I found a nice spot in the garden, shaded by a grape vine, where I could sit and sketch
On a whim, before leaving Edinburgh to spend a few weeks in Erice (Sicily), I bought a box of oil pastels. I had bought some before but they lie in a cabinet somewhere in Brazil, unused.
I also bought a couple of 20cm x 20cm canvas boards and packed these in my hand-baggage along with my camera, watercolours, brushes and watercolour paper. And little else.
Once I had settled into Erice I tried my hand with the pastels, settling at a bench seat in the garden under the shade of grapevines.
Oil pastels look like wax crayons that children might use for colouring but handling is very different. Pastels are much softer. I launched into a quick sketch of a Red-necked Tanager (a colourful small bird native to Brazil), a subject that I had painted in watercolours in the past.
Red-necked Tanager, oil pastel on canvas board, 20cm x 20cm,
What I learned
When painting backgrounds with pastels it is important to plan ahead the effect you want to achieve. This presupposes that you have an idea how it will turn out ie experience helps, lack of experience doesn’t!. Laying down a light colour first then adding other colours on top before blending looks like the best method. I did the blending with my fingers but wasn’t totally confident with the result.
Green-headed Tanager, oil pastel on watercolour paper
The main subject requires confidence when placing the colour. Knowing how light or heavy a touch is important. The nice thing is that you can scrape away some colour and reapply. In fact you can scrape back some colour to reveal the underlying colour, so there is ample scope for creativity.
Some colours can be placed on others, eg to create highlights, but I found that this doesnt always work. It may be that the under colours need time to dry a bit.
Seven-coloured Tanager, oil pastel on watercolour paper
Having tried both canvas board and watercolour paper with oil pastels I found that texture is achieved easily. The pastel skates across the surface, even with heavy pressure, and leaves the white of the canvas/paper visible. Great for some subjects, but in others it is necessary to push hard to fill those spaces.
Goldfinch, oil pastel on watercolour paper
When working with pencils, or brushes, it is relatively easy to draw or paint the finer details of a subject. Oil pastels, on the other hand, are soft and stubby which makes the application of fine detail difficult. However, when using pastels a degree artistic license is more than just acceptable – it adds to the character of the product.
Salt pans at Mothia, between Trapani and Marsala, oil pastel on watercolour paper
I like this medium. I think I need to set up some practice exercises to get the hang of it but I also find that wanting to achieve something and actually trying to do provides the impetus for learning what you need to know. The rest comes later.
The pastels are nice for doing quick sketches but there are great artists that have done fabulous landscapes and portraits with oil pastels which means, as a medium, it is possible to achieve almost any result, from simple sketches to fine art.
I shall continue to work with oil pastels and, in fact, I am just about to visit my local art supplier in Trapani to see what materials they may have in stock.
Faber Castell creative studio quality oil pastels – set of 12 colours.
After just a few sketches my set had become well-used – especially the white. I noted, when buying these pastels, that much larger blocks of white were available. Worth noting for my next purchase.
Winsor and Newton 20cm x 20cm canvas board
Canson 200gm A4 white watercolour paper
Daler-Rowney 300gm A6 watercolour postcards
Daler-Rowney 300gm 7″ x 5″ (178mm x 127mm) watercolour paper