We test the inexpensive, student grade Camel Oil Pastels from Camlin Kokuyo to find out the answer to that all important question: Are they any good? We also wonder what oil pastels are exactly. They’re not the same as wax crayons and we go into the differences between the two, and the story of how oil pastels were invented in Japan. Can a cheap colour painting and drawing medium which was invented for kids in school be a useful artistic tool?
Reviewing the Camel Kokuyo Oil Pastels
Minjal: Hi. Welcome to Stationery Test Drive with Inky Memo. This is Minjal.
Vishal: This is Vishal.
Samir: And I’m Samir, and today we we are going to be talking about the Camel Oil Pastel, which is a simple Student Grade oil pastel which we picked up from our local stationery store and we are going to be testing this out.
Vishal: So, let’s get down to these colorful childhood crayons, or at least that’s what I grew up thinking they were. But these are oil pastels, so what are oil pastels?
Samir: I used to think oil pastels were probably something ancient because you would think a stick of color with oil in it would have been invented thousands of years ago! But no, it was invented only in 1920-24 or so by Sakura in japan. Strangely oil pastels came about as an improvement of regular wax crayons, exactly to make them more colorful actually.
Vishal: So what we grew up thinking is crayons were probably oil pastels, but traditionally crayons were with chalk bases?
Samir: No, a crayon is wax-based and I think a lot of what we grew up with was also wax-based. I think the reason crayons are more popular for parents to give kids is because they’re not as easy to break as these.
Vishal: Right, these are a bit fragile, but they are very well made I must say. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult and I don’t use them as roughly as a child would. My experience with oil pastels and crayons started very early. There is pictorial evidence of this and my medium of choice was crayons but my surface of choice was not paper. It was the walls of our apartment when we were growing up or where we lived for a couple of years anyway. And I think that association is quite widespread.
Cray-Pas Oil Pastels by Sakura
Samir: There was a growing movement in the early 20th century in Japan and other places like Germany where the Kindergarten System had started. In Japan there was a movement towards getting rid of the more traditional rote education and including more creativity into it.
A pair of teachers wanted Japanese children to have more colorful, artistic pastimes rather than what they were being made to do, which was to just use India Ink and memorize the ideograms of the language. So their idea was to give kids really colorful crayons to use and that’s how the Sakura company started.
It was called Sakura ‘Cray-Pas’ when it first started because they wanted to make crayons. What ended up happening is that they figured that crayons were just not actually colorful enough and so they thought that if they made something that was a little bit more flexible, a little bit more rich in the pigment and softer to work with they would get children to play around more with them and that’s how the oil pastel was invented. It’s quite a fascinating story.
Vishal: And playing around with it is something that I found in the using of it that I really enjoyed. Honestly all my early tests on this test drive were failures, utter failures because I was just trying too hard to use them as an adult would and rather than as a child would.
Samir: So let’s just show all our test drives.
Vishal: Minjal I think has adulted the most and given us this wonderful foliage.
Vishal: We inadvertently or not always seem to come to this point in stationery test drive where the three of us have chosen very different ways of dealing with the same thing. And, it is a fitting indictment of what you can do with oil pastels as long as you lean into them quite well.
Oil Pastel Blending & Layering Techniques
Samir: There were two things that Sakura was aiming for when they invented oil pastels, one was the sheer richness of the color. Yes, this looks like a crayon drawing but you just cannot get this kind of rich, deep, pigmented color with a crayon and that’s something that an oil pastel just excels at because it’s using a binder that’s not as hard and strong as wax and so the pigment can really spread over the paper. Now the spreading part of it is the second part. Oil pastels were also invented so that they could be more blendable on the page.
Vishal: Yes in fact it says, on the camel oil pastels that we have, it says in sort of I guess the correct language is Hinglish, it says ‘Mixing Ka Magic’ which is the magic of mixing. So these are made to be mixed on the page either by layering like what I did or using some kind of solvent.
Samir: Exactly so the great thing about oil pastels is because the binder is actually a mixture of things, the binder itself.
Vishal: The oil in the oil pastel.
Minjal: The non-drying oil.
Samir: Exactly, so the binder that binds the pigment and holds an oil pastel together, at least in the beginning was a mixture of coconut oil, stearic acid I think and I’m forgetting maybe it’s gum arabic or something like that.
Now the good thing about that is because coconut oil and the stearic acid keeps it kind of slightly fluid, is something that can kind of melt slightly as you work it into a paper, you can get effects with an oil pastel that can be very close to being like a painting, the sort of impasto effect.
Vishal: Right, I forget the Italian, it’s probably impasto, it might be is sfumato, I’m thinking, where you layer, let’s say a green underneath. And we talked about this before that the Mona Lisa is green at some point, the base of her skin is green and then on top of that there are all these layers of oil paint and thin films that contribute to an overall color because it’s slightly translucent.
Samir: Right and the thing about oil pastels is you can do all of that layering and because it’s a material which doesn’t ever quite dry out, you can scratch away the top surface which is one of the ways it’s used.
Vishal: And this Camel set comes with, very helpfully, a camel, with various bits that are little edges and comb-like. Right and you would use these, let me use it on mine, one of the smaller edges. You would use these to pick out highlights, this is something that people do and there you go, it gouges away some of this stuff. I’ve layered it a bit too much to get a clean break here but yeah I guess you can pull out highlights the way you would with the rubber. Here you’re physically just taking off the medium.
Figure Sketching with Oil Pastels by Camel Kokuyo
Samir: Exactly and as we said blending is the other major strength of an oil pastel. As you can see parts of this I have worked on very much like a crayon, very rough. This is again a cartridge paper with a bit of tooth but you can see areas where it’s very smooth and the way you can do that is as Vishal mentioned before by mixing it in with a solvent.
Now I ended up using some sort of medical alcohol which is actually not ideal for this. I think white spirit is probably the best thing to use and I believe you can also use baby oil. Which I think Minjal tried at some point, a little, but not too much.
Vishal: Tell us about your leaves, Minjal?
Botanical Art with Oil Pastels by Camel Kokuyo
Minjal: After I bought the set I realized that this set that we have is what students are advised to use. So in terms of laying down the color, I had to really try very hard and apply a lot of pressure to get this really nice gradation.
Vishal: So I’m guessing you started with an undertone of a lighter color and then moved to dark or was it the other way around.
Minjal: I tried both, and I also used a pencil at the end to define it and scratch out some of the color. Now I believe that Camel also does an ‘Artist Grade’ oil pastel set, which would be interesting to try because I hope it leaves lesser residue than this one does.
Samir: Yeah but I think it’s also that it’s not just that it’s messy but the student’s version is also probably made stronger than the artist version.
Vishal: Right because kids apply more pressure.
Samir: But by making it more stronger you’re also making it more difficult to blend.
Abstract Art with Oil Pastels by Camel Kokuyo
Vishal: I did not blend at all and you can see that here very clearly. In fact I didn’t really even think about this at all. This was as close to recapturing the stream of consciousness I hope, thoughts that I had when I was about two or three and using oil pastels or crayons to make things.
I just drew, I didn’t even bother to look at what color I was picking up. So a lot of this is just whatever came to hand, I put it in, these are just muscle memory at this point in terms of drawing portraits. Actually the thing I liked the most as I went along was, yes mixing all of these things just by layering them over each other willy-nilly.
But I did actually like the pure black on a rough paper. And I think it would work well with a crayon rather than with a more liquid medium like a brush or even a charcoal pencil or something which I’ve never been as satisfied with it. There’s something quite clean about the line that you get out of this, it’s very textured, the weights can go all over the place, but you can get these really nice edges like you see on the signature here. You can almost make it a wedge and I don’t think I can’t think of other mediums that have so much virtuosity in terms of their expression.
Samir: And I think the thing I realized quite late while I was working on this is that there’s the oil pastel unlike most other mediums actually varies a lot depending on what direction you use it in. So most of the time what we’re used to doing as artists who use a variety of mediums is to draw like we would usually draw, which is sideways. You either pull a line or you push a line, whereas the thing I realized just by chance as I was working on it is that if you push this, that’s a very different line.
Vishal: And weirdly you can also almost engage in pointillism by doing these very messy dots.
Samir: Yeah, that’s another thing I didn’t try. But for some reason if you really push this into the paper it’s just an entirely different look than if I did it any other way. No matter how hard I push, pull rather, that’s still a crayon but this is something else. So I think the oil pastel is much more versatile than maybe even we have tested out in this first try of ours.
Minjal: Do do professional artists use oil pastels a lot in our country or is it a medium that artists don’t prefer to use?
Samir: I think it very much started as a as a children’s medium but just the sheer practicality of being able to carry around these very bright pigments in your pocket eventually kind of attracted real artists as well.
Artist Grade Oil Pastels by Pablo Picasso & Sennelier
Minjal: I believe Picasso was the one who actually, for this very reason, got one of the the biggest French stationery manufacturers to actually make an artist grade oil pastel set.
Samir: Right because the thing about oil pastels is it was invented for a very specific, very let’s say casual, non-professional reason. So the materials that went into it were not made ideally to be very archival. I mean most artists like to work on for example acid-free paper so that the paper doesn’t degrade over time, it can last hundreds of years.
But the the binder in this has stearic acid, so if you use an acid-free paper and then you’re using a medium that has an acid in it, the acid in the medium is slowly eating away at the paper over decades, of course, but that means that especially a cheaper oil pastel piece might last only a few decades rather than a century.
Fixative for Oil Pastels
Minjal: So there are no fixative oils or varnishes?
Samir: Believe it or not this is still such a new medium that people are still testing these things out. So the problem is that once you put it down on paper, the oil and the stearic acid from this kind of is slowly seeping into the paper over the next few decades and then affecting the paper itself. I believe what some people are trying out now is to kind of coat this entire thing in like a beeswax fixative or something?
Vishal: So the paper itself is coated?
Samir: No, after the piece is done I believe.
Vishal: Okay so if nothing else it will just sort of remain in stasis for as long as possible.
Samir: Right, it just holds off all the reactions for as long as possible and I believe you know art conservators are still trying to work out the chemistry of how to best keep this stuff alive because it was just never meant to be that serious but it’s now become serious.
Vishal: And then there’ll be no excuse not to keep your five-year-old drawings forever. Well, whether these last forever or not I think we had fun making them. I don’t think this is the last time that we are going to try out or test drive oil pastels. I’ve certainly learned many new ways to try it and also more simplistic ways.
Samir: And I don’t think any of us would have chosen such bombastic colours in any other medium, which is great, that it’s forcing us to push that side of our experiments.
Vishal: Yeah usually you pick you know a palette that’s three or four colors, and you don’t go for the really edgy ones, you just kind of do that and then you layer and layer and you can certainly work that way but I think if you embrace your inner child and you know and these are pretty inexpensive so you don’t need to get the professional ones that Picasso commissioned unless that’s the kind of thing you want to do! We fully support people spending their money how they want on art supplies at least. You know get something from Inky Memo why not, that’s a good idea as well.
Samir: But yes other than making the clear mess that we have now made, I think as Minjal said we should test out something that’s a bit more of a professional grade oil pastel at some point. It will be interesting to see what the difference is.
Vishal: It is no more mess than a bunch of eraser shavings though, let’s be honest.
Samir: It’s nowhere close to the mess that we’re going to get into once we try to test out a charcoal pencil.
Vishal: Oh yes, that like I said, for me the black on this is better than a charcoal pencil, so I don’t quite look forward to it but that I didn’t look forward to these and they turned out to be great, so maybe even that will surprise me. Are there any more surprises that we had with this or is it just that we should continue to?
Samir: No, I think in general it’s just a medium that was invented for a very specific purpose and maybe people like us are kind of trying it out in ways that it was not meant to be used to begin with and I think even serious artists are finding those challenges as they try to use these and it will be interesting to see how these develop because they are relatively new. I’m sure they will improve. But yes, the more stationery people invent, the better for us, so bring it on!
Vishal: We look forward to more of crayons, more of oil pastels. We should actually look into crayons and see what those are like as compared to these. Because I don’t think most people know the difference or make the distinction. It’s just that waxy thing that you use as a kid and then you move on to colored pencils and then you move on to watercolors and then you die.
Anyway, whatever your stationery endeavors are, I hope you enjoy them like we did with this. I hope you share them with us. You can find us online at inkymemo.com on most social media @inkymemo and individually you can find me @allvishal on social media and at allvishal.com
Minjal: I’m @minjalkadakia.
Vishal: And before we go, use those pastels!
Get the Camel Kokuyo Oil Pastels
1. Camlin Kokuyo Oil Pastels Mixing Ka Magic Richer & Intermixable Colours 25 Shades – https://amzn.to/36pNDsR
2. Camlin Kokuyo Oil Pastel Crayons Color 50 Shades Assorted Colours – https://amzn.to/3vdlPTb