Tips for Working with Oil Pastels

Oil pastels just might be my favorite Art medium for kids! Both set-up and clean-up are quick and easy, and with a few specific instructions, every student can achieve great (if not totally charming!) results. Here are a few tips to help your students find success with oil pastels. You will probably find yourself repeating these instructions over and over, but eventually it really does sink in!

1. Hold the oil pastel crayon close to the tip and press firmly. If you hold it farther up, it will break! (Even when oil pastels break, they are still usable. You can keep using them until there is literally nothing left!)

2. Cover the entire paper with color. I usually use black construction paper, but blue works well for projects inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Monet’s Water Lilies. The younger the student, the more you have to keep reminding them not to leave any plain paper showing. Students in kindergarten and 1st grade usually don’t have the attention span for anything larger than 9x12 using this technique!

3. Layer your colors! You can achieve incredible, glowing colors with oil pastels by layering one color on top of another. This works best using colors that are analogous, or next to each other on the color wheel (ex. orange on top of red, green on top of blue, etc.). Try adding white on top of any color to really liven it up! You may need to coax some students to put in the extra effort to layer every color, but the finished results are well worth the nagging!

4. Check with the teacher to be sure you have covered your entire paper with at least two layers of color before proceeding to the final step!! (They usually think they’re done before they really are!)

5. Final step! Use a black oil pastel to outline around every color change. This makes your colors really “pop”. Then sign your name in the lower right corner. Encourage students to have a neighbor check to make sure they have outlined everything before they come to you for the final check. (Again, they usually think they’re done before they really are!)

A 12×18 project will usually take three 50 minute class sessions to complete. Any project lasting three weeks could test the patience of some students but the reward for sticking with it is great! Playing some soft music while students work can help to keep them relaxed and focused. Or, work smaller if you want to finish in less time. At the end of each class, pass out baby wipes for quick cleaning of hands and desks!

“Van Gogh” flower by Sydney, grade 2
“Chagall” houses by Nicholas, grade 5


4 Responses to Tips for Working with Oil Pastels

  1. Anonymous October 17, 2008 at 10:41 am #

    Just had to comment about our first graders’ oil pastel drawings – they are beautiful! Thank you so much for your tips, encouragement and experience. We played soft music and created amazing art pieces that are frame worthy! One student even proclaimed “I’m an artist!” Can’t thank you enough!!!!!!!!!!! JoAnn

  2. Charo August 29, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

    Thanks so much for these tips, they are very useful.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge August 29, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad it was helpful!!


  1. Oil Pastel Still Life Inspired by Vincent Van Gogh | TeachKidsArt - April 30, 2013

    […] 5. Now fill in your paint­ing with at least two lay­ers of color every­where. Don’t use any black yet — we’re sav­ing that for last! You can add a layer of white to brighten any color. Try mak­ing your “brush­strokes” look expres­sive, like Van Gogh did. (Fol­low these tips for suc­cess with oil pas­tels!)  […]