Drawing with Oil Pastels – Some Tips for Beginners

Drawing with Oil Pastels – Some Tips for Beginners

In my previous post about drawing with chalk pastels, I spoke about how to draw dogs and some tips on using chalk pastels. In this one I am exploring their bolder, almost more childish cousins – the oils; and focus on drawing landscapes or still lifes.

The pigments in oil pastels are bound together with a mixture of wax and fat which gives them a greasy texture. The colour range is relatively limited compared to chalk pastels, however you can buy sets that contain as many as 96 different hues, you’d be hard pressed to need anymore than that. They do not crumble or become powdery but they do smudge and can easily be overworked into muddiness. By applying a thick layer, you can draw negatively (ie scratch away the pigment on the page) to create interesting effects.

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[Click here for tips for beginners on Painting with Watercolours.]

Some tips for drawing with oil pastels:

  1. Oil pastels are not quite as messy as chalk pastels but still it can be difficult to keep your fingers clean, It may help to work with a damp cloth at hand.
  2. You need to be aware of where the ball of your hand is resting (hopefully not on an already coloured part of the page) or draw with your hand lifted.
  3. If possible start working from the top left of the page if you are right handed or top right if you are left handed.
  4. It’s tempting to start by drawing darkly as the colours are so rich and smooth but begin by pressing lightly until you feel confident that you have the correct shade and line.
  5. If you make mistakes you can’t rub them out! But there are not such things as mistakes in art anyway. 🙂
  6. Colours can be blended nicely if you layer up different hues.
  7. However, try not to overwork the colour layers as they muddy easily.
  8. Add highlights last.
  9. Spray your finished piece with a fixative to prevent smudging (normal hairspray works too, use sparingly and spray outside).

Trying different techniques

Oil pastels are brilliant for creating quick rough sketches as preparation for paintings. You could fill a sketch book with ideas and drafts very quickly which would help plan your composition and colour combinations. Here I wanted to try and pick up some of the yellow of the sunset on the tree trunks as well as the placement of a low horizon with a view mostly filled with attenuated trunks. The effect was more to create an impression of many trees in a line at the edge of a lawn rather than to try and accurately draw each and every tree.

garden Liberty on the Lighter Side
Garden sketch

The following sketch is ancient! (early 1990’s). My sister used to take riding lessons on a farm out in Midrand, just north of Johannesburg and I would drive her there. One time I decided to bring my sketch book and fill the waiting with drawing. It must have been winter as the earth and grass is so dry and the lake a vivid blue from reflecting a cloudless sky.

You can see I didn’t bother too much with getting those leaves just right! Drawing landscapes is easier than people as there is more margin for error, but trying to draw individual leaves and grass stalks is impossible. It’s best to go for an overall impression of light and shade and add texture with layers of colour. I drew this on a pale tan coloured paper to lend an undertone to the earthy hues, however, I think it muddies the sky too much (I could have probably worked a bit longer on it).

lake and tree with red earth Highveld, South Africa, oil pastels
Highveld, South Africa, oil pastels

Because oils are so bold and bright I love drawing on a black background as it contrasts so nicely and seems to make the pictures pop out a bit. This first illustration I drew in pencil first and then worked on the individual pieces in the arrangement. I built up layers of shadow and ended up drawing in the highlights with a white pastel. Drawing a white object is tricky, but if you look carefully at what you draw you will see a range of colours and greys in the white from the reflections of surrounding objects. No white object is ever completely white!

Oil pastel still life with read coffee pot, blue cup and white milk jug
Coffee with Laura

The pastels I use are ultra soft and the colour range is fabulous, they are a bit too well loved by this stage as I let the kids use them because the cheaper ones from the local stationery store just aren’t quite as lovely. I have the Neopastel range by Caran D’Ache, I’ll put a link at the bottom of this page you can click on to buy your own set.

Drawing a pot of nasturtiums with oil pastels
Nasturtium study

My grandmother was an artist and she was the one who first introduced me to the differences between chalk and oil pastels. Up until I finished my schooling, I had only ever drawn in oils and she introduced me to the novel idea of going to an art shop and selecting one or four individual chalk pastels at a time, of having them carefully wrapped in tissue and preciously stored in a wooden box to prevent them from cracking.

This still life below she put together for me of her own things on top of the scarf she gave me that Christmas is done in chalk pastels which I drew at her home when I went to visit her in Edinburgh. She also introduced me to the idea of drawing on the finest grade sand paper – the texture of the surface of the sand paper draws out the pigments even more. You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference from looking at it, which type of pastels I used.

challk pastel on finest sandpaper still life with pot plant, vase and carriage clock
Still Life in chalk pastels on finest grade sand paper

Kids camp

In the summer I teach an art camp for children. Oil pastels are a great medium for warm up exercises and quick sketches, they are quick and easy to clean up too – no water spillages or paint brushes to clean up afterwards! They also work well as a resist medium with water based paint.

These underwater pictures where created by drawing the fish first in pencil and then permanent marker. Then the kids added colour to the fish and back ground features using oil pastels. Finally they created a thin wash of blue watercolour paint and applied it in broad strokes over the background. You can see where the pastels shine through the paint, especially in the green stalks in the bottom picture.

Fish in Oil pastel and water colour
Piranha by Nate in oil pastels and watercolours
Fish in oil pastel and watercolour
Rainbow Fish by Fia in oil pastel and watercolour

You can also dissolve oil pastels in white spirits to create a more watery, diluted effect on the page. You would need to use a thickish paper to prevent wrinkling – 125gsm or more.


These are the pastels I use, this range also comes in a set of 12, 24 or a much larger set of 96 (drool drool). I’d recommend that you have a set of at least 48 if you would like a good variety of colours. This set contains at least 10 shades of green as well as about another 10 neutral shades – all essential for drawing landscapes. It also has a lovely range of skin tones if you are feeling brave enough for portraiture!

Caran d'Ache NEOPASTEL Oil Pastels (Box of 48)
Caran d’Ache NEOPASTEL Oil Pastels (Box of 48)
Daler Rowney 12" x 9" Ingres 6 Colour Toned Pastel Paper Sketch Artist Pad
Ingres Pastel Paper Spiral Pad 6 Assorted Colours DALER-ROWNEY – 16 x 12″

And to finish, I highly recommend this book ‘Drawing with Colour’ by Judy Martin, filled with beautiful work and helpful tips in a range of media. It is hard to read this book and not feel inspired afterwards. Just look at that cover illustration drawn in pastels!:

Drawing with Colour Hardcover – 26 Oct 1989 by Judy Martin
Drawing with Colour Hardcover – 26 Oct 1989 by Judy Martin

What about learning to draw the human face? Click on the link to visit this post where I teach you how to draw features all in proportion.

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In this post I explore using oil pastels to create bright and bold landscapes or still lives as well as provide a few tips on how to use them.
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23 thoughts on “Drawing with Oil Pastels – Some Tips for Beginners”

  1. Pingback: Easy Oil Pastel art for beginners – Video link included – I-Made

  2. I do wish I was better at drawing. My brother seemed to inherit all the art-y genes in our family. But I love your tips here – so interesting to a total novice like me. I like the red coffee pot on the black paper – it’s really vibrant! #blogcrush

  3. You are a great artist, I can’t drawcat all, when I was a teenager I really wanted to be able to draw horses, my passion, but no matter how many times I attempted it didn’t happen #thatfridaylinky@_karendennis

  4. I love your drawings, they are so vibrant. It’s funny as we have so many sets of crayons and chalks, yet as parents we always seem to head straight for pens and pencils – this really inspired me to try some different art mediums with the kids. Thanks!
    And thanks for linking to #coolmumclub

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