The best oil pastels in 2023

best oil pastels - three types of pastel box on a pink background
(Image credit: Sennelier/Faber-Castell/Caran d’Ache/Future)

Oil pastels are an under-rated medium and in my opinion, should be much more popular. They are instantly useable and versatile, have brilliant colour ranges and can be great used with mixed media. On this page, I've gathered a representative range of oil pastels on the market based on my experience with the products – I tested them using a range of styles and techniques. 

In my tests, I evaluated the oil pastels below in terms of hardness, ease of blending and application and lightfastness, considering how they compare with each other. If you need further pointers, see the questions section at the bottom of this guide. And if you want more art supplies, see these guides to the best easels and best pastel pencils. But for now, these are the wax-based oil pastels I recommend as the best available today.  

The best oil pastels available now

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What are oil pastels?

Oil pastels differ from soft pastels in the binder used to make the sticks. They are a combination of powdered pigment, waxes and oils in varying combinations for each manufacturer. They are cleaner than soft pastels as they stick to paper more easily and are tidy if you keep your hands clean.  They can be dissolved in white spirit and linseed oil, which soften them and allow them to be used like oil paints. 

There are water-based oil pastels, but they are a slight contradiction in terms and are not as satisfying to use as pure oil-based pastels. Due to their softness, oil pastels blunt easily but can be sharpened with a knife. The Holbein oil pastels behave like soft pastels by being square and able to produce thinner lines using their edges. Blending oil pastels and using sgraffito techniques gives them great flexibility.   

Combining oil pastels with paint underpainting is often very successful as the sharpness of painted line can be combined with the intense colour and cover of the oil pastel. Fixing oil pastels is difficult and they remain sticky for a number of years until a proportion of their oils have evaporated. There are fixatives on the market but beware of the sheen that they can add to a work, which can be plastic-looking and not always very attractive.  The best solution is to mount any work with a passe-partout under glass.  

How do I choose the best oil pastels?

There are a lot of oil pastels on the market but there are three definite market leaders, Sennelier, Paul Rubens and Holbein, which will give you a good experience of the medium from the outset. They are more expensive than the other ranges described, but you may wish to select a starter box of one of the intermediate oil pastel ranges to get the feel of the medium and avoid an expensive mistake. However, it might be useful to add to your intermediate choice a small selection of the individual pastels from one of the top ranges for comparison purposes.  

If you like blending, then the more expensive pastels will inevitably serve you better. Medium softness pastels sometimes skid over each other as they are not always the same hardness. This can sometimes be overcome by reversing the order that you put down the two pigments – always ensuring the harder one is under the softer.  

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Richard Rees