An introduction to oil pastels

By Rudo Nhamoinesu

Artwork by Rudo Nhamoinesu

Oil Pastels

Having taken up art in high school, I have always found oil pastels to be the easiest and fun to use even for beginners. Grown up crayons as I like to call them, they are the new and improved version of the crayon. They are incredible creation sticks that always have my imagination pumping and my go to for a quick art project. Oil pastels are made up of oil and wax and they pair perfectly with canvas, paper, wood and even glass.

Where did they come from?

The history of oil pastels is short and colourful. Like acrylic painting, it’s an invention of the twentieth century. Many good examples can be found in museums of modern art, as it’s one of the new mediums that Pablo Picasso pioneered.

1925– They were first made by Sakura colour products of Osaka, Japan and named Cray-Pas because they were a cross between the clean dustless ease of crayons and the traditional soft pastels.

1930- Talens of Holland created Panda oil pastels. Modern artists enjoyed the freedom of drawing or painting on any available surface, but some of them missed the opaque brilliance of traditional pigments like Cadmium and Cobalt. Still, this medium was considered a children’s product.

1949- This medium took off when Pablo Picasso approached Henri Sennelier, heir to a paint company founded in 1887. Henri was asked to create a medium that could be used on any surface without any special coating. It took a year but he returned with “Oil Pastels” sticks of pigment. Satisfied Pablo Picasso bought 40 of the 48 colours produced.

What you need to know
if you are new to pastels, the recommendation is to get the best quality of oil pastels you can afford. A good quality oil pastel has several advantages, the brand I love is Sennelier oil pastels. Apart from being used by Picasso himself, the pastels are softer, richer and more vibrant in colour and they blend easier together. Good oil pastels should have a very intensive and smooth colour stroke.

Oil crayons are difficult to correct and are not erasable. They should not be subjected to higher temperatures (approx. 122 ‘ Fahrenheit), as they become soft when heated due to their high wax content.

What makes oil Pastels great for beginners

  • Oil Pastels are quick and easy to use.
  • Easily accessible in book or art shops
  • There is no need for setting up various mediums and solutions, or brushes or much of anything else. All you need is a sheet of paper and you are ready to get started. Yes, you can use solutions, brushes and other artists tools for working with oil pastels. But it isn’t required.
  • As far as paper or surfaces, oil pastels work on a variety of papers.

Keep the mess under control

  • Pastels can be very messy but these tips will help keep you clean while you get creative
  • Always have paper towels on hand, because the medium quickly gets on fingers and sometimes clothing if not careful.
  • If not paper towels, at least keep an old rag or old article of clothing available. Not only is this good for wiping off yourself, but very often when working with oil pastels, you want to clean off the sticks of oil pastels too.
  • Another alternative is to wear plastic gloves. Do what works best for you.

Keeping the oil pastels clean
In addition to keeping yourself clean, it’s a good idea to keep the oil pastels clean, while working with them.

When layering and blending with them, this is especially important because the oil pastel picks up the other colours onto the stick you are using  and that can be a problem if you use that stick later but still have a smear of another colour adhered to the end of the stick.

Think of having a yellow coloured oil pastel but with a smear of blue on the end of it – that little bit of blue could potentially become very difficult to wipe off later on, especially in an area where you didn’t want any blue at all there! Yes, you could blend that dab of the other colour in, but it would dull the vibrance of your colour overall.

How to clean your Pastels

Technique 1: Cleaning the pastels using tissue paper- Rub the oil pastel stick with the tissue paper sheet and removed the little flecks of other pastels.

Technique 2: Cleaning pastels by colouring a paper- try colouring a ‘rough paper’ using the dirty oil pastels by rubbing the dirty parts on the paper. Keep doing this until you are satisfied with how the oil pastel looks.

I hope you enjoyed this article and you feel inspired to give oil pastels a try.

If you do, please send in your work to, we would love to see it.

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