How to use oil pastels - for the beginner
By Regina Donaldson
Using oil pastels as a medium for canvas-based painting is no longer any different at all from using regular, petroleum-based oil paint. Oil pastels are easy and flexible to work with; offering artists of all skill levels an unlimited armory of creative potential. Most importantly, oil pastels are also considered a safe alternative to both oil pains and soft pastels.
For centuries, artists have had to give up oil paints, especially in their old age, as the dust associated with oil paint itself caused health concerns. In the 1950s, advances in the science of oil-like pastel paint made it possible to produce the first-ever dust-free alternative, but painters have never taken to it until recently, when they got the formulas just right… Over time, the blacks finally became dark enough; the hues finally became separate enough, and so on. The end result is that we now have a dust-free, ecology-friendly alternative to oil-based paints that can be made into tube or stick form, and perform just as well in every way. It's taken over 50 years for science to get the formula just right, but in the 1990s they finally succeeded in producing a non-petroleum-based paint that had no harmful effects to the environment, and best of all, no dust!
The man who wrote the book on how to use oil pastels, quite literally, has a lot to say on this subject. In 1983, an artist from New York by the name of John Elliot wrote the very first article on how to use oil pastels, even before the formula had been perfected, for the prestigious American Artist magazine. For many years before that he passionately worked towards pushing paint manufacturers into speeding along the progress of their work towards perfecting the paint. If there is any one many behind the phenomenon of oil pastels, it is John Elliot.
Often noted as the world's leading authority on oil pastel paints, his 2002 book, Oil Pastel for the Serious Beginner: Basic Lessons in Becoming a Good Painter (Watson-Guptill publications) demonstrates step by step how to become a master of oil pastels. He covers every aspect of oil pastels in this book, far more than I can even hint about here. He includes the history, the chemistry, and the techniques of oil pastels, or "dust free pastels" as he would like us to refer to them, as the name 'oil pastel' implies that they are a petroleum derivative, which they are not.
Unfortunately, many artists will still have issues with the high price tag associated with these perfected paints. Perhaps they aren't for everyone, at least not at the beginner's level. Still, finding the right medium to work in is a very crucial first phase for any artist, so you really should give oil pastels a try if for no other reason than to make sure that the cost should not be justified. The following is a way to inexpensively make your own oil pastels, although the sharpness and overall quality will naturally not be as good as the professional grade.
Start with manufacturing a Gum tragacanth solution. (1 part gum tragacanth powder, 30 parts distilled water, & a cap-full of alcohol)
Simply put the gum tragacanth, available at a fine arts store, into a clean bottle and stir in just enough alcohol to make a soft paste. Then add the water, shaking it all together. The hard part is that tragacanth can't be forced to bond within 2 whole days, only then will it absorb all the water and swell into a true gelatinous suspension.
Next, combine equal parts of dry pigment (of your favorite color) and zinc white, (also both available at that same fine arts store) with just enough distilled water to make a stiff paste. Once mixed, add just enough Gum solution (that you finished letting sit for two days) to allow you to grind it with a pallet knife until the paste is completely smooth.
Finally, deposit the soft color paste on a blotter or newsprint and let it absorb most of the moisture before shaping it into sticks. Use room temperature, or only slight heat, too much will cause cracking.
You can roll these oil pastels directly to pastel paper or cardboard and use in the traditional way you are used to. Again, I must stress that this method will produce a more basic, dusty version of oil pastels, not the expensive, but worthwhile grade that you can buy from your local art supply warehouse. Still, considering the low price of these materials, there is probably no better way to get started in oil pastels, and of course to reduce the risks when just trying them out.
If you haven't yet given oil pastels a try, or if you know you like them but still feel they are too expensive, I encourage you to attempt this recipe a try. There are few mediums as rewarding as oil pastels on canvas, in both performance and product. You owe it to yourself to at least learn more about this wonderfully evolved medium, and of course how to use oil pastels.
About the Author
Thriving artist Regina Donaldson is a professional painter with pieces in several galleries throughout the Southwest. Visit her oil paint informational website for free tips, techniques, and resources on all oil painting mediums, including more instruction on how to use oil pastels: http://www.oil-paint.info
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