prepared your tools, it’s time to get started on oil pastel techniques for beginners.
Forget What You Know
If you are under the impression that working with oil pastels will be similar to working with crayons, colored pencils or oil paint, think again. You may find yourself approaching oil pastels with similar techniques you might have learned drawing with colored pencils, but it’s time for you to forget what you already know, and tackle oil pastels as an absolute beginner. In doing so, you will find a lot more freedom in coming to understand this new medium, and will go about your first experimentations in a looser fashion than you would whilst trying to adapt other techniques to oil pastels.
Mix and Match Your Brands
If you have decided to buy individual oil pastel sticks while you are still learning, make sure to buy a selection of different brands, for example, Sennelier, Erengi or Cray-Pas Specialist. Each brand produces sticks of different levels of firmness, and alternating between soft sticks and firm sticks can result in beautiful effects. Firm brands (Cray-Pas Specialist) are best used for the first layers of your painting, whereas soft brands (Holbein) work wonders atop heavy, saturated layers of firm oil pastels.
Choose Your Subject
Once you have decided what your first drawing will be of, start by outlining your idea with a pencil. This may be difficult for the type of artists who like to just dive into their work and see what comes out, but as you are starting out, it is always better to begin with a clear idea you can work on perfecting, rather than jumping into something abstract. By starting out with a still life, for example, you will allow yourself the opportunity to play with different techniques and become more confident with them. By outlining your subject with a pencil first, you can eliminate any mistakes before you get started with the oil pastels.
There are various blending techniques for oil pastels and you will have a lot of fun experimenting with them all. You’ll be surprised to learn that one of the most popular tools for blending with oil pastels are your fingers! Needless to say, you will want to keep your paper towels or an old cloth at hand’s reach if you’re going to be working with your fingers, because it’s going to get messy – you will want to make sure that your hands are always clean before you start blending new colours to avoid any unwanted colours mixing into your blend. Blending with your fingers is quick and will help you become in tune with your painting and the medium, as you will learn to understand what pressures need to be applied for what effect.
Paper towels or cloths can also be used to blend oil pastels and will help you achieve loose smudging effects etc. However, this technique isn’t recommended for paintings that require sharp lines or angles. If you’re looking for a blending technique that allows for exactness, use tortillions: these cylindrical drawing tools will help you sharpen edges and finetune intricate details.
One of the coolest things about oil pastel painting is that you can add amazing effects by scratching off the surface of one layer, to reveal the colors beneath. For example: color an entire piece of paper or pastel board with bright, vibrant colors, careful to cover the entire surface and cover up as much white as possible.
Next, use a darker color to paint over the colorful layer you have just completed. This is a nerve-wracking exercise, but the results will be worth it! Apply a lot of pressure – but be careful not to break your pastel stick – and try to cover up the entire bottom layer. Using a skewer or even a toothpick, start scratching your desired shapes or symbols into the top layer, revealing the colorful bottom layer. You can also use your preferred stencils for this technique – either way, the results will look fantastic! You can apply this method even if you are not working in layers, to add fine details to the objects in your painting.