Moving From Oils to Pastels

Q: I’m an oil painter who has purchased a set of pastels. What are the similarities between these two media and what tips can you give me to start me off in the right direction?

14-chamisa-storm-oil.jpgPastel and oil share a strong kinship; they complement each other well. The skills gained from working in one greatly strengthen the other. My first paintings were oil and after a few years I was introduced to pastel by one of my mentors—an introduction for which I’m eternally grateful.

Many observers comment that without close scrutiny, it’s hard to tell my oils from my pastels. This is because I approach them both with the same attitude. Chamisa Storm (at top; oil, 16×24) and Toward the Rio (below; pastel, 10×14) illustrate this similarity. Both were started with a thin underpainting
followed with thicker applications of pigment. Many of my final
touches in oil are created with a palette knife loaded with heavy
paint; in pastel, this is duplicated with the side of a soft pastel stick.

14-towards_the_rio-pastel.jpgWorking in oil has made me painterly (more in the fashion of paint). I hold and apply the pigment as if a brush is in my hand—instead of a drawing utensil. Pastel has made me more sensitive when working in oil to the tactile nature of applying pigment to surface. My application of both media is very similar: I tend to start with a thin underpainting that focuses on the big shapes and substructure of the scene (refer to my 2-part blog on underpainting). I then move to the lay-in of more pastel or oil, achieving just enough detail to explain what it is I’m painting. This method follows an old system used in traditional oil painting—working thin to thick. The mantra taught to these traditional oil painters applies well to pastel: thin to thick, soft to sharp, dark to light, and dull to bright. When working with an opaque medium it’s best to try and follow this creed.

Even though there are techniques of glazing in oil (the thin application of a darker transparent color over a lighter passage), it’s basically an opaque medium, like pastel, and requires an incremental increase in paint volume to build up the upper passages, especially when working wet-into-wet. Pastel, of course, never dries (unless we spray it heavily with workable fixative), so it shares similarities to a layer of wet oil paint requiring the heavier application of pigment with each subsequent application. One of the ways pastel artists facilitate this is to work with their harder sticks in the early layers and graduate to the softer pastels for the final touches. 

Other media, like watercolor and acrylic, tend to dry quickly and require a different approach. Another similarity is that many oil painters work on a toned substrate, usually a warm tone for the 
landscape and a weak cool tone (like a gray green) for the figure and portrait. This is mirrored in the selections many pastel artists make when choosing a toned surface.

Even though these two mediums share a lot of common qualities, there is a definite personality difference. Allow yourself time to become acquainted and experiment with each. You’ll gain so much from the adventure.

4 thoughts on “Moving From Oils to Pastels

  1. BlueBerry Pick'n says:

    I’m so grateful you for this post.

    I’d considered taking an oils course that followed an imminent drawing course. Yet, I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic in my visions or expectations towards how well it would complement my desire to paint in pastel.

    Aside from the obvious, ‘all knowledge & skills are complementary’… I wasn’t entirely excited by the idea.

    …but I’m motivated.

    Thank you!

    BlueBerry Pick’n
    can be found @
    "We, two, form a Multitude" ~ Ovid.
    "Silent Freedom is Freedom Silenced"

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