All you need to know about those funny feeling, smudgy ‘crayons’.

I love oil pastels. They are so easy to use and produce brilliant results. They are an ever popular and cost effective medium for primary and elementary schools. Yet I would argue that most teachers don’t know how to use them to their fullest potential or even worse, to my horror, refer to them as crayons!


I am sure most of you would have seen and probably even used oil pastels in your classroom before. Most of you might know oil pastels as those greasy feeling “crayons” that smudge easily and tend to make a mess of the students’ work. However, the oil pastel if used correctly, can prove to be a fantastic medium in which students can produce vibrant art without the preparation, mess and cleanup of paint.

Oil Pastels Are NOT Crayons:

The first thing to remember is that oil pastels are not crayons. They are very different in what they are made of and how they are used. Oil pastels use a binder made of oil and wax to hold them together. This creates the soft, creamy texture of an oil pastel and enables them to be coloured and blended on different surfaces. Whereas crayons use wax alone as their binder which makes them much harder and a little more difficult to use.

Crayons have their place in a classroom, they too are a wonderful medium, but make sure you know the difference so that you can make an educated choice when it comes to choosing a medium for your class’ art lesson.

Types of Oil Pastel:

There are many different types and brands of oil pastel available to purchase for use in your classroom. They are available from most educational suppliers or art supply stores and can differ dramatically in price and quality ranging from cheap through to expensive artist quality. When purchasing oil pastels, you will need to remember a few things:

Sometimes the very cheap oil pastels are quite hard and prove to be difficult to use or blend. Make sure your oil pastels are soft enough that the students can blend and colour with relative ease.

Oil pastels can come in different sizes. For classroom use, oil pastels that are approx.10mm wide as a minimum are best. Oil pastels that are smaller than this tend to break and wear out very easily.

Using Oil Pastels In Your Classroom:

Here are some tips on making the most of your oil pastels in the classroom.

  • Use sheets of newspaper under students work to prevent marking tables and to ‘clean’ the oil pastels on. Oil pastels can sometimes become smudged with other colours.
  • Spray finished works with fixative or hairspray to prevent smudging.
  • With new boxes, try to use at least one box per two students so that hey have access to the colours they need.
  • As the boxes fall into disrepair and the oil pastels become mixed, sort them into colours and put into ice cream or other containers. This makes it easier to hand out the colours needed for an activity. Alternatively, place them mixed colours in large plastic trays or containers so that students can find colours easily.
  • If you intend on doing an artwork which requires students to colour the whole page, use a smaller piece of art or cartridge paper. This uses less oil pastel, enables the students to complete the activity quickly and prevents tired hands.
  • Try doing an oil pastel artwork as a group project on a large piece of cardboard or paper. It is great for developing cooperative group skills plus creates a dramatic and bold affect when displayed in your classroom.
  • Try using vegetable dye or a paint wash over the top of an oil pastel artwork to complete the background. It is quicker and uses less oil pastel. It’s also great to use to fill in the spaces created by younger students who have greater difficulty removing all of their white spaces on the page.

What Skills & Do Students Need?

Before students can master the art of using oil pastels correctly, they will need to develop the following skills and knowledge. You need to directly teach these skills. Students won’t simply just pick them up.


Unfortunately one of the down sides of oil pastels, is the ease in which they can be smudged. To overcome this, students need to be taught the correct way to hold an oil pastel so that their hand or arm does not touch their work.

Some ideas to help explain the grip to students:

  • Hold the oil pastel like a knife which you are using to cut up your food.
  • Hold the oil pastel like you would a key when unlocking a door.
  • Or simply, place your thumb on one side and the remainder of your fingers on the other side.

Knowledge of Colours:

Before students can be taught how to blend, they need to be taught which colours can be blended together.

  • An easy way to do this is by using a box of oil pastels. Have a box open in front of the students. Discuss which colours look similar, which are darker and which are lighter. Choose a colour and ask students to see if they can find an oil pastel in the box which looks similar but is lighter or darker etc.
  • On the board or on a chart to be displayed in the room, list the colours that can be blended together. I like to describe these as “Families” of colours.

For example:

  • Dark Blue, Light Blue, White
  • Purple, Dark Blue, Light Blue
  • Dark Green, Light Green, Yellow
  • Red, Orange, Yellow
  • Brown, Red, Orange
  • Brown, Orange, Flesh Tone
  • Brown, Flesh tone

Colouring Technique:

Students should be taught that we don’t actually ‘colour in’ with oil pastel. By colouring, as you would with pencils or crayons, the result would be scratchy with lots of spaces. With oil pastels, rather than colouring, the correct technique would be closer to ‘squashing the oil pastel onto the page’.

Some ideas to help explain the colouring technique to students:

  • Press firmly ensuring that the correct grip is used to prevent smudging.
  • Use short strokes, overlapping as you go so as to avoid white spaces.
  • If you use long, fast strokes you introduce lots of empty white spaces in your colouring.
  • Avoid using black until last as it is more obvious when smudged.
  • Ensure that the oil pastels are free of other colours by cleaning them first on newspaper or a piece of scrap paper.


As well as colouring, sometimes we shade with oil pastels. We use shading when simply drawing with an oil pastel to add shadow or depth to our artwork Or we can layer shading over an existing colour to either lighten or darken a colour. Shading is achieved by simply pressing much lighter than we would when we are colouring or by also using the side of a much smaller piece of an oil pastel.


One of the best features of oil pastels and one that makes them different to crayons is how they are able to be blended. Before children can blend effectively they should be taught the correct technique. Initially begin with blending just two colours from the same family. But as the student’s expertise increases they can progress onto using many more colours.

Some ideas to use when teaching students how to blend:

  •  Choose two colours from the same family. One dark and one light.
  •  Always start with the dark colour. Outline the object or area to be coloured.
  •  Using short firm strokes, press firmly close to the edge but as you move into the centre of the area, gradually press lighter and lighter until your colouring becomes somewhat messy or scratchy or shaded. I actually encourage students to colour in messily at this stage. Avoid having a distinct line where the darker colour finishes as it will be obvious when blended and there will not be a smooth transition from dark to light.
  •  Using the lighter colour, colour over the ‘messy’ colouring by overlapping. ALWAYS BLEND WITH THE LIGHTER COLOUR. This seems to work better than using the darker of the two.
  •  These steps can be repeated using more colours if desired.
  • White can be added at the end as a highlight. Simply blend over the top of a light area using white oil pastel.
  • Black can also be used when finished to create shadow. Shade in the desired area with black and then blend it back in with the original colour.


  • The final skill that children should be taught before they can become oil pastel experts is outlining. A simple black outline can turn a rather drab and unimpressive artwork into something dramatic and eye-catching. It adds contrast and emphasises the vibrant colour of the oil pastels.
  • Black seems to work best when outlining.
  • Always leave outlining until last as the black will stand out when smudged and may wreck the student’s work.
  • Have the students practise drawing lines on scrap first. See if they can draw lines of various thicknesses.
  • Aim for students to outline using a single dark line rather than colouring the outline. This can sometime produce an unsightly thick, messy line.
  • When outlining, encourage students to press ‘really hard’ so that they achieve a solid, bold black line.
  • Show students how to turn the oil pastel frequently so that they are always using a sharp edge.
  • It is easier to achieve solid, bold lines if they are drawn by ‘pulling’ the oil pastel down the page  towards yourself. Demonstrate to the students how they can turn their page whilst outlining so that they are always pulling the line down the page.

Advanced Techniques:

If you master the basics and find that you are looking for new ways to use your oil pastels you could always try some of these more advanced techniques:


Sgraffito means to scratch back layers. In an oil pastel artwork this means that you can use a sharp object to scratch back layers of colour to reveal other colours underneath. You can also use sgraffito to scratch in details such as lines, patterns or textures or highlights.

In the classroom, common implements to use for sgraffito include:

  • Bamboo food skewers – (please be careful with safety here!)
  • Toothpicks
  • Paddle Pop sticks.

Rubbing back:

Use a soft eraser to rub out areas of coloured oil pastel to create highlights in your artwork.

Painting over with oil:

An interesting technique to try is to once an oil pastel artwork has been coloured, paint over it using vegetable or baby oil. This dissolves the oil pastel and turns it into a painting. Just reminder that it amy take a while to dry so you will need an area for drying.