Oil Pastel Brand Information for Fine Artists

As a fine art medium artist quality oil pastels are superb; they can be used on pretty much any surface and they are extremely versatile, lightfast and tactile. They are completely portable, making them ideal for plein aire or out-of-studio work. In fact, the reason I began with oil pastels in the first place was the portability. I wanted to paint anywhere and oil paints weren't ideal for me to take with me, especially with the hassle of transporting wet work back to the studio. Now, rather than just being a convenient portable medium, they have become my main medium. Unlike soft pastels oil pastels produce no dust, which makes them safer and cleaner to use in enclosed spaces, although soft pastels do provide more choice with the huge range of brands and colours available.

Oil pastels come in stick form, made of pigment, oil, and a little bit of wax. The cheaper the pastel, the higher the wax content - which means a lower pigment and oil content. The first oil pastel was made by Sakura in the 1920s and was called Cray-Pas (Crayon-Pastel). Nowadays Sakura have three oil pastel lines; the artist quality Specialist, the student grade Expressionist, and the childrens' grade Junior. In the 1940s, Sennelier began development and production of their oil pastel range, at the request of the artist Picasso, who wanted a portable, high quality, fine art medium that could be used on most surfaces. Since then a few other brands have developed highly pigmented, lightfast oil pastels as well; namely Holbein, Caran D'ache Neopastel, and Royal Talens Van Gogh. I own oil pastels from four of the artist's quality brands.

Student grade oil pastels vary widely in quality and, as my first priorities in a fine art medium are pigment load and lightfastness, I have little experience with them. Suffice to say, the artist's quality oil pastels mentioned above are ridiculously different to the student quality brands available, and superior in every way. Student grade oil pastels include those made by Pentel, Inscribe, Daler-Rowney, Mungyo Gallery, Faber-Castell, Reeves, Derwent Academy, Staedtler, Beryl, Royal and Langnickel, and Erengi. Unfortunately, most people discount oil pastels as a legitimate and wonderful artist medium due to the shocking experience of using the student quality brands available in schools - I know I did. After the horror of trying to make artwork with Inscribe pastels as a teenager, I thought I'd never pick up an oil pastel ever again! Some student oil pastels are very pleasant to use, such as Pentel and Mungyo Extra Soft*, but these aren't lightfast and are best used for sketchbook work.

*I used to have Mungyo Extra Soft listed as artist quality with a review below. Having seen the results of a lightfastness test, I now can't recommend these as artist quality, no matter how nice they are to use. While one might expect pinks and purples to have poor lightfastness in cheaper sets, in the Mungyo a lot of blues, greens, and greys showed substantial fading and/or hue shift after exposure to sunlight. With the existence of so many cheap lightfast blue and green pigments, I don't feel that it's acceptable for these colours to fade. Some pigments used in the artist quality brands listed below are fugitive, but those brands at least all have clear lightfastness ratings!


I find it difficult to describe just how much I love the Sennelier oil pastels. They are lipstick smooth and oh so creamy. I find them sumptuous and almost delicious to use, and I really relish applying and blending the colour. Sometimes, when I am in an inspirational or creative lull, I find myself desperate to use the Senneliers just to feel them! If I haven't used them for a few days, I miss them. Sennelier oil pastels have done more for my creativity and output than anything; it's become as much about using the oil pastels as it has about getting images from my mind into a physical form.

In the UK at least, they are the most readily available artist quality oil pastel and can be bought in sets or as open stock. One thing that I particularly like about the sets is that along with the sets of assorted colours in six, twelve, 24 and so on, they have sets specific to certain kinds of artwork; portrait, landscape and still life. Each contains 24 oil pastels with colours specific to those disciplines. The figure painter needs no other colours than those in the portrait set, it's extremely well thought out and comprehensive, and I'd imagine the landscape and still life sets are the same. I originally bought a few sticks in open stock to try out, loved them, then I bought the portrait set for painting nudes, and now I have all of the colours.

The label on each stick shows the pigments contained, the stick number, and the colour name. All sticks except the iridescents are lightfast.

External link to Sennelier's oil pastel page, containing their colour chart, etc.

Sakura Cray-Pas Specialist

After getting hooked on the Senneliers, I ordered the full set of 88 Sakura Specialist oil pastels from Japan, via Amazon's UK site. The Specialists are much firmer sticks than the Senneliers but the pigment goes on just as smoothly and they blend just as easily. The sticks are cuboid rather than cylindrical and the edges, combined with the hardness of the stick itself, make fine detail work much easier.

The label on each stick shows the pigments contained, the stick number, and the colour name. All sticks except the fluorescents are lightfast. I haven't found any for sale in the UK and no open stock, only sets that must be imported from Japan or the USA. The complete set of 88 comes in a beautiful, sturdy, double-layer wooden box.

External link to Sakura's Cray-Pas Specialist oil pastel page, containing their colour chart, etc.

Royal Talens Van Gogh

I don't know who arbitrarily decided that Van Gogh are student grade oil pastels, but whomever it was wrongly put me off trying these for years! I finally decided to give them a go when I saw the warm greys. Apart from the colours needed for skin, I mostly use greys and other neutrals, and Van Gogh has the most beautiful light and dark warm greys. Anyway, these are most definitely an artist grade brand. The sticks feel similar in consistency to Sakura Specialist; firm but smooth and easy to blend.

The label on each stick shows the pigments contained, the stick number, the colour name, and the lightfastness rating.

External link to Royal Talens Van Gogh oil pastel page, containing their colour chart, etc.

Caran D'ache Neopastel

I have around 50 sticks of Neopastels. They are very good oil pastels but very expensive and the sticks are tiny. Their wrappers are also ridiculously difficult to peel off and I usually end up gouging chunks out of the pastel in an effort to get the paper off. These are not my favourites, but they do a few colours I can't live without, namely the cream, ash grey, beige, and dark grey, but I prefer the soft creaminess of the Senneliers and the dry velvety texture of the Sakura Specialists. However, a lot of oil pastelists swear by them and use them as their first go-to oil pastel.

They are available in a few places in the UK, on various art supplies websites and from Amazon, in open stock and in sets. The colour range available is not great for portrait or nude figure painting, but they do a lovely collection of greens and greys for landscape painting.

External link to Caran D'ache's Neopastel page.


At this time, I have no first-hand experience with Holbein, as they are unavailable in the UK and must be imported from the USA or Japan at great expense. I have no real interest in trying them for two reasons - firstly, I have everything I need in my oil pastel collection with Senneliers, Sakura Specialists, and Van Gogh and have no reason to import a different brand, and secondly, Holbein sticks are not wrapped in paper. I get messy enough! I have minor allergies to oil based art mediums and, even with paper wrapped around the sticks, I get sore spots come up on my fingers.

However, many oil pastel artists from the USA do love the Holbeins, likening their application to that of soft pastel. Holbein makes tints of each colour they supply, which is useful and unique.

External link to Holbein's oil pastel page.

Read on to the Oil Pastel Tips page.

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More External Oil Pastel Links:

The oil pastel forums at WetCanvas

The Oil Pastel Society website