Finding The Best Oil Pastels – Blend Your Way to a Masterpiece

Best Oil Pastels Feature (2)

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Oil pastel is a wonderful and often forgotten medium of art. For that reason we’ve pulled together some information on the best oil pastels out there. All the information that you will need to know to get started using oil pastels. We’ve also gone ahead and answered all of the most common pastel related questions in one place.

In a hurry? Here are our favorites

Introduction to Oil Pastels

Before we get into our list of the best oil pastels we thought we’d first introduce you properly to the medium. Though most people’s experience of pastels doesn’t extend beyond elementary school, it’s actually a well loved and interesting medium. Oil pastels offer many of the benefits of oil painting, in terms of the look and feel of the finished product. They do this while also avoiding many of the drawbacks of painting; with less mess, no drying time, and a lower barrier of entry. 

Types of Pastel

There are a couple of different types of pastels that you can get. We’ll keep it brief as we know you’re mostly interested in oil pastels, but sometimes it’s helpful to first get a look at the bigger picture (no pun intended).

Soft Pastels

Soft pastels are exactly that, soft. Made in a way as to minimize the amount of binder in the pastel. This allows for a pastel which consists mostly of pigment. Soft pastels produce a beautifully vibrant and saturated color as you paint (and yes that is the right word, pastel artists use the term “pastel painting”). These are the type of pastel you reach for when you need something vibrant and blendable. 

Oil Pastels

Oil pastels are sort of the cousin of the soft pastel. The use of a non-drying oil and wax binder means that they are soft and creamy, without the dustiness found in the use of their cousins. Oil pastel is a hugely versatile medium, with many using such pastels in their mixed media work. 

Hard Pastels

Hard pastels are (unsurprisingly) hard. This lends them to more precision work. Sharp lines and details are achieved much more easily – and with a lot less crumble. This does of course come with the down side of the result being less blendable.

Pencil Pastels

Pastel pencils take pastel into the pencil form-factor. By placing a hard pastel in a wooden sheath these pastels are easy to maneuver in use, travel well, and are a great transition tool for those coming from coloring pencils. If you are interested we actually have a post dedicated to pastel pencils here.

Student vs Artist Grade Oil Pastels

Like a lot of different artistic mediums, oil pastels generally fall into two groups. These are the student and artist grade. This is a very common distinction, but when it comes to oil pastels it’s actually quite easy for a regular person to tell the difference.

pastel close up
Photo by Steve Johnson

Starting at the cheapest of student oil pastels, you will find sticks that are almost like crayons. Hard, crumbly and even a little dusty at times. On the other end of the spectrum, the best artist grades pastels have a more oily and creamy feel. They feel more like lipstick than crayon. Everything else falls somewhere between the two extremes of the spectrum.

When it comes to what you should buy. It really depends where in your journey you are. For a beginner we would aim for the middle. That being a decent student grade pastel, or the lower end of the artist grade. This is generally a safe bet, as it will give you a feel for “real” oil pastel art, without breaking the bank. 

Individual vs Oil Pastel Sets

Lets keep this simple, when starting out it is so much easier to buy a set. Big or small, sets have had someone think about the color range that should be included and how they work together. This is a great help to a beginner.

Don’t get me wrong, individual pastel purchasing can also be hugely useful. It can be used as a way to resupply the colors that you find you use most often. Or as a way to dip your toes into trying a pastel from a new range or brand. 

Best Oil Pastels

Now onto the good stuff. The best oil pastels available on the market. We are going to focus on what we think are the best sets from each range. But if fancy buying individual pastels to try them out, you’ll be able to find them through the same links. 

Caran d’Ache Neopastels

Caran d'Ache Neopastel Set - Assorted Colors, Set of 24

Caran d’Arche are a household name in the art world. Known for their high quality which is aimed squarely at professionals and enthusiasts. The Neopastals are their offering of professional grade oil pastels. They are some of the best and come in at a very reasonable price.

We think the assorted color set of 24 would be a great starter for almost anyone. The pastels themselve measure in at  2-1/2″ ×  3/8″ (64 mm × 9.5 mm) and provide a fantastic level of smoothness and blending, with the added bonus of being completely dustless. The permanent pigments used provide the level of vivid color that you would expect. They also ensure that your pieces will last. 

The Caran d’Ache Neopastels are fantastic oil pastels of the highest quality. Hugely versatile, these are pastels that could stay with you throughout your development as an oil pastel artist. 

Sakura Cray-Pas Expressionist Oil Pastels

Sakura Cray-Pas Expressionist Oil Pastel Sets - Set of 36

These oil pastels are some of the best around, but in a bit of a different way. These are marketed as being more intended for the classroom or for younger artists that are looking to explore the world of oil pastel.

That being said, these student grade oil pastel do not skimp on quality. That is the joy of oil pastels, there are gems to be found even in the more inexpensive stuff, and these Expressionist pastels are exactly that.

These are a great set of pastels with even the set of 36 available at a very reasonable price. They offer a great range of colors. They blend extremely well, especially consider the price. As well as offering the great versitilly that comes with all oil pastels, in underpainting, layering and the like.

The Sakura Cray-Pas Expressionist Oil Pastels are often overlooked with their being billed as a “scholastic” option. But in reality they are a very capable and worthwhile oil pastel. Maybe not the best oil pastels out-right, but definitely one of the best when it comes to value for money. 

Sennelier Oil Pastels

Sennelier Oil Pastel Set - Universal Colors, Set of 24

Now to another name you have likely heard of. Senneilier is considered by many to make the best oil pastels on the market. While these are the type of pastel that you might want to buy individually. We said we would focus on sets for this list, so with that in mind we have picked out the Sennelier assorted set of 24. This brings the brilliance of these pastels to a set that has been put together to give you a great range of colors to work from (without having to think about it too much that is).

There is not a great deal to be said of the Sennelier Oil Pastels. They are exactly what you would expect of the very best. The are buttery smooth, layer supremely well, and allow users to blend then at will and with control. All this with rich colors that also excel in mixed media scenarioes, such as when augmenting acrylic paintings. 

Van Gogh Oil Pastels

Van Gogh Oil Pastel Set - Assorted Colors, Set of 24

Last but not least we have the Van Gogh oil pastels. Named for the famous artist, the brand falls under the Royal Talens banner, which also boasts some other very high quality brands such as Rembrandt.

These oil pastels fall in the category of artist oil pastels. With a smoothness to the laydown of pigment -and blending that is easy, but without the smearing that can be found in other offerings. 

One of the things that makes the Van Gogh Oil Pastels really stand out is the fact that they work great on a range of different surfaces. Now this is a trait of oil pastels in general, but these pastels take it to another level. Working great on paper, board or even a smooth canvas, these are a veritable pastel that you will not be able to resist reaching for. 

Oil Pastels Accessories

Oil pastels is one of the best mediums to get into as the need for additional tools is quite low. Basically, you don’t really need any of these tools and accessories to get started. They are things that you might consider investing in once you really get into your oil pasteling. 

  1. Tortillon– This is a very simple tool generally made of tightly wound paper that can be used to blend pastels. This paper has been wound to a tip to give you more control in blending.
  2. Color Shaper – Another means of blending pastels is a color shaper. This tool has a paintbrush like form-factor, but instead of bristles the end has a small silicon of rubberized block.
  3. Palette Knife – A palette knife is a tool that is used in a variety of ways when using oil pastels. Used to create sharp edges or lines, the knife can also be used to remove excess material for the drawing surface.
  1. Fixative – You don’t want your pieces to get ruined in storage. Fixative is used to protect a piece from undesirable smudging and the collection of dust. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just the things we think will be most useful near the beginning.

Oil Pastel FAQs

Now it’s time for the FAQs. We have scoured the web looking for the things that people normally ask about oil pastel and gone ahead and answered them all in one place for you. You’re welcome!

Should I Buy Pastel Paper?

Oil pastel is a wonderfully versatile medium that can be done on a range of different surfaces and substrates. Though oil pastel art can be done on all these different surfaces, if working with only oil pastel, or paired with other dry media it’s helpful to use some sort of multi-ply sheet. This can be a good pastel paper or Bristol paper depending on preference.

This is not a requirement to do great art though, especially when just starting out. If costs are a concern printer paper is more than up for the task. Just get drawing! 

Do Oil Pastels Need to Dry?

No they don’t. One thing that makes oil pastels more accessible than say oil paints is the fact that there is no drying time. This is because oil pastels though oily are essentially a dry medium. You can use a good fixative to help you out and ease you mind, but for the most part, pastel art is good to display and frame right away.

If it is being stored in a book for example you may want to place wax sheets between pages to prevent color transfer. 

How do you Blend Oil Pastels?

Blending is one of the key tools that you will need to learn as an oil pastel artist. The movement of pigment on the surface, to create gradients, texture, and really being a piece to life.

There are several ways you can blend oil pastels.

  1. This first you should already be aware of. Using your fingers!. Get a little messy. You can use your fingers to move colors into one another. Or you can use them to produce smooth gradients by spreading a color onto a white area of the page.
  2. Drawing in layers can be a great way to blend two or more colors. This can be used to create new colors and shades that you don’t have at your disposal. Just make sure to use your harder pastels in the earlier layers, or you may end up accidentally scraping up some of your hard work. 
  3. Tools can also be useful when it comes to blending colors. Being it an eraser, or a Tortillon. You can use these tools to move pigment on the page and augment your pieces.

Can you Sharpen Oil Pastels?

For the most part people tend to avoid fine lines when using pastels. Opting to sub in other media such as graphite pencils. But if the need should arise the easiest way to sharpen an oil pastel is to use a craft knife or safety blade. You may also have some luck with a regular sharpener but this depends greatly on the density of the pastel that you are using.

Another tip would be to lay the pastel down on a piece of scrap paper, and rub it a little. This will produce a flat side, as well as a couple of sharp points which will often do the trick.

Are Oil Pastels Toxic?

Safety is of the utmost importance. There is no blanket statement yes or no when it comes to toxicity. It very much depends on the pastels you end up getting. Toxicity generally comes from the use of certain pigments in high quality oil pastels. Such as the heavy metals cobalt and cadmium in colors with the same name. 

This only affects a few colors that can generally be avoided. If you do use these colors it’s best practice to up the level of care you take. The main risk is from ingestion so make sure to not eat while drawing. You could all wear gloves when drawing. Many find this uncomfortable, in which hand washing should suffice.  

If toxicity is of a real concern then look out for brands and pastels that are labeled with a non-toxicity certificate.

We hope you found this look at the best oil pastels helpful. Oil pastels are a fun and versatile medium to get into. We think you will really enjoy it. If you fancy something similar but a little more conventional, it may also be worth having a look at our introduction to pastel pencils. These are cool little pastels that act as the bridge between the world of colored pencils and pastels. 

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