Anima McKertcher

The Dreaming Garden

Under-Drawing or Preliminary Sketching Mediums for Oil Pastel Paintings

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Reader Question

A fellow artist and friend who's dipping her toe into the joyous world of oil pastels asked me:

With oil pastels, do you draw out everything in pencil first? I'm doing some practice runs but the pencil blends in a bit with the pastels... what do you do?

Quick Answer

I sketch with a neutral colored oil pastel stick or sometimes a pale grey colored pencil.

To Elaborate

In over ten years of using oil pastels, I've tried a lot of mediums for drawing out my composition. In this post I'll discuss using pencils, colored pencils, and oil pastels. There's pros and cons to each, but I definitely have my preferences.

For oil pastel paintings, I almost never under-draw the composition with graphite pencils.

Why I Almost Never Under-Sketch with Pencils

Graphite pencils are a natural first choice when it's time to draw your composition before painting. They're as comfortable as fleece pants on a cold northern Alberta day. After all, as artists, we've been drawing with them since grade school. When the general public thinks of the word 'draw', the word 'pencil' isn't far behind. So what's the problem, then?

On paper, pencil is an easy fit. But it's a different story on canvas which is my support of choice for major paintings. The natural roughness of the canvas' gessoed cotton or linen is a hassle as a surface for pencil. Pencil will skip over and skirt around the bumps, making your lines look shaky and broken.

Ever made a mistake on your drawing? How about changed your mind about where to put your subject's hand? Pencil can be forgiving but not always. If your marks are too dark, they may not totally erase away, whether you're using canvas or paper. In fact, some papers can't bear up under vigorous erasing at all.

Plus even lightly drawn pencil marks show through under layers of light to medium values of oil pastel.

Okay, I'm done raining on pencils now. They're not all bad when it comes to under-drawing. Pencils are great for drawing fine details (eyes and ears), complex subjects, or structures that call for precision (architecture). So if you're the kind of artist that completes detailed under-drawings before the oil pastels go on, you may want to consider pencils anyways. Just remember to press lightly!

For oil pastel paintings, I'll sometimes sketch with colored pencils.

Why I Under-Draw with Colored Pencils Some of the Time

Colored pencils marry the precision of graphite pencils with a soft blendable mark. Of course, the softness and blendability (is that a word?) will vary depending on the brand of colored pencil. So choose the brand based on your preference: hardness for precision and softness for blending and forgiveness.

I strictly use gray colored pencils for my under-drawing. Gray is such a lovely neutral color. It blends well with oil pastel colors and leaves a light mark that's easy to cover up. I tend to cover up changes more so than erasing them, so they fit well with my painting process.

Why I Under-Sketch with Oil Pastels

Because I like forgiveness and I need a lot of it! Changing my mind about compositional details is something I like to have the option of doing. It's my peroggative, right? Sketching with oil pastels gives me that freedom more than colored pencils and definitely more than a graphite pencil. They'll either blend with your other layers of color easily or be covered over, depending on the techniques you use for applying the oil pastels.

Be careful when under-drawing with colors that are dark or contain yellow. Dark oil pastels will stain your support and then their goes the forgiveness you were hoping for. Also, yellowish oil pastels may add unwanted tints to the colors you lay over top.

I typically use a warm pale grey color. It's easy to see over the whiteness of the canvas but blends beautifully with all the other colours.

The only negative to under-drawing with oil pastels is the lack of precision. Try cutting the edge of a blunt stick of oil pastel with a razor to help you make more detailed marks. But even with this trick, you'll rarely achieve the accuracy of a pencil (graphite or colored). But if you're like me and save your details until you get further along your painting process, then oil pastels are definitely the way to go.

What about you? What medium do you use for under-drawing your oil pastel paintings?