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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 extremely 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 Mungyo Gallery Premium. 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 (not Mungyo Gallery Premium), Van Gogh, 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!

Sennelier

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. I originally bought a few sticks in open stock to try out, loved them, and then bought the portrait set for painting nudes. 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. Due to my wonderful family clubbing together for my 30th birthday present, I am now fortunate enough to own the full set of all 120 colours and I now use the portrait set and few other open stock sticks as a portable collection, leaving the lovely box of 120 for working in the studio.

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 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. These are my second favourite oil pastels. 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.

Mungyo Gallery Premium

Oh such confusion! The original Mungyo Gallery Artist's Soft Oil Pastels are student grade, then Mungyo released the Mungyo Gallery Artist's Extra Soft Oil Pastels, which are gorgeous; creamy and lightfast. But seriously, would it have killed Mungyo to have given the new line a different name?! It's easy to buy the student grade by accident online, as most sellers don't really consider the difference and list both as simply "Mungyo Gallery" or even "Gallery" - which makes it even worse when you consider that Inscribe do oil pastels called "Gallery", which really are awful! Assuming the seller has posted the right photo, the box for the student grade ones is blue and the box for the artist grade ones is black.

The Premium oil pastels by Mungyo are really lovely. They are fairly large sticks and excellent quality for the price; these are by far the cheapest of the artist's grade oil pastels. They apply to surfaces smoothly and evenly and come in a beautiful range of colours. I have only seen them for sale in the UK on eBay and Amazon, and only in set sizes up to 48. I have yet to see the full set of 72 for sale in the UK, but as soon as I do find them, I'll be snapping one up!

External link to Mungyo's Premium oil pastel page.

Caran D'ache Neopastel

I have around 50 few sticks of Neopastels. They are very good oil pastels, very similar in texture and colour range to Mungyo Premium, but a lot more expensive and the sticks are tiny. I can't see that they are different enough from the Mungyo Premiums to justify the price, and I don't really know how to explain it, but there's something about the feel of them as one applies them to the paper that I don't particularly like. They're kind of... rubbery, almost. 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.

Holbein

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 Mungyo Gallery Premium 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