Merion Art Blog

Intro to Oil Pastels

My name is Jen Richter, and I’m an oil pastel artist (addict?). I could talk for hours about oil pastels, (their history, artists that use them, my experiences, blah blah blah) but this week I’m just going to give a quick intro to what they are, and how to use them.

Like many people, I was first introduced to oil pastels in elementary school art class, in the form of CrayPas. As an adult, I can still count the number of oil pastel artists I’ve met on one hand. When I show my artwork, people often have a hard time identifying the medium, and when I tell them, they’re still surprised. Often, they’ll say: “Oil pastels? I’ve thought about trying those, but aren’t they really hard to use?” or “Oil Pastels? Aren’t those only for kids?” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve answered those questions, I’d have a lucrative silly-response side-business going.

Oil pastels are easy to use, and they’re not just for kids. Yes, there’s a learning curve- a drawing done in oil pastel usually needs a little development to look good, and that can scare people away. But there are huge benefits to using oil pastels. Oil pastels are cheap, easy to clean, easy to transport, easy to control, and perfect for artists of all ages and skill levels. Their particular composition and versatility allows for amazing effects, gorgeous textures, subtle gradients, and luminous saturated color.

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Benefit #1: they’re just so pretty!

Why You Should Try Oil Pastels

Unlike oil painting, an oil pastel can be done quickly, with very little mess and next to no accessories (oils, solvents, etc.) and doesn’t require dry time. This makes them great for travel or plein-air. Oil pastels start out very cheap– and even if you’re a professional, you can use cheaper brands for underpainting and save your expensive sticks for top layers and fine details. Oil pastels are extremely versatile:

  • They can be used on paper, on wood, and on canvas.
  • They can be used alone or as part of mixed media compositions.
  • They can be used for realistic representational art or abstracts.
  • They can be built up, scraped down, scratched off and started over.
  • They can be used dry like crayons or chalk pastels, or wet like paint, using oil mediums.  

Basically, they’re a great artistic workhorse, and the best kept secret in the art world.

Oil Pastel Quality: Crayons to Lipstick

Oil pastels are some of the cheapest… and also most expensive art supplies around. Confused? It all has to do with quality. The lowest quality pastels can cost around $2.25 for a box of 12 colors, highest quality pastels cost more like $6 per stick. Price is probably the easiest way to tell which pastels are better quality.

“Threshold of quality” is a phrase I use to describe the point at which you notice the quality of the art material you are using. Different art materials have different thresholds of quality. For instance, graphite sketch pencils have a high threshold of quality- you’d have to be using them A LOT to notice “Ooh, this is an expensive, good quality pencil”. Acrylic paint has a middling threshold- an amateur craft painter can tell the difference between plastic-y, watery cheapo acrylic and nice heavy body artist quality paint without too much difficulty.

Oil Pastels have a very low threshold of quality- with oil pastels, you can tell very quickly whether or not you are working with artist-grade tools. If I handed you an unlabeled CrayPas and a Sennelier pastel, and asked which one was artist quality, you’d probably be able to tell the difference immediately. 

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Nice pastels vs cheap pastels: guess which is which!

Low quality oil pastels are waxier/harder, high quality pastels are oilier/creamier. The cheaper it is, the more like a crayon it is. The nicer the pastel is, the closer it approaches lipstick. This is the easiest way to tell how nice your pastels are. (This is also why I waffle between using the terms “drawing” and “painting” when describing my pastel work, because sketching with the cheaper pastels feels like drawing, but gliding a Sennelier pastel over top of everything is definitely painting.) I’ve had to assess  multiple sets this way; people give me old, anonymous pastel sets in plastic bags and cookie tins, like “Oh, my great-uncle was an artist, I thought you could use these”. I always accept these gifts, because the nice thing about oil pastels is, even if you can tell a cheapo crappy pastel at 20 paces, they can still be useful to you!

Making Oil Pastel Quality Work For You

I use the old oil painting dictum of “Fat over Lean” Lean pastels, i.e. less oily pastels, go first. Then I layer oilier pastels on top, in order of how oily/soft/creamy they are.

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Sennelier pastels go on top!

Underpaintings get done with the cheapest pastels I’ve got, so that I can reserve nicer (more expensive) pastels for fine details and more difficult color modulations. It’s also best to layer cheap to nice for technical reasons; if you try to lay down a cheap hard pastel over a softer pastel, the hard pastel will scrape the soft one up, and you may be left with a gouge in your painting.

Artists Do It On Everything: Substrates and Surfaces

Oil Pastel can be used on various substrates and surfaces: different kinds of paper, canvas, primed wood panel. Primed canvas is best if you’re trying to mix with oil paint or oil mediums such as stand oil, mineral spirits or other solvents. Canvas can be tricky- the texture wears down pastels very quickly, and the stretched canvas dents easily if you press too hard. Paper works best for straight oil pastel or mixing with dry media, like pen and ink or graphite. I prefer Bristol paper because it’s got enough tooth to hold the pastel but not so much as to distort the edges of the stroke, plus it can stand up to erasers. Primed wood or MDF panel is my favorite for mixed media that involves collage. I prime the board with gesso, add acrylic paint or decoupage elements, then a layer of an absorbent ground like Golden Molding Paste. It allows me to mix all kinds of media to get the effect I want, and the less-absorbent surface (compared to paper) allows me to scrape, erase and move pastel more effectively.

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This mixed media piece was done on primed MDF board, and mixes collage, pen and ink, acrylic, and oil pastel.

Move It All Around: Blending Oil Pastels

Blending is basically the first thing you’ll need to master when using oil pastels. It’s the difference between smooth gradients and blocks of color. It allows you to create depth and shading. Oil pastel doesn’t fix itself to the paper like ink, it can be pushed around, like a much less dusty version of chalk pastels. The simplest way to blend is to use the oil pastels themselves. Lay down an area of blue, then scribble over it with yellow, voila, you got green. This works up to a certain point- after a few layers, the pastels can get too blended, or if you try to blend with a pastel that’s harder than the pastel you’ve already got on the paper, you can end up scraping it off a little. This is okay, you can always lay down more color, more on that later, but it can be a bummer if you’ve been carefully blending an area for ages.  

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This snake on panel took *ages* to blend the way I wanted it to!

You may want to scrape some of the pastel up on purpose. The easiest way to erase oil pastels is to scrape it up so there’s less to smear. You can also use scraping to create designs, with a technique called sgrafitto. If you lay down an area of one color (say yellow) on paper, then color over it with a darker color, (brown, for instance) you can use a stylus or fingernail or other tool to scrape away the brown layer, leaving an indented yellow area.

My favorite method of blending is to use my hands. I use my fingers to push colors onto clean paper, or to smear and mix two colors together. I like hands best for a number of reasons. Fingers allow me complete control over pressure, they’re slightly warm, which helps to move oil pastels around more smoothly, and they’re easy to clean off. Downsides- fingers are big, so for control over fine details, you have to be very careful. And if you have long fingernails, you may scrape some of the pastel off by accident.

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A work in progress

You can use other tools to blend. A great tool for blending precision areas is a white eraser. The eraser can easily be cleaned off, because the pastel won’t stick to the slick surface, and it can allow you to move pastel around in a very controlled manner, especially if you use a stick eraser like Sumo Grip or General’s retractable eraser. Using a stick eraser allows you to hold it like a pencil or a paintbrush, which gives most people the control they need to make small motions.

Oil Pastels and Temperature

Oil pastels are very temperature sensitive. It’s a property you should be aware of, because it can both help and harm. They get harder when cold and softer when warm. Softer/warmer pastels blend and smear more easily. Even cruddy pastels can be a lot more malleable on a warm day, and trying to use a set of Sennelier’s on a hot sunny day can result in melty sadness. On the other end of the spectrum, chilly temps make even nice pastels a little stiff. You can use a hairdryer or heat pad can gently warm pastels to the right temperature to blend the way you’d like them to, and having a fridge nearby allows you to cool-set overworked over-warmed pastels so that you can layer on top.

When You’re Done

When oil pastels are finished, the best way to protect and display them is to frame them. You can spray with Senellier’s Oil Pastel Fixative to give it a little extra protection- Other fixatives don’t work too well, but there’s really no need: after they are used oil pastels tend to set, so there’s none of the unintentional brushing of color that can happen with a chalk pastel or charcoal. Framing oil pastels is just like framing other dry media- glass should not touch the artwork, and there’s no need to use a raised mat (a common precaution with chalk pastels). If you’re storing an unframed oil pastel, putting a sheet of glassine (a kind of archival waxed paper) on top will keep gouges and color transfer from occurring.

And That’s How It Works!

There you have a brief (well, okay, not that brief) intro to Oil Pastel techniques and tricks. Because of how under-utilized the medium is, most oil pastel artists are, to some degree, self-taught, but I hope this answers some of the basic questions you might have. If you are looking for more info, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Ken Leslie’s excellent book “Oil Pastel: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artist.” Ultimately, however, the best way to learn about Oil Pastels is to try them yourself!

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments; I’d be happy to answer!


4 Reasons To Talk To Your Art Retailer

“Cashiers”, “sales staff”, “register guy”, “The Lady at the Counter”- we go by many names. We are art materials retailers, and we are your point of contact during your shopping experience. When you’ve been working in the Art Retail business for awhile, you begin to see trends in questions you’re asked, problems you need to solve, and issues you encounter over and over. Despite this, one of the things I hear most frequently is “NOTHANKS!JUSTLOOKING!” in response to “Can I help you with anything?”

While I understand the impulse to avoid overzealous salespeople, as someone on the other side of the counter, I want to explain why you should chat with the cashier. Aside from the obvious facts that 1) it’s our job to ask customers if they need help, and 2) the sales floor staff know where all the things live, there are plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea not to tune out the sales staff at your local art store. In art as in many other aspects of life, communication is key. Here are four reasons why talking to your art materials professionals is a really good plan.

1.) We don’t mind special ordering items for you: In store, we stock about 30,000 items on a regular basis. Our suppliers carry hundreds of thousands of different art and architecture supplies. In a brick-and-mortar store we’re limited in what we can keep in stock all the time. But we know that a huge part of making art is pushing boundaries, trying new things, and experimenting with new ways to use various media.

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There’s only so much this lil ol’ place can hold at one time!

Sometimes this requires an artist to reach beyond standard oils, acrylics and charcoal- for instance, trying new painting mediums, unusual colors, non-standard sizes and shapes of paper and canvas, and any number of other hard-to-find specialty materials. We are constantly ordering from a variety of suppliers, and we are more than happy to special order whatever items you need. It’s no trouble to us, and we love to be able to help our customers. However, we won’t know you need it unless you let us know. If you don’t see what you want, just ask. Heck, even if you don’t know what you want, ask anyway, and we’ll see if we can figure out what would work best for you!

2.) Our staff are experienced artists- so please ask technical questions: Sometimes at a big box store, you’ll encounter a well-meaning employee who was chosen for their ability to handle a cash register, but who has no in-depth knowledge of the merchandise they sell. With art supplies, that would be a huge disadvantage. At Merion Art, our floor staff are not “just cashiers,” they are artists with experience. Every member of our staff is required to pass a 20 question quiz to prove their familiarity with various art materials. Many of us have college degrees in art, and most produce and sell our artwork professionally. On staff currently, we have specialists in such varied topics as woodworking, clay sculpture, water color, graphic design, oil paint, oil pastel, drafting, silverpoint, brush calligraphy, spray paint, screen-printing, acrylic paint and more. 

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These people are experts!

If there is an item you’re considering buying, chances are one of us has already tried it in our own work. We are both qualified and eager to answer your technical questions, whether its “Will this work with that?” or “Which brand is better?” or “How do water-mixable oils work, really?” Like many professionals, we love to talk shop and we love to share our knowledge in order to help your art to improve. We don’t just want to make a sale, we want to solve your unique problems and get you the right supply for the job. Never feel like you’re bothering us, and never feel like we won’t be able to answer your questions. If we’re not personally experienced with the issue at hand, we’ll find you someone who is.

3.) A great reason to have a long conversation with an art materials professional is the fact that  there’s more than one way to solve most problems– If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; but at Merion Art, we’ve got a whole toolbox! When you need to figure out the best way to do something artistic, it’s good to remember that often there isn’t one best way, and there are any number of good ways. Different mediums can solve the same problems with different results. Different painters have varied methods for painting the same sky, hair, and trees. Different primers have various effects on the paintings they produce. Sometimes you’ll need to rethink a problem from a new perspective, or try a few different things before you arrive at your right way. Talking through a problem with your art retailers is a good way to figure out creative new approaches– if we haven’t encountered the problem ourselves, we act as a clearinghouse for other artist’s problems, and we may have heard of something that will give you a new point of view.

4.) Art supplies have intended uses and going outside those uses can have unintended results and art materials professionals might be able to keep you from making terrible mistakes. Here are some drastic real-life examples: I’ve had customers ask for oil paint… to paint their bodies for a college football game. I’ve had customers request day-glo spray paint… for people to spray on each other at a kids paint party. I’ve had customers buy chalk pastels… for coloring hair. None of these things are a good idea. The only paint you should use on a body is body-paint (it’s right there in the name!). I managed to talk all of these people out of inadvertently doing potentially harmful things to themselves (except chalk pastel-hair-girl- that wasn’t really harmful, just very, very messy). I asked “What kind of project are you working on?” and through a series of follow-up questions, I steered them away from terrible ideas and towards the correct product (body paint, body paint, and hair dye respectively).

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Please don’t do this with oil paint.

If they hadn’t talked to their Friendly Neighborhood Art Retailer, they could’ve been dealing with full-body rashes, pigment poisoning, ruined clothes, allergic reactions, and sad, uncleanable, fluorescent spray-painted pre-teens (to say nothing of wasted art supplies- the football guys were going to use Williamsburg Artist Oils!). On the less physically terrible side, I’ve also stopped people from melting styrofoam sculptures with spray paints (propellants can melt foam), from painting plastics with water-based paints (they will peel), and from using Sharpies for things they want to be permanent (Sharpies are notoriously not lightfast, and fade easily). Talking to your art retailer can stop you from making easily preventable mistakes, and even save you an unfortunate trip to the doctor (while spray-painted neon yellow).

Art materials retailers- we’re always there: solving problems, finding the right products, offering unique approaches, and preventing catastrophes…using our powers for good, in a world full of murky and uncertain product choices. Next time you see “The Lady at the Counter”, remember, we’re here to help, and we’d love to chat. So… Can we help you?


Nice to see you!

Welcome to the Merion Art Blog, the official blog for Merion Art and Repro Center, in Ardmore PA. We’ll be updating this blog frequently with news, info, tutorials, explorations of different mediums, and helpful hints. At Merion Art all of our staff members have art experience, from our custom framers, to our graphic designers in our Repro department, to the painters, draftsmen and sculptors that staff our sales floor and offices. We’ll have a rotating cast of creative professionals posting about the art and design things that they’re passionate about. We hope you’ll enjoy these little art essays as much as we do! Be sure to stop in our store if you’re local, and follow us on Facebook for up to date info! Storefront2