What are oil pastels made of

Powerful and lively

The many facets of oil pastel

Pure color in the uncomplicated handling of a pastel chalk, can be used spontaneously and without preparation on a wide variety of painting grounds: this may have been what Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) wanted when the painter Henri Goetz called on his behalf at the French paint manufacturer Sennelier in 1949 with the request, Developing oil pastels for his friend that met professional artistic standards. By the end of the 19th century people had already experimented with oil paints in pencil form, the so-called Raphaelis pencils; and in the 1920s the first oil pastels had hit the market. At Goetz ‘request, company boss Henri Sennelier had pigments of the highest quality, mineral waxes and binders combined in a balanced mixture to create a creamy texture in stick form and developed an extensive range of colors - the new beginning of modern oil pastel.

This was another step in the history of the pastel that can be traced back over the centuries. The use of so-called "dry colors" in pen form goes hand in hand with the developing autonomy of hand drawing in the 15th century, which increasingly detached itself from the character of the preliminary drawing and acquired its own artistic value. Initially, pens made from natural pigments - such as ocher, red chalk, umber and charcoal - were used to color drawings. The Lyon professor Peter Gregorius wrote down a recipe for this in 1574: “The painters, however, make those colored pencils in cylinder form and roll them with the addition of isinglass or gum arabic or fig milk, or, in my opinion, better with whey. This is how the pens quos vocant coroyons, softer, but those others are harder and scratch the paper ”(quoted from Joseph Meder, Die Handzeichnung: their technology and development, Vienna 1923, p. 135).

The name “pastel” finally referred to a monochrome drawing pencil made of pressed or rolled pigment mixed with a water-soluble binder. The technical term "pastel" (from the Italian pasta = dough) can be found for the first time in Trattato dell ‘arte della Pittura (Treatise on the art of painting) by the painter and theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538–1600): “There is another way of painting that I will not hide, called à pastello, which is done with pens made mainly from colored powder, on paper. And Leonardo did this diligently in his Christ and Apostle heads in a wonderful way ... ”(quoted in Meder, Vienna 1923, p. 136).

It was only a small step from drawing expanded by the dimension of color to a purely painterly approach, but of great significance, since the pastel offered a variety of possibilities - from the colored priming of the paper to wiping with the finger or various aids up to colored modeling: “This is a technique in which dry, colored pencil strokes are placed on a painting surface and the possibility of systematic blurring allows mixing on the surface and thus an effect can be achieved that ultimately leads to 'Painting' leads ”(Kurt Wehlte, Werkstoffe und Technischen der Malerei, 5 1985, p. 331). Pastel with its airy and luminous colors experienced its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries - in Italy it was for example Domenichino, Guido Reni, the Caracci and finally Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, in France Daniel Dumonstier and Nicolas Lagneau, later François Boucher and Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, to name just a few of the numerous artists who made pastel painting a master. With the Venetian Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757), who received commissions from numerous royal courts in Europe, the pastel reached a hitherto unattained heyday. The best known example of a portrait in pastel chalk today is “The Chocolate Girl” by the Swiss Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789), which is kept in the Dresden Picture Gallery.

After classicism increasingly turned away from pastels, it was the French impressionists, above all Edgar Degas (1834–1917), who made it important again. The spontaneity of drawing, combined with the painterly expressiveness of an extremely extensive color palette - for example, the Sennelier range now includes more than 500 colors - makes pastel chalk a classic of the artistic material.

In modern oil pastel, the purity of the color is combined with the drawing style of a pencil, strong and lively in expression and less delicate and airy than its chalky relatives. The texture of the oil pastel reacts immediately to the pressure exerted by hand; the degree of hardness of a pen essentially depends on the make - very soft, highly pigmented pens can be found on the market, as well as comparatively hard pens that allow a more intensive drawing approach. The sometimes different diameters of the pins also allow different uses.

The application of the oil pastel is surprisingly versatile: If the painting and drawing ground of the pastel chalk is rough, primed or already colored paper, the oil pastel can also be found on finely structured fabrics, on screenboard laminated on both sides or on metallic Painting surfaces, use on plastic or glass. The light stroke is similar to pastel, but a strong application can create an impasto effect. But the use of aids also produces a surprising range of expressive effects: The application of paint can be painted over with a brush and a small amount of turpentine; Surfaces can be partially or completely dissolved with turpentine and connected to one another. Which tools come into play here - brush, wiper or cloth - is ultimately up to personal preferences and experience. A multi-layer application can be scratched out using the sgraffito technique with a pen or the tip of a knife in order to make deeper layers of paint visible.

Oil pastel also proves to be more robust than powdery pastel chalk when it comes to framing: Protected by a special fixative, which prevents the paint from loosening and does not yellow, works in oil pastel can be framed without any problems. When framing behind glass, there should be a distance of a few millimeters from any layers of paint that may have been applied in a pasty manner.

Whether as a painterly conception, as a sketch or as a drawing - oil pastel is the ideal medium for a wide range of artistic forms of expression. Versatile and spontaneous to use, without further aids or preparation of the painting surface, oil pastel is also particularly useful as a "fast" medium en plein air suitable.