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Made from pigment mixed with nondrying oil and a wax binder, the first oil pastels were invented by the Osaka-based company Sakura in 1924 for use in Japanese schools. While oil pastels never caught on with Japan’s educators, they interested artists—including Pablo Picasso, who collaborated with the French manufacturer of art supplies Sennelier to develop a higher-quality version of Sakura’s product. Sennelier’s launch of their oil pastel in 1949 was followed Holbein’s in the 1980s and Caran d’Aches’s in the 1990s.
A cleaner medium than chalk pastels, but still softer and more blendable than either colored pencils or crayons, oil pastels are a great tool for both sketching and making finished pieces. Thinned with oil or solvents, they can also be used for painting. A concern with oil pastels is that they never completely dry and should ideally be treated with a fixative or framed behind glass. But they make up for that in ease of use, workability, and vivid color.
It’s tough to pick the absolute best brand, as your preference will depend largely on your subject matter and style. In fact, most artists will mix brands and fill their arsenal with colors of different firmness. A common combination, for instance, is to layer super-creamy Senneliers over slightly firmer Holbeins. Higher-grade pastels can be bought individually, so we encourage you to shop around. Here are some recommendations to get you started.
Caran d’Ache Neopastels and Sets
Caran d’Ache pastels strike the right balance between price and performance. Sightly harder than the other top brands, they are renowned for their opacity. The colors are strongly pigmented and easy to spread and blend; impressively, they also go on while leaving virtually no dust. These are certified as nontoxic by the Art & Creative Materials Institute (ACMI); the line’s colors do not include cadmium, cobalt, or other mineral pigments requiring a warning under California law. You can buy them individually or in sets of up to 96 sticks.
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Sennelier Oil Pastels
People love to compare Sennelier’s pastels to lipstick. Indeed, these top-notch pastels are the softest of their kind, and they simply glide on paper. But they can be quite slick and smeary and can even melt in the hands; as a result, some artists might find these pastels just too finicky. Still, Senneliers are buttery and blendable and have a higher pigment-to-binder ratio than any other brand. They perform best when used as top layers or highlights. Artists can purchase the complete range of 120 colors (including a few metallic colors) individually. Be aware, though, that these pastels use some pigments, such as cobalts and cadmiums, that are now known to be toxic.
Sakura Cray-Pas Specialist Oil Pastels and Sets
While much better than student-grade brands, these sticks aren’t the best of the best when it comes to soft pastels: They are firmer and less blendable, and they come in a limited range of colors. But they show exceptional color intensity, are lightfast, and go on smoothly, making them a great option for serious students and even professionals who want a harder pastel for detail work. These also have a square cross-section, meaning that you’ll have edges for producing straight, sharp lines.
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Holbein Artists’ Oil Pastels and Sets
Holbein’s pastels are softer than the Caran d’Ache Neopastels but not as creamy or gooey as Senneliers, which makes them an incredibly luxurious option that remains quite versatile. They layer well, blend beautifully, and can be used for intricate detail work. Because they are square rather than round, you can also use the edges to mark clean lines. The eye-watering prices of these pastels (about $4 a stick) reflect their high pigment load, extreme lightfastness, and stability: They won’t crack or completely harden because of their wax content and Holbein’s addition of highly refined mineral oil. Finally, Holbein offers 225 colors—the largest spectrum available.
Van Gogh Oil Pastels and Sets
Van Gogh’s soft pastels are described as student grade, but we feel that these are worthy of any serious artist’s attention. Each stick lists the pigments used as well as the color’s lightfastness rating, so you know exactly what you’re working with. These pastels lean slightly firm—similar to the Cray-Pas Specialists—and perform beautifully, mixing with little effort and going on smoothly without flaking. Their high pigment-to-binder ratio results in deep and intense colors whether applied alone, over acrylics, or blended with oils. They are available in 12-, 24-, or 60-stick sets to provide artists with an excellent range of hues to work with.