Many years ago, I’d attempted oil painting a few times with my grandmother, using traditional tube oil paint, but I’d always end up with a migraine after 20 minutes or so. I didn’t know if it was the paint itself or the thinners we were using, but it discouraged me to the point where I had more or less abandoned the idea of oil painting by the time I was in my mid-teens. After coming across a post about oil sticks while trawling an art forum recently, my curiosity was piqued, though I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to use them without suffering ill effects (I assumed they’d still need to be thinned with solvents). Then someone suggested I try Zest-It, a citrus-based thinner which was apparently a lot less harmful. I bought a bottle of that stuff, along with a starter set of six Sennelier Oil Sticks and a couple of other single colours.
When you first get oil sticks (of any brand), they have a kind of rubbery ‘skin’ over them which prevents the whole stick from drying out. You can either peel this off or rub it on an old phone book to scrape away this layer and expose the fresh paint inside. After a day or two, another skin forms to protect the paint again, but I found that by wrapping some GladWrap around it, it took longer for that skin to form and when it did, it wasn’t nearly as thick as when I left them to dry in the open air. This is worth keeping in mind as it may help you conserve the sticks for longer and get a little bit more paint out of them.
Once my Nan (who did a lot of acrylic and oil painting when she was younger but had never used oil sticks before) and I got rid of this rubbery layer, we spent the better part of an afternoon playing with the Sennelier oil sticks, and happily I was still nausea- and headache-free by the time we’d finished. Our first job was to make a colour chart (sorry for poor photo quality):
Once we’d made our colour chart, we started mucking around with a cheap canvas pad to see what the oil sticks could do. A lot of people tend to get confused about whether these are closer to oil paint or oil pastels, since they look like a cross between the two. Though they look like pastels, they are definitely closer to oil paint in how they handle. Oil pastels are quite easy to lay down on the paper and are generally very easy to blend (unless you’re using really bad quality student ones or perhaps artist grade hard oil pastels).
Though the Sennelier Oil Sticks went down relatively easily, it didn’t feel as smooth as using oil pastels, though this seemed to improve a bit the more we used them (perhaps there was some leftover residue of skin). I did find that layering one colour over another produced nice results, though, and they seemed to blend quite well that way. Technically you could use the oil sticks on their own, but I feel like you would be better off also having a brush or two and maybe some of those colour shapers that people use with pastels to really get the best coverage and cleanest edges. You can blend oil sticks with your fingers, but it is really messy, and if you have sensitive skin, either the paint itself or whatever you use to wash your hands could soon cause you problems. Also, given the stubby nature of oil sticks in general, it can be very difficult to get fine details if you’re just using the sticks (especially if you’re working on a small piece), so sometimes you need to draw with the paint either on a brush or on the tip of a colour shaper to achieve this.
In terms of pigment concentration, the Sennelier Oil Sticks performed well, producing vibrant, rich colours. The colours you get in the introductory box are nicely chosen; you get white, the three primary colours, green and black, which allows you to mix just about any colour (I bought a couple of earthy browns though as I hate having to mix browns). There are about 55 colours available in the range. Price-wise, the Sennelier Oil Sticks are pretty reasonable; the 38ml sticks start at about $10.50 locally for series 1 colours and go up to about $16-17 for series 3. A couple of colours (Titanium White and Ivory Black) are also available in 96ml sticks, which is handy considering those colours are often used up the fastest in mixing.
One of the things that appealed to me most about oil sticks (aside from the ‘not making me sick’ thing) was the faster drying time. Depending on how thick you layer the paint and what pigments or brands you’ve used, oils can take weeks (if not months) to dry completely. I did notice that some colours took a little longer to dry than others, but I found that my paintings done with Sennelier Oil Sticks were touch dry in about 24 hours and felt completely dry within 48 hours. Though it would probably take longer than that to cure entirely, it meant that I could store the paintings easier, an important consideration given that I have very little space. You can also use oil sticks with traditional oil paints, but keep in mind that this will result in your painting taking longer to dry (also, don’t put thin layers of paint over thicker under layers or the upper layers could crack).
This is my first real attempt at an oil painting, a juicy red apple (which I had to paint from imagination as my Nan didn’t have any apples). I really liked using these oil sticks and I definitely intend to do more painting with them, provided I can find the time. My Nan also ended up having fun with them once she figured out how to ‘drive’ them (her words), but she still prefers her tube paints.
I also have a couple of Winsor & Newton Oilbars, but didn’t use them much in this piece (aside from some Buff Titanium in the surface). I will review those in a later post.