PAINTS – f) Oil: 2. Sticks

One of Sennelier’s oil sticks… Cadmium yellow light perhaps?

An oil stick or pigment stick -as they are sometimes referred to- is oil paint in a stick form. So, like oil paint, it is composed of a drying oil (usually linseed oil) and pigment. The added ingredient to hold it in stick shape is wax. Depending on brands it can be mineral or natural waxes.

There is often some confusion between oil sticks and oil pastels as both offer that feeling of being able to “draw with paint”. Oil pastels however are composed of pigment + a non-drying mineral oil or plastifier and they truly belong more in the drawing family of materials… they usually too have a uniform price for the whole range as they use little or none of the most expensive pigments (a bit like pencils). Oil pastels’ main characteristic is that oil/plastifier which… never dries! (Remember your lovely school kit that you unearthed ten years later all smudged and disgusting from the back of the drawer? More likely than not the mess was due to a bunch of cheap quality oil pastels in there. But hey, you know what? you can still draw with them!)., For the same reason, a finished work in oil pastel will need to be put under glass or will easily smudge whereas a work, on which oil sticks were used, is no different from any oil painting and so (combined with oil paint in tube or not) its surface will oxidize to a dry, tough, flexible paint film.

Oil sticks can be used exactly like oil paint and are completely compatible with any and all oil painting materials, procedures and techniques. Also, just as with any good oil brand, they come in different pricing series as their pigments will be more or less expensive. The main difference artists report is this “hands on” feeling as you can dip a stick directly into your medium and draw with paint straight onto your canvas! If you want chunks to play with your palette knives, they are also easily cut off but mainly directly on the work they go… may that work be on canvas, drawing paper, clayboards, pastel paper, photograph, print etc. Great for sketching and life drawing (no need for brushes, palettes etc.) and obvious for the final lines and impasto work (with the added help of the wax which holds peaks beautifully), they also dry quite quickly. Most ranges offer blending sticks (R&F offers them with or without drier) and these can be worked into your colours to make them more translucent for glazing or to help blend colors together. Dried oil paint on a palette can be worked over with oil sticks or blending sticks too and brought back to a workable consistency and used anew. Because of the wax content, they can be heated and made to melt and run, while lightly fusing them with a gun will also dry the paint faster, so you can build up layers and textures very fast. But because of the same wax content, they can also melt a bit in very hot climates! Artists in my tropical part of the world have reported leaving their sticks in fridge… if you’re not the typically distracted artist and won’t confuse them with your lunch snack, give it a go, they are apparently harder and nicer to draw with when cold. But slightly melted or hard, when you unwrap your oil stick, you will find a little skin of dried paint at the tip so, before dipping it into medium, peel or cut this off (save the paint as it can be reworked on palette). When you’re finished with them you can wrap them in cling film for transport or just leave them as is and, in due course, the tip will dry another little dry skin.

If you decide to use your oil sticks on paper, so as to be able to play with the textures, surfaces and colors paper offer and in conjunction with other drawing implements, you will discover that they dry very differently from when used on canvas, to a matter finish. There is a little technical issue too around the acid contained in the linseed oil that can deteriorate the paper over time. Priming the paper with an oil or acrylic ground will protect the paper but destroy the very surface that made it desirable. Not preparing the paper at all leaves it unprotected, but also, because many papers are absorbent, they will leach too much of the oil from the paint. This results in an unsightly oil ring and robs the pigment of its binder. The solution to this is to use a size instead of a ground. The difference is that a ground is a film that completely isolates the surface of support from the destructive acids; whereas, a size penetrates the support’s fibers but is too dilute to form a film. A single coat of size (such as Golden’s GAC 100) is barely perceptible in color or residue, but a single coat will only allow a partial absorption of the oil. More coats creates a brittle, unsatisfying film however and that, like a ground, affects the character of the paper. So there is no perfect answer to this problem. A heavier paper will hold up better than a lighter paper, a rag paper better than a pulp paper. Careful storage and/or matting and framing will lessen the problem. Ultimately it is up to you, the artist, to balance these aesthetic and archival choices.

If you have decided to use your sticks on paper, or in a mixed media work you might choose to frame it behind glass. That’s perfectly fine provided your work is thoroughly dry and the paint has been able to go through its oxidization process (grabbing oxygen from the air is not too easy behind glass and increases the chance of yellowing apparently).

If you have used your sticks more like a normal oil paint, in due course you might want to protect and varnish your  work. But the wax in your stick remaining partially soluble implies that you need to go about it in perhaps a different way than you are used to, when varnishing work done with just tube oils. When you brush the varnish on, it can dissolve the wax and spread the paint again. So either you apply your varnish super lightly with a very soft brush or (easier still I would imagine) you spray your varnish. Removing the varnish, however, can prove to be more difficult and require harsher solvents, which can affect the painting. For this reason, modern synthetic varnishes are better, such as Gamblin’s Gamvar or Golden’s MSA/UVLS, which is less yellowing and easier to remove.

Brands I can recommend (at this stage): Sennelier and R&F. Sennelier has a classical range of colours of good quality and are by far firmer (because they uses mineral wax in their sticks?) R&F sticks are the best probably… handmade with love and natural waxes. They come in a most delicious range of colours: Dianthus Pink, Celadon Green, Egyptian violet, Turkey Umber Greenish… just to name a few!

Maybe now you might enjoy reading about my visit to R&F, purveyors of high quality oil sticks, to do so click here

And if you would like to read more about related pages, please click on the (underlined) sections below… not all pages are done yet… sorry!

 III. f) Oil

  • III. f1) Paint
  • III. f3) Gessos & Grounds
  • III. f4) Mediums
  • III. f5) Varnishes

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for your article about R & F (who was F and what was F’s name?) I love their oil sticks, although I haven’t used them as much as I would like. Love your tip about putting them in the fridge. I love that soft green gold stick and maybe my love has melted it in the hot summer. I will definitely try cold.
    Now I’m going to read your info about gessos and mediums. Thank you for this!

    1. thanks for your comments… definitely try the fridge trick (and let us know how you go!)

  2. K…I reread the R &F article and see that Richard Frumess used his initials. That’s pretty impressive! Up here in Canada we have Kama Pigments, an oi paint and stick company and store that was started by a painter who made his own paints. It is pretty inspiring when a person’s passion can develop a whole line of creative materials.

    1. It’s that passion and dedication that inspires me to meet and support these lovely people!

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