Apples in Blue Silk by Robert A. Sloan using Erengi Art Aspirer oil pastels on watercolor paper primed with Colourfix clear sanded pastel primer.

 I first ran into oil pastels when I was a teenager. I was buying something else and saw these boxes of colorful sticks at ludicrously low prices in a dimestore. They might have been Pentel or Loew-Cornell. I picked them up on a whim while getting school supplies because I often did sketching with stuff I got for cheap. It seemed like they couldn’t be good art supplies because even the biggest range was only a dollar or two and change.

I’d also never heard of oil pastel paintings even in contemporary art museums. They were obscure. I tried them and wow — unlike crayons, these sticks were opaque! They blended well, they had great color ranges including plenty of useful earth tones and neutrals, most of all the light colors often covered the darks completely so I had a wonderful freedom of expression with them.

Soft pastel paintings have a long history. Oil pastels are new. Invented in the 20th century, the first oil pastels were made by Sakura Cray-Pas — the brand that when I saw them again in the art store cost a little more than the dimestore set I first noticed. Sakura now makes three lines of oil pastels — Cray-Pas Junior, an excellent children’s product and good inexpensive sketching set, Cray-Pas Expressionist, moderate priced student grade oil pastels (the round sticks) and Cray-Pas Specialist in 88 color range — the artist grade product with archival lightfastness and strong pigment saturation.

There are not many brands of artist grade oil pastels available. The first was Sennelier oil pastels, created by Henri Sennelier for Henri Goetz and Pablo Picasso in 1949. Picasso wanted a fine art medium that he could use on any surface — corrugated cardboard, found objects, glass, metal, wood. All oil pastels seem to have this quality today and the Senneliers are the softest oil pastels available. Senneliers have a texture like painting with women’s lipstick.

This can be fun and it’s closer to painting directly with oils than any other brand because they’re so slippery and loose. Artists used to the firmer brands may find Senneliers a little hard to control. They vary in transparency from near transparent to strongly opaque and have many unusual grays that Picasso loved. Definitely an artist’s palette with many pigment choices close to the same hue that vary in opacity, toxicity and mixing. Loads of primaries that each mix differently. Senneliers will go over any other oil pastels even if the surface is completely saturated. I use mine as a finishing layer. Senneliers have a 120 color range including an iridescent white that I love.

Holbein took a different approach to artist grade oil pastels — they modeled their 225 color range after soft pastels. Every hue has tints. The 225 range has four tints for each hue, but they are discontinuing the 2 and 4 tints so the full range will only be 141 with more value ranges in the grays. Holbeins are nearly as soft as Senneliers but very opaque. Most colors have artist grade lightfastness, a few of the tints don’t but Holbein’s site lists the ones that have potential fading issues. These are available in open stock or cardboard or wood box sets. They are the most expensive but they are so rich they’re worth it — and still only comparable in price to artist grade soft pastels.

Caran d’Ache Neopastel oil pastels are artist grade and unlike the Senneliers or Holbeins, they are all nontoxic. (So are the square-stick Cray-Pas Specialists). I love their soft firm texture, extreme pigment saturation and wonderful mixing. The 96 color range is well balanced and yet I was able to get any hue I wanted mixing the well chosen sticks in the 12 color set that I started with. I’ve since upgraded to a 48 color set and plan to buy the full range since I like these best of all.

Erengi Art Aspirer oil pastels, available from Jerry’s Artarama or ASW Express online or Jerry’s stores in person, are also artist grade and a super bargain especially when they’re on sale. I bought a 50 color set on sale to test them and then got the 92 color full range wood box. They are similar to Neopastels but more firm, the color range is great, and they are my on the go set because the wood box with its metal lined foam-padded trays is so durable and small. It’s easy to grab.

Last of the definitely artist grade oil pastels I know of currently is Cretacolor’s watersoluble Aqua Stic. These are firm, about comparable to the Cray-Pas specialists in texture, long thin round wrapped sticks with a tapered point. They’re lightfast and convenient. I bought the big 80 color set to have a full range of tints and found them great both wet and dry — I can do my underpainting with the sticks, wash it to turn it into the underpainting and keep going with any oil pastels I want over that.

With these artist grade oil pastels, I have seen some incredible paintings by members of the <a href=””>Oil Pastel Society,</a> which I joined as an Associate member. This fine art society has only been in existence for a few years.

I feel as if I’m in the early stages of a new movement in fine art rediscovering oil pastels, just like the transition colored pencils made from an illustrator’s and designer’s medium to a fine art medium in the 70s and 80s with Bet Borgeson and Gary Greene. Some of these artists are producing spectacular realism. Others are doing glorious Impressionism and other styles. While most of the examples shown to sell the products are jazzy loose modern art like the Picasso on the cover of the Senneliers, oil pastels can actually do just about anything you want them to.

Like colored pencils, you can either do paintings or drawings depending on whether you want to work loose and make the ground part of your rendering or whether you cover it with painterly strokes. One step farther though — the wet effects with oil pastels are much more like oil painting in a thinner-wash vein, and you can paint with them directly. With the Aqua Stic ones, they can be used like traditional pan watercolor by dragging the brush across the end of the stick and painting as you ordinarily would, with the others you need to use odorless turpentine or linseed oil or other oil painting mediums to get that painting effect.

The range of styles and types of art that can be created with these is limitless. You can do anything you want. I’m only beginning to discover what my good oil pastels can do — but if you’ve been disappointed with them in the past, try some artist grade ones. Limitations from the supplies can turn someone off from a medium and give an impression it’s your skill that’s lacking. That’s true for any art materials but especially so with oil pastels since the cheap sticks are waxier and more like children’s crayons.

Cheap sticks vary a lot more in texture and coverage, crumbliness and blendability. Some have wonderful handling qualities and seem as if they ought to be fine art grade but aren’t available in open stock and might not be lightfast. Others are like kid crayons and can be very frustrating.

They have their uses though. I have been reviewing every brand I can get hold of including all the cheap student grade ones on my oil pastels website, <a href=””></a> since I could not find reviews on them anywhere or even a website totally devoted to them — some articles on pastel websites and general art websites were useful but the only all oil pastels site was the OIl Pastels Society one. So I joined and now write for the OPS newsletter, the Oil Spiel.

Starting this April, I will be purchasing some Blue Wool cards and with the help of a friend, doing a series of independent lightfastness tests on all the oil pastels I have available. There hasn’t been a comprehensive independent test to my knowledge. There is no ASTM standard for lightfastness for oil pastels, so it’s important to test yours for yourself to identify which sticks are the most durable and which ones no matter how useful the color, need special treatment and care to survive in a fine art painting.

Then again, the ASTM didn’t have standards for colored pencils till very recently and colored pencils have been a respectable fine art medium for decades. Like I said, I feel as if I’m in at the start of a bold new movement in fine art and helping establish a wonderful and too often ignored fine art medium.

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