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Beginners - Get Decent Paper!

The single most important piece of advice I could give to beginners starting out with oil pastel is:

Spend Your Money on the Paper!

I would always advocate giving yourself the best chance possible by starting with premium materials. There are plenty of tales of woe of people trying cheap materials and not getting good results. However, if you are on a tight budget and you need to be careful, always go for premium quality paper over premium quality oil pastels.

While starting anything new will inevitably require monetary investment, most people would prefer not to spend good money without knowing if they'll actually like it. With oil pastels, people often ask questions like "should I get the 48 Mungyo or the 24 Senneliers". They know the answer is probably the Sennelier, but are asking for reassurance that they don't need spend so much when starting out. However, they rarely, if ever, ask about the paper. The paper is really half of the painting. The paper determines how much oil pastel you can apply, how many layers, how well you can blend. It's as important as the oil pastels themselves.

You'll get much better results with Pentel oil pastels on Clairefontaine Pastelmat than you would using Senneliers on cheap cartridge paper.

That said, the cheapest paper I would recommend for beginners is Clairefontaine Paint-On. It's really good quality, thick paper, and comes in a few different colours in pads of a few different sizes. The Naturel (buff) and Gris (mid grey) both work very nicely for oil pastels and the Gris in particular has become my most used paper.

With this paper, it's possible to get a really good feel for oil pastels for around 20:

For less than 20, one can buy a set of 50 Pentel oil pastels and a 30 sheet pad of A4 Clairefontaine Paint-On in Gris or Naturel. The Pentel oil pastels are surprisingly soft and blendable considering their low price, and rather pleasant to work with.

For just over 20, you can buy the A4 Paint-On pad and a set of 24 Van Gogh oil pastels, which have much more reliable lightfastness than either Pentel or Mungyo.

For around 20, you can buy four Senneliers (such as the Zorn palette of black, red, yellow ochre, and white) and a pad of Paint-On. It's astonishing how many colours four oil pastels can make between them! Although it is very difficult not to be seduced by all the colours of the cheaper sets, this is really the best option because this will allow you to fully explore the tactile nature of the medium and decide if you wish to make further investment. There are some examples showing the Zorn palette in use on Clairefontaine Paint-On Gris in this article.

I started out in oil pastels with an initial investment of 13 for two Senneliers and a small pad of Clairefontaine Pastelmat, and never looked back. The story might have been very different had I bought some cheap pastel paper instead!