Using Oil Pastels to Uncover Client Feelings By Honorata

24th September 2020

Oil pastels in therapeutic creative work


Underestimated medium?

Oil pastels seems to be a tricky medium that many people are not so keen on exploring themselves. Often the box of pastels is buried somewhere in a bottom drawer and even sometimes still in untouched packaging! I learnt that a box of oil pastels, due to not being expensive and full of colour are often picked to buy but then rarely used. So, lets discover the magic of oil pastels!

What to buy and how to store?

The student grade oils pastels are one of the cheapest art mediums to buy. Pantel brand  offers a large selection of colours (50 colours!)) for around £9. This means the medium can be used freely with clients and easily replaced. They last you a while too. Please remember we are talking about oil pastels not soft pastels here.

It helps to keep pastels in some kind of box instead of in the original packaging, Why? This takes away the pristine look and impression of “precious art material”. Pastels for therapeutic and expressive work will be broken, mixed, covered in different colours! This look in a box is much less intimidating and encourages playful exploration.

Cleaning- oil pastels are less messy than soft pastels and hands can be cleaned with baby wipes or just soap and hot water. However they have a tendency to get behind the finger nails.


Examples of use in a therapy room

  1. Emotional release with body pressure- broken pastels, using pastels from wider side

This is a simple technique of using pastels with application of hand pressure or even standing up and using more pressure. Colours can be applied in lines and bold patches of colours overlapping each other. Broken pieces of pastels enable horizontal use and creates the fuller coverage effect (looks more like application of paint). Using pastels more like a drawing stick will give lines and marks making. Questions that can help exploration of feelings with the use of pastel may include:

  • What colours are your feelings now?
  • What feelings get into each other? (apply pastels on top of another)
  • Where are your feelings starting from (drawing from centre or edges or creating shapes for feelings)
  • How strong are those feelings- apply more chosen colour representing this feeling and more pressure the stronger is the feeling.

  1. Working in layers (pic 2)

This technique is taken from ceramics and allows pastels to be layered in the way that the top layer can be scratched off to reveal colour underneath. This could be done in a form of writing or the drawing. I included some words and simple circle image in the example. You start with bold application of one lighter pastel colour on paper. This layer must fully cover the paper so quite a lot of pastel is used. No blending required. Then the top layer is applied – this must be a darker colour from the previous one and the layer must “sit” on top. It means you apply it with strong pressure and do not go back and forth, you also do not blend this layer.

Then the sharp stick like a cocktail stick or a kebab wooden stick is used to scratch off the top, dark layer. The lighter layer can now be visible. This can be used as a tool to work with hidden layers, buried emotions, uncovering unseen aspects of personality etc. There are many ways working in layers can be used in counselling and again this depends on needs of the client. Some will want to draw mandala, some just write. The act of scratching the layer off, getting rid of it has importance as well.


  1. Mixed media work use- bold outlines, creating boundaries

Oil pastels can be used in any piece of mixed media or collage work for additional benefit. Bold lines can create outlines of objects and connect objects into new image. They can also create areas of separation by being drawn on top of previous layers. The strong richness of oil pastel colour allows for this medium to take over and show new layers of meaning. Oil pastels can be applied over paper, images from magazines, on top of acrylic paint (dry), on top of piece of pen writing. The one thing to remember- pen, pencil, either marker will not work on the top of oil pastels- so save them for your top layer! In therapeutic work some question can explore this possibility:

-divide picture with oil pastel (colour of your choice)

– what belongs together in the image- outline it with pastel

-what can be covered in this image- cover with dark pastel.

Next month I will be exploring soft pastels and good luck with your oil pastels use- they deserve a good place in a therapy room!




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