Fine Art Oil Pastels are Worth the Cost
Abstract Wheels by Robert A. Sloan
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.