Fine Art Oil Pastels are Worth the Cost

Abstract Wheels by Robert A. Sloan

Abstract Wheels created with three primary color Sennelier oil pastels and one black Caran d'Ache Neopastel for the strong black lines.
Abstract Wheels created with three primary color Sennelier oil pastels and one black Caran d'Ache Neopastel for the strong black lines.

Choosing a Brand of Oil Pastels

If you're looking for a fine art medium that is clean, portable, lightfast and powerful, consider oil pastels.

While artist grade oil pastels can run expensive, they aren't as big an expense as soft pastels and can be used on almost any surface. While each manufacturer does have a unique, proprietary binder formula, the number of manufacturers is far fewer and oil pastels blend better than soft pastels. Artist grade oil pastels include Sennelier, Holbein, Caran d'Ache Neopastel, Cretacolor AquaStic (water-soluble), Erengi Art Aspirer and Cray-Pas Specialist (the square sticks). Van Gogh Super Fine Quality Oil Pastels and Daler-Rowney oil pastels may fall into this category too.

Student grade oil pastels include Cray-Pas Expressionists (round sticks), Holbein Academic, Portfolio Watersoluble and possibly, Van Goghs. I tend to put Van Gogh with the Artist grade oil pastels on trying a sample of them, they are a little softer than Cray-Pas Specialists, are available in open stock instead of buying full sets and list their pigments. I haven't tried the Daler-Rowney oil pastels yet, so can't write from experience, but they do seem reasonably priced at Jerry's Artarama.

The big differences between Artist Grade, Student Grade and Scholastic Grade oil pastels (or any medium) are pigment load (how much pigment vs. how much binder in the stick), how fine the pigments are ground (finer-ground pigments can saturate better and flow more smoothly), quality of pigments, hardness and lightfastness. Of these, lightfastness is vitally important for fine art. You don't want to create gallery paintings to sell for hundreds of dollars only to have an angry client a year later complaining that your brilliant portrait just turned greenish pale because the reds and violets faded.

Oil pastels are no exception to the rule that artist grade is easier to use and more frugal in the long run. More pigment means that you can cover more area with a thinner application, so the sticks don't wear out as fast. The best way to find this out is to approach manufacturers, stores and online art supply companies and ask for samples. I did, and will report in detail later in this Hub on every brand I've tried.

Only you can know what your hand likes best, what texture is right for your style or the surfaces you want to use it on. You may need a super soft Sennelier stick or something more firm, you may prefer the color range in one brand over another, and budget is sometimes a consideration.

I've found the best way to save money isn't to buy cheap brands, but to look for top quality brands on sale online or off, use coupons, plan my purchases and constantly surf Clearance pages for artist grade supplies. Often gift sets go on Clearance after the holidays, or early in the fall when companies are getting rid of old stock to make room for the current year's gift sets.

So let's have a look at artist grade oil pastels and their special qualities.

Samples of Artist Grade Oil Pastels

I emailed my favorite online art supply company, where I've been a devoted customer for several years and spent thousands of dollars on colored pencils, pastels and other mediums, asking for samples of artist grade oil pastels. I listed brands I considered buying and they sent samples of the six quality oil pastels shown. You can see in the scan that they have visible differences in texture.

Cretacolor AquaStic watersoluble oil pastels are a special case, because they are watersoluble. You can thin them to opaque or semiopaque watercolor with water, using wet effects and saving the mess and fumes of turpentine, turpenoid or linseed oil. Cretacolor AquaBriques are square blocks similar to the AquaStics according to a friend who's tried them. These are made with wax and gum arabic to create a watercolor you can draw with.

AquaStics are long narrow sticks and come in a range of 80 colors. They're relatively inexpensive, about a dollar a stick in the larger sets. That had me leaning toward them as a first choice for a big set since I like the convenience of using water to thin them. Unfortunately, once I tried the sample I discovered it was the hardest of the sample sticks and relatively difficult to blend. I may experiment a bit more with these, but they aren't as high on my priority list as they were.

Cray-Pas Specialist oil pastels are listed as student grade at Blick, but they do name their pigments, come in open stock and are treated as artist grade by the professional artists I know. The square, wrapped sticks are a bit hard and crumbly, but softer than the AquaStic sticks. They blended fairly well and Cray-Pas does have a colorless blender available to go with them. Range is 50 colors at a bit over a dollar a stick online.

Van Gogh Super Fine Quality with the seal are a bit softer. The round, wrapped stick is convenient, the color reasonably opaque and it blended as well as the Specialists. This brand is also listed as Student Grade at Blick, and is less expensive, $33 for a set of 48. I may pick up a box of them later on to extend some of the more expensive ones, and haven't tried these on sanded pastel paper yet either. Some surfaces may work better with firm sticks than softer ones.

There, in order, are the firm or hard sticks. The softest oil pastels are, in order of softness, Sennelier, Holbein and Caran d'Ache Neopastel. (We'll get on to Erengi Art Aspirer later). I started Abstract Wheels, the painting at the top of this Hub, using the Sennelier samples to make a coor wheel.

Sennelier sent a primary triad, which in itself would have endeared this company to me. They are all good mixing primaries, though the green is a bit cleaner than the purple I was able to get good secondaries in a color band at the bottom of my sample page. In the painting, I played with repeated layers and love the way Senneliers go over Senneliers. They deserve the term "buttery."

Sennelier oil pastels don't crumble at all. The texture is exactly like drawing with a woman's lipstick. Sennelier uses mineral pigments including the Cadmiums and Cobalts, but these are less dangerous in oil pastels because you're not inhaling the dust. Don't eat them or use them as cosmetics, but just keeping clean is good enough to protect yourself handling them.

Sennelier oil pastels vary in opaqueness. The white is very opaque according to many artist friends, but the yellow is more transparent. If you want to use light over dark with these, it might be best to go over an added highlight with white or use a tint rather than a pure yellow. Sennelier oil pastels have a range of 120 that may also have an additional 48 New Colors in a set. I'm not sure how many of the 48 New Colors are represented in the big wood box set. They are more expensive, $1.84 a stick at Blick.

Sennelier also makes Le Grande oil pastels in 36 colors. These supersize sticks are great for doing large works, or for colors like white that you'll use up fast. They run between six or seven dollars each but have as much oil pastel as eight or nine of the smaller sticks, so they're good if you get serious about the medium or work large.

Holbein Oil Pastels come in a range of 141 colors and used to come in a 225 color wood box set. Several companies still have the old sets, which had four tints for each hue and organize the bigger wood box sets in groups of five per hue. The unwrapped square stick was a little sticky to handle, but more firm than the Senneliers. Holbein oil pastels may be the best for having a good variety of light tints to do serious shading without having to constantly blend white to mix tints.

Holbein oil pastels are also the most expensive, that 225 color set runs $450 to $500 and even the set of 15 is $40 at Blick. I probably won't invest in these anytime soon because I'll have to make my own wrappers, but may eventually purchase some tints or a set to extend my range of colors. Holbein square sticks would be good for getting detail because they have eight corners per stick, and are firm enough to hold that corner if you wear them down to a chisel point.

Last, and so not the least, my top favorite brand of artist grade oil pastels is still Caran d'Ache Neopastel. They are soft, creamy, blend well and are opaque enough to let me use light over dark. They are nearly as soft as the Senneliers but the round wrapped sticks are easier to handle. They're somewhat pricy, the full range set of 96 runs $167 and a little 12 stick set is $20.

If I get a full range set of any of these, it'll probably be the Neopastels. But I may eventually invest in a bigger set of Senneliers. Sennelier oil pastels are so soft they handle differently and may take some practice before I get my best effects with them.

All three of the softies, Sennelier, Holbein and Caran d'Ache Neopastel, make it very easy to get painterly effects. All three of these mix well and can be blended to create a soft edge or laid carefully to get a precise hard edge. Realism similar to colored pencils realism can be achieved with these brands. Many professional artists use these almost exclusively with one important addition -- Erengi ArtAspirer.

Erengi ArtAspirer -- Inexpensive Quality!

The above messy color chart is for a set of 50 Erengi ArtAspirer oil pastels I bought at ASW on sale for $34.99 or so. Both Jerrys Artarama and ASW have these on sale, the full range 92 stick wood box set is $79.99 -- which makes these quite a bargain for artist grade oil pastels. Erengi oil pastels are the workhorse brand for fine artists using oil pastels.

The wood box set has more tints, but Erengi also has a colorless blender available. I tried the colorless blender at the top of each test patch, and the yellow patches at the bottom left corners are the Sennelier Yellow #71 over them to see how well they blend with Senneliers. They mix great. Mixing brands with these artist grade oil pastels is as easy as doing so with soft pastels or colored pencils.

The 50 color Erengi set also includes silver, bronze and a metallic color that looks like a bright gold. These can be useful for accents. It's mentioned on the site that fluorescent colors aren't lightfast, but their other colors definitely are. If you want a big set of artist grade oil pastels to start your collection and add open stock in selected colors, Erengi would be a great choice for that anchor set.

The current sale runs through into 2009, so you have time to try a small set to see if you like them before investing $79.99 in a big set. I know I'll probably use these the most often, so I'll probably get the big set soon even though 50 is a pretty big range. There are good earth tones, plenty of good bright spectrum hues and a strong white. ASW and Jerry's Artarama also have the open stock sticks on sale, so you could try them out with mixing primaries and white if you want to be frugal.

Oil Pastel Surfaces

Oil Pastel Surfaces and Extras

Water Lily Pond is my work in progress, using a 12 color set of Caran d'Ache Neopastels to create some delicate realism similar to my colored pencil paintings. While it's a little bolder and more painterly, I'm finding it easy to blend any hue I want with the mixing colors in the 12 color set. The surface is beige Art Spectrum Colourfix sanded pastel paper.

Art Spectrum also produces Colourfix primer available in pints or liters in all the same colors and Clear. You can do a watercolor or acrylic underppainting, then prime it with Colourfix primer and have a sanded surface that takes many layers of soft pastel or oil pastel. This is rapidly becoming my favorite surface to work on with any type of pastels. The tooth is fine but very strong and takes lots of blending and mixing and layering.

Canson Mi-Tientes pastel paper is a good, reasonably lightfast tinted art paper with a high rag content that's excellent for oil pastel painting or drawing. Its 60 colors give a great range for working loosely and letting some of the surface show as part of your finished piece. I prefer using the smooth side to the woven-texture side because I find the weave distracting, but then I don't work so large that the weave would just vanish into pointillism. Fabriano Tiziano tinted pastel paper is similar.

Another good surface for oil pastels is canvas board or canvas pads. Even canva-paper has a good surface, the main difference is that with any of these, the canvas texture will show and your work will look more like a painting. Canvases and canvas boards have the advantage that wet effects are easy and don't damage the surface. You can thin any oil pastels but Aqua Sticks or (student grade) Portfolio Watersoluble Oil Pastels with turpentine, linseed oil, Liquin or any medium that works with oil paints.

The result will look like an oil painting and behave like one. Do not use oil pastels under any oil paint though. You can use them over an oil painting easily, but oil pastels never fully dry. Sealing them in with a hard-dried layer of oil or alkyd paint can cause problems with the paint layer peeling off or sliding over the years, especially in hot climates.

Oil Sticks such as R&F Pigments, Winsor & Newton Oil Bars, Shiva Paint Sticks and Sennelier Oil Sticks are something different from oil pastels. They are oil paint in a stick form and can be combined with oil paints, alkyds or oils although you should count them as fairly "lean" in the fat vs. lean scale. Those all form a hard skin over the stick after use that needs to be peeled off, while oil pastels don't. If you don't know what an unidentified unlabeled chunk is, let it sit for a day and find out whether you have to peel it!

Acrylic paper, Yupo, watercolor paper and other papers are good for oil pastels. Masonite panels ought to be gessoed, but you can even use oil pastels on glass or metal for something different. They are great to use with collage because they are so versatile and stick to so many different surfaces.

Fixatives specifically for oil pastel are made by Sennelier and Caran d'Ache, these are final varnishes rather than workable fixative. Some conservators are concerned that using these varnishes may damage the paintings if they yellow over decades, because removing them might be impossible without damaging the paint layer. The good news is that you don't really need these varnishes if you frame it with a double mat or spacers -- don't let dust get on the painting and it's fine, just don't let it touch the glass or it'll smear.

Jerry's Artarama also carries Intuos pastel holders in four different sizes for different brands of pastels and oil pastels. These can be very handy, especially for the unwrapped Holbein sticks but also for any artist grade oil pastel once it's so short it's hard to hold in your fingers.

You can also save the stubs and when you have enough stubs of the same color, melt them on a low temperature and press them into a cylindrical mold to make a new stick. Styrene trays from colored pencils tins could be used as molds if you pressed them together while the stuff is warm, then tape the sides together and put it in the refrigerator to cool solid.

Oil Pastels for the Serious Beginner by John Elliott is the book that I picked up before trying artist grade oil pastels to see if I liked the medium enough to invest in it. There are some excellent techniques and ideas in this book, though it is older and Cretacolor AquaStic watersoluble oil pastels aren't listed in it. There are also chapters on oil pastel in some pastels books.

I enjoyed this book and found it very useful.

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Comments 24 comments

irishrose 7 years ago

Thank you for this fascinating article, Robert. I have always loved oil pastels and colored pencils and now I am starting to use them on a heated board ( I really am enjoying the new interplay of oils. Thank you for the review of the different brands. I am really enjoying the Sennelier and the Caran d'Ache... I have both and also the Prismacolors... can never have too much! Purrs to your kitties! ;)


robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Purrr thanks! I had no idea the artist grade ones would be THAT much better, but they are and I'm having a ball with them. It sounds interesting to use them on a heated board, I'm going to have to try that sometime. Could always just put a heating pad under my drawing board.


newsworthy 7 years ago

The Abstract Wheels would be a good fit for my hallway. Enjoyed the article. Im not a painter but my friend is.

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robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Thanks! It's fairly small, but I could easily develop it into a large square painting. It's on sketchbook paper but if I were doing it for someone I would probably use Arches watercolor paper, possibly primed with Colourfix sanded primer. Sounds like your hallway has a great look!

newsworthy 7 years ago

my hallway is a blank canvas and white to boot. its about time i get the ole paintbrush out. i know how to paint wallls

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robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Oh that is so cool! I would love to see a photo when you do it. That would rock!

Susan Donley 7 years ago

Robert --

Thanks for the careful comparison of artist grade oil pastels. I especially appreciate hearing your experience with Erengi's, as I haven't been able to find much about them except on Jerry's site.

I work a lot with oil pastel and have some of all the brands you mention except the Specialists and Erengi's. I, too, thought I'd found a favorite with the Neopastels, but was horrified to find that several pieces I had given away developed the dreaded scrourge of colored pencilists: wax bloom. When I opened up my tin of Neopastels to do some wax bloom tests, many colors had such a coating of waxing white powder that I couldn't even tell what the colors were underneath. Yikes! I haven't found anyone else mentioning this, in fact oil pastels are widely touted as being immune to wax bloom. I'm here to tell you, at least my batch of Neopastels weren't. Since then, I've stuck to my Senneliers, since I can't afford to have my clients' portraits develp a waxy haze after they've had it for a while. (And yes, these paintings were framed properly behind glass.) This may be one reason to use fixatives, though I haven't tried them yet.

Before I discovered the wax bloom problem, my favorite way of working was to start a painting with the harder OPs, like the Neopastels, then work with the softer OPs like Senneiiers. Like the old "fat over lean" rule for oil painting. It works well that way to build up layers that won't blend into mud when you don't want them to. Letting a layer of OP "rest" a day or two before applying another layer accomplishes the same thing.

The opposite order -- harder OPs over softer -- is very hard to control: The harder stick slips and slides around without making much of a mark.

Enjoy your oil pastels (but do a few tests of some dark colors to lay around for a while to test for wax bloom.) I'll never understand why more artists don't use this wonderful medium!

Susan Donley

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robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Susan, thank you for mentioning the wax bloom on Neopastels. I'll have to keep checking the works I've done with them to see if it occurs, because it'd be more difficult to remove than from colored pencils. A quick wipe with a soft cloth will remove it from CP paintings and a thin layer of fixative prevents it.

I may have to try the Sennelier oil pastels fixative and see if that helps with the problem. There is no wax bloom on any of the sticks in either of my Erengi sets. I checked the 50 color box first, then opened the 92 color wood box set upside down and played 92 pickup -- not a trace of wax bloom. These may be a good alternative for the medium texture, as they are only slightly less soft than Neopastels. Some of the dark colors are more transparent than the darks in my 12 color Neopastels set.

Holbein may be another good choice for more control. I recently purchased a set of 100 Holbeins from ASW, where I am fairly sure they've been in stock for some time because the four tints and masstone boxes were discontinued. None of the sticks including the darkest have any trace of wax bloom. I discovered to my delight that they are a bit firmer than Sennelier and very opaque, texture is between Neopastel and Sennelier.

I will be trying the Specialists in more than one color next month, we'll see how those look. When I begin my year-long lightfastness tests in the spring, I'll be watching for wax bloom on all the brands' swatches as well as sun fading. I will be posting the results after a month, three months, six months and a year on my website: http://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.c... and reviewing student brands as well as the artist grade brands there too.

I won't be starting the tests until I have all the brands I'm reviewing in hand, so that I don't have to track different start dates for the lightfastness testing. I may want to try different fixatives too for use with Neopastels, since I love their texture so much and would like to find something that'll protect works done in them.

cloe 7 years ago

ugly 7 years ago

I use Van Gogh Watersoluble Oil paint but they are only limited to 48 colors..

I've never used oil pastels before and was considering purchasing a set of the Van Gogh Oil Pastels as they come in 90 colors. Does anyone know if these can be used/mixed together?????????

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robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Oil pastels work well over any kind of oil paint, watersoluble or not. I wouldn't think the watersoluble oil mediums would dissolve them, but you could experiment and see if it works. The main thing is never, ever put oil paint on over oil pastel layers because the oil pastels never completely dry.

The entire paint layer could slide off the painting if it got too warm and the oil pastel layer melted, that's why.

I've got a website on oil pastels too: http://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.c... has over 75 articles -- techniques, demonstrations, product reviews, book reviews. Enjoy! And if you try watersoluble oil mediums (the special oils and things used to thin them that aren't the same as the alkyd ones or normal ones) on oil pastels, let me know if they dissolve them. I know that you can't dissolve normal oil pastels in water but some are watersoluble -- the Cretacolor Aqua Stics are artist grade watersoluble and wonderful.

You might try one of those with the watersoluble oil mediums. Or I might. Ask Blick or Jerry's Artarama for samples of the artist grade ones and you'll get a sample stick to test before deciding whether to buy them. Also I think both places have the Van Gogh ones.

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Laura Spector 7 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thanks for this in-depth view. I'm going to pass it on to my students. I'm a Holbein fanatic myself.

robertsloan2 profile image

robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Thank you! I love my Holbeins -- it's hard to pick favorites between Holbein, Sennelier and Neopastels for me, but having some of each is even better. Holbeins are so much fun with their shaded values of the same pigment, it makes mixing so easy to not have to shift value with hue!

Kim Garcia 7 years ago

Wow!!! I'm blown away!! Free Art Lessons, along with wonderful visual aids. How impressive and grateful!! I love to paint, but know zero about oils and pastels, only paint with watercolors....this is super helpful!! Thank you! Peace ~ K

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robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Thank you, Kim! Enjoy. I'll go on doing lots of these. Oil Pastels are a great way to get started, cheap, but provide color in clean manageable form. Soft pastels are dusty, oil paint requires a lot of thinners and good ventilation (and cleanup and a place to dry the paintings.) Oil pastels and colored pencils are mediums that are easy to handle if you have trouble with not having studio space or uninterrupted time to work on your art.

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blabak 6 years ago

nice hub and info.. it's not that easy to get any good brand of art material where i live.. so i just used the localy made.. it's not that good but not too bad either.. hopefully one day i'll get good brands and try it out myself... lol..

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robertsloan2 6 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

The best way I've found to get artist grade supplies is to order them online from Blick or ASW or Dakota Pastels. The prices are so much lower than retail that the shipping is cost effective, also if you sign up for their emails you get coupons and can watch for a good coupon before actually getting something expensive. That helps my budget a lot.

Also watch eBay for artist grade oil pastels. If you check often, you can sometimes find good used sets from artists who try a medium and don't like it -- usually barely-used sets. I got my oil sticks that way from someone who tried them and didn't like them on a swap shop thread on an art site, so those are good too.

It may be a little delayed by waiting for packages but when I get up to half off on everything, it's worth the wait!

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blabak 6 years ago

wow.. great info.. thanx will try it out.. thanx again..

Doodlebird 6 years ago

Thanks for so much detailed information on the subject. I have not worked with oil pastels very much, but it's something I would like to explore further.

dylanvest profile image

dylanvest 6 years ago from Dayton, OH

Very informative. I often get frustrated with my oil pastels, but I was dumb not to consider that they may be just too poor of a grade. Thanks.

Pamela 5 years ago

Great article......I have been dreaming of a watersoluble oil in stick form. I am going to try the Cretacolor Aqua Stic.

raje 4 years ago


madhuvanthi 4 years ago

What a great work.very proud...

vaishali 4 years ago

super o super.............

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