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Oil Pastels History

Oil pastels have a rich history.
a box of oil pastel sticks image by John Hartley from Fotolia.com

Oil pastels is a relatively new medium for drawing and painting. Although oil pastels have similarities to other artistic wax-based mediums, oil pastels are unique because of their rich history. Originally Invented for children, famous artists like Picasso found the oil pastel to be useful when painting on various surfaces and textures.

Early Developments

The modern oil pastel was not developed until the 20th century, but the wax based medium has historical roots that date back thousands of years. According to the Oil Pastels Society, oil pastels are related to melted wax painting. Instead of painting with dry wax, the wax was melted and used as a traditional paint. This historic method of wax painting is called encaustics and is approximately 2,000 years old. In 1921, the traditional oil pastel was developed by an artist named Yamamoto. The crayon he developed drew on the wax painting method and combined the softness and smooth texture of a crayon with the bright colours of the common pastel. Although the final product was produced for children, famous artists became inspired by the use of oil pastels.

Professional Oil Pastels

A few decades later in 1949, Sennelier developed a professional oil pastel for serious artists. With inspiration from Yamamoto's creation, Sennelier created pastels with a creamier consistency and with a wider color palette, including metallic and fluorescent. He even created a large variety of grey shades, specifically for Picasso. These professional oil pastels eliminate the dust that usually come with using pastel crayons, while keeping the shades and colors bright and intense.

Famous Artists & Oil Pastels

Famous artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Goetz, began using oil pastels. While Goetz primarily wanted to sketch oil paintings, Picasso was more focused on the professional quality of the colors when he used it on different surfaces without priming it first. He used oil pastels on various surfaces such as wood, glass, cardboard, ceramic, metals, paper and canvas. Up until this point, other artistic mediums required priming before use and Picassio wanted a medium that was readily available when his urge to paint surfaced.


Unlike other crayons, oil pastels have a base of oils and wax, which result in great adhesion. Because of the oil content, the crayons will not harden or crack despite being left out in various temperatures. Despite the various developments throughout the years, oil pastels remain acid free. As Picasso had wished, oil pastels can freely be used on various types of paper and fabrics, which gives any artist or child the freedom to paint and develop whatever he/she pleases.

Comparison to Other Mediums

As the oil pastel crayon developed throughout the years, inspiration was often drawn from other artistic mediums. However, unlike paints, oil pastels never dry and changes can be made days later as the oils leave the colors moist. Also, unlike regular crayons, the oils leave the colors glowing, even years after application. While corrections are easily made, multiple corrections on the same area can severely mess up the painting and mix the colors well together. Despite numerous developments through the years to improve oil pastels, textures can still create unwanted surprises. For example, too many layers of oil pastels on a single surface can lead to ripping or weakening of the texture due to the oils.

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