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Made from pigment mixed with nondrying oil and a wax binder, oil pastels are a softer and more blendable drawing tool than either colored pencils or crayons. They can also be thinned with oil or solvents for painterly effects. Oil pastels never fully dry, so finished works should be framed behind class or sprayed with a fixative formulated for that purpose. They make up for this drawback, however, by supplying immediate, vivid color.
Can’t decide which brand of oil pastels to choose? We don’t blame you. Not only are there dozens of options available, but there are also so many factors to consider: color strength, consistency, firmness, and of course, price. If you’re just starting out with oil pastels or are looking for a set for casual use, we recommend stocking up on student-grade implements, which can be highly capable and offer the right handling properties to familiarize you with the nature of this medium. They won’t be as lightfast as higher-quality options, but they will still be very nice to use. Here are some of our favorites.
Faber-Castell Goldfaber Studio Oil Pastel Sets
A solid set of pastels to learn and grow with, the Goldfaber series outshines most of the competition due to each stick’s intense pigment load. Colors are creamy and opaque, and they blend easily with the fingers. You can achieve complex tones, shades, and tints with these student-grade pastels and experiment with techniques from sgraffito to impasto. They’re also acid-free and lightfast, making them the best pick in their class for artworks you want to keep for life. These pastels are available in sets of 12, 24, or Faber-Castell’s full range of 36 colors.
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Holbein Academic Oil Pastel Sets
This set from Holbein has an impressive pedigree, and it’s a good upgrade pick for artists who are willing to spend a little more on their pastels without entering the pro-grade zone. Buttery and highly blendable, Holbein’s sticks lay down with uniform texture and no bumpiness, and they’re firm enough to tolerate pressure. Their pigmented formulation is thoughtful and complex, capable of producing impressive depth and subtlety of color and texture. Holbein also offers the largest range of colors among the brands on this list, with 48 harmonious hues available.
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Portfolio Series Water Soluble Oil Pastel Sets
We recommend these creamy pastels for artists who want to create watercolor effects in their artworks. Tapered at one end like mini pencils rather than traditional cylinders, these pastels are very easy to control and are especially great for drawing fine, striking lines. You can then further disperse pigment by brushing your work with water to produce washes that remain vivid. Experiment with layering lines and washes, or try supplementing these with watercolors or acrylics. Because they are water soluble, cleanup is a breeze.
Pentel Oil Pastel Sets
These super-soft pastels are an excellent choice for classrooms, volunteer art sessions, and other group settings that might require lots of material for a low price. Although inexpensive, they offer a pretty good pigment load, blend and layer without muddying, and are strong enough to withstand the tight grips of young ones. You can buy them in small sets or in bulk arrays of up to 432 pieces (36 sets of a dozen colors), perfect for distributing among multiple users. And since the price is so low, no one should feel bad if one or several go missing.
Sargent Art Gallery Oil Pastels
If you want a set of pastels that really stand out from the crowd, Sargent offers good-quality sticks in unconventional colors. Twelve-piece sets feature either metallic or fluorescent colors that can be used alongside and blended with pastels from virtually any other brand. The fluorescent ones even show up very well under a black light. Richly pigmented and creamy but not crumbly, these are certain to add some flair to any artwork.