Tips on how to use oil pastels

I’ve been asked to create a piece of artwork for a large bedroom. The work can be in any medium so I’m practising some ideas, starting with oil pastels. I picked up my soft oil pastels again this week and have decided this is the medium I will use.

I’d forgotten just how gorgeously simple they are to use. They leave no mess, require no brushes, palette, cloth or water pot. They mix well and are versatile – producing layers of colour.

A few years ago I used oil pastels to complete a couple of works that were quickly snapped up. I think it must have been the colours that drew one of the buyers and the subject matter was perfect for her bedroom.

The original work was a 15 minute pose at a local life drawing class. It had been lying around my house as a pencil sketch for years and it wasn’t until I bought some oil pastels that I decided to add colour.

I enjoyed working with this medium very much and decided to create another, again from a simple pencil sketch. And again simple pencil sketch was transformed into something quite luscious.

Above is an image of the second work I completed. Again, this item was bought for the bedroom and developed from a 15 minute pose at a life drawing class.

Preparing to work with oil pastels

Earlier in this post I wrote that oil pastels left no mess. Well, this is not completely true as there are shavings of oil pastel that can appear over the work as you press the pastels into the paper. One tip is to place a small sheet of grease proof paper onto the work to rest your hand upon while you work. This will prevent smudging.

Another tip is to find an item to pick up or remove the excess oil pastel. I used a toothpick for these creations but a small knife or even a piece of blu tack can work equally well. Anything that can pick up the loose pieces of pastel from your work.

It’s also worth having a wipe or an old rag handy to wipe any excess oil from your fingers.

Layering with oil pastels

A good tip before your begin working is to take some smaller sheets (a few centimetres in size) of the same paper for your work. I used 160gsm weight paper for my drawings and this worked well with the pastels. Generally, people prefer to work with heavier paper as this allows the artist to build up more layers of pastel without tearing the paper.

I use the smaller sheets of paper to try a couple of colours against the work. For example, I tried a lighter blue before opting for the dark blue in both of my images. It can be difficult to rectify the wrong colour selection if you are looking for a unified and even colour.

Adding the colour in layers can give depth to the work too. Once I had selected a colour I added layers of the colour until it was the correct hue. It’s difficult to layer lighter colours onto darker with pastels so begin with the lighter colours first and build the intensity.

Again, a good tip is to practise on a smaller sheet of paper first, as mistakes are hard to correct with pastels. But their creaminess is a joy to work with. If like me you enjoy mixing pure paint directly on to canvas or paper, you will thoroughly enjoy doing this with oil pastels.

There are a huge number of blending techniques with oil pastels and the only restriction is your imagination. If you’re new to oil pastels, you will soon begin to see the possibilities they offer as long as you spend a little time practising on smaller works before starting something big.

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