Q. I’d like to apply oil pastel on canvas or board and then hang the art like a painting without need for glass. It there a way to seal or coat the work so I can do this?
A. Oil pastels are made using mineral oil, a non-drying material derived from petroleum. Mineral oil is very different from traditional drying oils, such as linseed or safflower. In addition, oil pastels contain pigment for color and wax as a secondary medium. Lipstick is literally the kissing cousin of oil pastel.
Artists using oil pastels have the problem of working with a material that never dries or sets up in a way that cures (preserves) the medium. The inherent physical properties of these materials fight any attempt to harden them or make them unalterable. For this reason, oil pastels are highly susceptible to both solvents and smudges.
Creating a seal or coating akin to a fixative is possible. Talens and Sennelier are two manufacturers I know of that offer products for this purpose. These products are acrylic dispersions made for application over a finished oil pastel to provide a barrier between the oil pastel and the environment, so the surface of the oil pastel feels dry.
A word of caution is necessary: In traditional painting systems, acrylics applied over oil-like materials (in this case, oil pastels) may display adhesion problems. Still, this fixative material may provide an acceptable short-term solution for exhibiting unglazed oil pastels.
An alternative to oil pastels is pigment sticks or oil bars. Both are traditionally pigmented materials containing wax and linseed oil instead of non-drying mineral oil. Due to the wax, they never become truly solid, but an artist who likes the feel of oil pastel—yet wants the finished artwork to dry to a fairly high degree of hardness—may find pigment sticks or oil bars a satisfying alternative. This medium can be varnished with a number of traditional resin varnishes made for oil paintings.
Note: This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Michael Skalka has degrees in art history and museum studies. He is chair of the subcommittee on artist’s material for ASTM International.
Learn more about oil pastel techniques in this FREE download from The Artist’s Magazine’s Mediapedia (an encyclopedia of art media) and a bonus article, you’ll learn the basics of painting with oil pastels. Mediapedia: Oil Pastels by Greg Albert includes FAQs about this medium, must-have tools, safety and cleanup methods, an explanation of oil pastel chemistry, and more! As a bonus, we’re including a special “Competition Spotlight” article by oil pastelist George Shipperley.