There are many options of oil pastels out there but only a few are considered among the best. Whether you are looking for artist grade or student grade oil pastels there are a few that stand out in the pack. If you are already an experienced pastel artist than you probably already know what to look for, if not, I highly recommend ready the guide to educate yourself on what makes a particular oil pastel better than another.
Pastel is a medium of art that has been around since the Renaissance. It was developed at the request of artists looking for a convenient and portable art medium. Pastel sticks could be carried around by the artist and used without much preparation. However, this convenience is certainly not a trade-off in capability as capable artists can create incredible art ranging from detailed landscapes to lifelike portraits.
If you have ever worked with pastels, you are probably keenly aware of how challenging they can be in comparison to paint. This is due to the medium being blended and mixed directly on the working surface. This poses a specific challenge to artists as mistakes and errors cannot be covered up as easily as they may can when working with paint.
Just like any art medium, challenges can be overcome with practice, and beautiful art can be made with the right tools and techniques. With pastels, that may mean having an easier time blending colors together or better color saturation by using superior pastels. Some of the best brands of oil pastels are Holbein and Sennelier but besides knowing what manufacturers are best, it is also a great idea to learn more about pastels in general and what qualifies a particular brand as the best oil pastel on the market.
Complete Guide To Oil Pastels: How To Choose Your Pastel
A pastel is an art medium made up of pure color pigments in the form of powder which are mixed with a binder and formed into a stick. The composition and characteristics of pastel sticks depend on the type of pastel as well as the manufacturer of the pastel. The type and amount of binder used is what determines the pastel type.
The pigments used in pastels are the exact same pigments used in other colored media such as acrylic or oil-based paints. Pastels have a color effect closer to the natural dry pigments than any other process. Pastels are also available in varying degrees of hardness which allows for a variety of different techniques and uses to artists.
Types of Pastels
What are pastels? The first thing you should understand when searching for right pastel for your artistic illustrations is the different types available. A pastel’s type will determine the artist effects one can achieve with the given pastel type. This variety of types can be used alone on a single art piece or in combination providing a range of effects one may achieve.
Oil pastels are much different than soft and hard types due to the to of binder used in them. Oil pastels are typically pigment mixed with a wax and oil binders like linseed or mineral oil. This gives them a soft, buttery consistency and a very intense color. They also fill the grain art paper and are slightly more challenging to blend due to the thicker consistency.
A benefit to oil pastels compared to other types is that they do not require a fixative (though you can certainly use one) to preserve the completed art as other types do. The only care that needs to be taken is keeping your completed art away from extreme heat to avoid any melting and distortion of the art. It is advisable to frame it to protect the art. Another difference with oil-based pastels is the ability to use them in conjunction with a thinning chemical like turpentine.
Oil Pastels vs Oil Sticks: One final note to avoid any confusion is the difference between oil pastels and oil sticks or bars. These two art media are distinctly different despite using a virtually identical recipe. The main difference is the type of oil used in each, oil pastels using a non-drying oil and oil sticks using oil that dries forming a top layer skin as the oil dries.
Soft pastels are probably the most popular form of pastel. Soft pastels contain the most amount of pigment of all the different types. This pigment-rich pastel contains the least amount of binder, which is typically gum arabic and sometimes chalks, giving it a very velvety texture but it also means they are very brittle and delicate.
The benefits of the pigment-rich pastel are the ability of the artist to lay rich colors that are easily blended with a tool or finger. This softness can also create a fair amount of dust throughout the artistic process and it is important to note that some pigments, especially cadmium pigments can be toxic especially if inhaled. For children, it is always best to stick to a non-toxic pastel. The delicate nature of soft pastel will usually always require a fixative to preserve the final art from smudges or other damage.
Hard pastels, as well as medium pastels, use the same pigment as soft pastels but they contain much more binder to give them firm form. This form of pastel will be less vivid in color since it contains less pigment but its firmness makes it better suited for making crisp lines and precision detail that would otherwise be difficult with soft pastels. Hard pastels are usually used for preliminary sketching, outlining, and other fine detailing. They are also often used for background color by some artists.
Pastel pencils are just as the name suggests, the pencil form of pastels and are most often available containing either hard/medium pastel or oil pastel. Pastel pencils are great for making precise lines or adding fine detail as they can be sharpened to a fine point. They are also very convenient and can be packed away and carried around without fear of breaking.
What is better, Soft Pastels or Oil Pastels? If you are left wonder which form of pastel is better, there is no better. Each form of pastel can serve a different purpose and each creates a much different end result. Artists use any combination or individual pastel form to create what they want.
Quality Grades of Pastels
Like most art mediums they are typically classified into two quality categories which is Artist grade and Student grade mediums. Though there is not officially any other grade, technically anything that isn’t classified as either “Artist” or “Student” grade is hobby grade which is usually made for those looking to try out a medium at an affordable price point.
Quality is really something that is important in terms of art supplies. These terms really aren’t marketing gimmicks to get you to spend more money on the same product. Artist quality product really does give you superior results both in the aesthetic output of the art and the performance of laying the medium down onto a paper, canvas, or other substrates.
Artist grade oil pastels will always provide superior color saturation as well as performance. This performance pertains to the blending ability of the oil pastel as well the durability of the pastel which will resist oxidation. Artist quality pastels will always have more pigment in them and the binder will contain a higher proportion of oil to wax. This is what give the rich color saturation and the buttery highly bendable texture. The best Artist grade brands to look for are Sennelier, Holbein Artist, and Caran d’Ache Neopastels and Sakura Cray-Pas Specialist.
Student grade oil pastels will usually contain less pigment as well as a more wax and less oil in the recipe. This brings the cost down a bit to make them more affordable to those on a students budget. Of course, when you have fewer pigment colors will not be a rich and vibrant and when the recipe contains more wax you end up with a slightly more hard pastel that blends less easily than an artist grade pastel. The best Artist grade brands to look for are Van Gogh and Mungyo Gallery in addition to student lines offered by the brands offering the best artist grades.
Should I purchase Artist or Student grade oil pastels? I always recommend that artist purchase the best quality their budget can afford. You will almost always have an easier time and achieve better results working with artist grade materials and this even more so in the case of oil pastels. This is due to the consistency having a great effect on blending and overall results. That said, not everyone has the budget to pick the grade at the price you can handle.
Oil Pastels: Other Considerations
Oil pastel are a very stable medium that will not breakdown like other medium. An oil pastel’s thick consistency also gives the artist the ability to create more texture in their art. This requires the artist to be more mindful of surface choices and preparation as the different surfaces will different effects unique to the surface.
The texture of pastels also offers the artist an opportunity to use a variety of artist tools to manipulate the medium further once it has be placed on the desired surface. Below we will explore a few more considerations when working with and selecting oil pastels.
Open Stock vs Sets
When purchasing oil pastels you will find that they are available in both individual pieces also known as open stock as well as sets that contain a range of colors. If you are choosing to go with artist quality pastels but it is the first time you have worked with them, it is a good idea to try different brands out by purchasing the open stock colors. After giving them a try you can purchase a full set of your preferred brand.
The light-fastness of an oil pastel refers to how much light will affect the color by fading it or otherwise. Different colors absorb and reflect color waves differently and for this reason, each color will have its own light-fastness rating. Most artist grade oil pastels will rate the light-fastness of each color. This is important to keep in mind when buying certain colors but you may also protect the color with fixatives that can protect against light.
Oil Pastel Tools & Supplies
There are a number of tools and supplies that can be used to assist you in the use of oil pastels. These tools are used to either aid in blending colors after laying them down or scraping any excess material off if necessary. There are also supplies that will aid in preparing your surface and preserving the final product.
- Surface Primers: As you may be aware, the surface you choose will have a major effect on how the pastel goes down and appears. If you are working with a surface too smooth or one that needs improvement you can try to lay a surface coat of primer formulated for pastels. this will give the surface more tooth and aid in fixing the pastel to the surface.
- Tortillon: This is a tool used for mechanical blending of your pastels on the surface. It is essentially tightly rolled paper tapered to a point at the end to assist with smudging and blending pastels.
- Color Shaper: Another blending tool which resembles a paintbrush but instead of bristles at the end, there is usually a plastic or silicon tip which is used to blend and shape pastels on the surface.
- Palette Knife: Palette knives can be used to scrape excess materiel from the surface or assist in creating sharp edges.
- Turpentine/Mineral Spirits: Spirits or turpentine can both aid in blending colors and remove and pastel remaining after scraping the excess away. For blending you can dip a small paintbrush in the turpentine wiping away excess and gently rub the area needing to be blended. This will help the oils and wax loosen to assist in blending. Q-Tips or small rags can be used to gently wipe away remaining color you would like to remove.
- Fixative: Since oil pastels are made with non-drying oils they will never dry like paint will. This means they are vulnerable to being smudged as well as collecting dust. To remedy this you can spray a few coats of something like Sennelier Oil Pastel Fixative to protect your art from dust and smudges.
Finishing Oil Pastel Art
After you have completed an art piece made with oil pastel you will need to protect it from dirt, dust, and smudges. The best way to protect any piece of art is to cover it but unlike oil pastels, it isn’t always necessary as something like paint is quite durable once dried. Since Oil Pastels do not dry you will need to either spray several coats of a fixative like mentioned above or cover the art in a glass frame taking care to not actually let the glass touch the art.
Now that you have a better understanding of what makes a great oil pastel you can set out to find one that works best for your needs. We have also provided several choices of both the best artist quality pastels and the best student quality pastels. Jump down to the list read all about the choice on our list.
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Below is our complete list of the best oil pastels available. We have included only oil pastels most revered sought after by seasoned and experienced oil pastel artists. As with most art supplies, artists will usually have a preference, you can certainly grab an open stock of the choices and pick what feels right for you. If you have any questions about the choice be sure and leave us a comment!
“Best Soft Oil Pastels For Artists”
One of the oldest and most regarded oil pastels, Sennelier oil pastels have been around for decades and were developed for Picasso in collaboration between renowned artist Henri Goetz and famous art materials maker Henri Sennelier. The result is one of the most pigment rich artist grade oil pastels on the market. This richness in pigment allows for great coverage over the medium. Though the recipe is not public any artist will note the higher ratio of oil to wax which gives them the buttery texture, some described as being similar to lipstick, and superior blending capabilities.
The rich pigment and buttery texture also give the Sennelier oil pastels great versatility when choosing a medium. Whether you are working over wood, paper, canvas, or metal you will notice that even on a surface with low texture or teeth these oil pastels still lay nicely. Another great thing about these particular oil pastels is they are color-fast, stable, and the oxidation resistant binder that has no effect on the pigment or the surface.
As you can expect with any artist grade materials, the Sennelier oil pastels are more expensive but I have not met an artist that regretted the decision to work with them. If there is anything negative to be said is they are not great to work within hot settings as the already buttery texture will become even more soft and difficult to work with. If you enjoy using your pastels outdoors in the summer heat you may opt for a more firm oil pastel.
- Artist Quality
- Soft buttery texture/li>
- One of the best at color blending
- Extremely high pigment concentration
- Non-toxic and acid-free to resist drying
“Best Medium Oil Pastels For Artists”
Holbein Artist series oil pastels is another one of the most regarded oil pastel choices. Much like the Sennelier, the Holbein Artist oil pastel is extremely pigment rich. The Holbein is slightly more firm, however, giving a more velvety texture rather than a buttery consistency which is due to a higher wax concentration that some prefer. The Holbein provides excellent ground coverage and blends smoothly to create excellent gradients.
Holbein is also a very versatile oil pastel when it comes to surface usage but you may notice that the firmer texture may require a bit more tooth to grab more of the pastel when covering your surface with the pastel. Holbein has been described as having a feel much like soft pastels which as you know are distinctly different from oil pastels.
All of the Holbein colors are a joy to handle and are consistent in texture, soft and velvety. The colors are also nice and opaque which is also great for coverage. Note the Holbein Artist oil pastels are not covered with a paper wrap so it is nice to pair them with a holder to keep your hands clean. Finally, one of the other great things that artists appreciate about Holbein oil pastel sets are the color options and the gradients provided. A large set of Holbein oil pastels will provide everything you need.
- Artist Quality
- Dense with pigment and rich color
- Velvety slightly firm texture
- Great color selection
- Very high quality
“Best Medium/Firm Oil Pastels For Artists”
Caran D’ache Neopastels are an artist-grade oil pastel that is medium texture and in relation to the others, Sennelier being the softest, Holbein slightly firmer, then Neopastel being the most firm. Despite being more firm than the previous two, they still blend excellently and provide great coverage from the pigment-rich sticks. The smooth rich opaqueness also allows you to go far with a little.
If you already worked with other artist grade oil pastels, the first thing you will notice is their smaller size in comparison. This could be desirable depending on your style and how you hold your pastels and even though they are smaller they still achieve amazing coverage. One thing artists consistently note with the Neopastel is how well they blend without muddying the colors and how they like layering with them.
Whether you are looking for a more firm artist grade oil pastel, a new brand to try, or something slightly more affordable, the Neopastel sets are a great option for artists and contain a great selection of colors to get started.
- Artist Quality
- Opaque pigment rich
- Firmer texture
- Great coverage
“Best Firm Oil Pastels For Artists”
Cray-Pas Specialist is a very affordable artist quality oil pastel. Like all artist grade oil pastels, the Specialist line from Sakura is very rich with pigment providing the artist with great coverage and saturated color. These sticks can be described as a firm to hard which is due to a higher wax ratio. This allows for creating fine lines and detail.
The quality of these is exhibited in its ability to resist crumbling when applying it as is the case with lesser quality pastels. They go down very smooth as well and have a nice opaqueness to them on most colors. For anyone needing a more firm oil pastel stick or those on a budget, these are a great option for artist grade oil pastels.
- Artist Quality
- Firm texture
- Very affordable
“Best Oil Pastels For Student”
Moving on to student quality, Mungyo Gallery is considered a high-end student quality oil pastel. Some artists feel these actually border on artist quality as they a rich in pigment and blend extremely well. The opaqueness of these is also very good. The one thing to note is the lack of a light-fastness rating on them but as these are student quality it is usually less of a concern.
Finally, these are reasonably soft which for a student quality pastel and they resist crumbling much better than other lower quality student grade oil pastels. The Mungyo Gallery sets are also packed with great colors and gradients but are also available in open-stock as well. This is an extremely wallet-friendly offering exceptional quality.
- Student Quality
- Excellent coverage and opaquness
- Very affordable
The Expressionist line from Cray-Pas offers yet another affordable option of the student to beginner grade oil pastel. These are quite firm with its high wax content but they still go down smoothly even so.
This set really offers amazing value to those on a budget or wanting to give oil pastels a try without starting with the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality. On the other hand, if this is medium you are committed to and your budget allowed, there are better choices above for the serious artist.
- Student Qulaity
- Good coverage on a variety of surfaces
“Best Oil Pastels For Children”
If you are looking for a non-toxic quality set of oil pastels for your children this is one of the best sets out there. Aside from the affordability of these, the Jr Artist series is made to meet non-toxic standards but it goes further to ensure the sticks are free of allergens like nut oils, animals oils, as well as other known allergens.
These are also available in three sizes to accommodate children who may still be developing their grip and how they hold items. The larger sizes will also offer more pastel for them to work with before needing replacement. A great beginner set for the aspiring child artist.
- Beginner Oil Pastels
- Non-Toxic No Use of Allergens
- Great Price
We understand there are a ton of options out there and they can all be very similar or very different. If you are still left with questions, please leave us a comment and we will put you on the right track. Feel free to leave us your top picks as well, we may even add it to our list!