To put it simply, using oil paints to create your artwork is not as difficult of a process as it may seem!
Oil paints remain one of the most popular types of painting medium in the world due to their versatility, lustrousness, longevity and overall color richness. As a result, they are the undisputed champion of paints, and are something that every artist must try at least once in their life!
There is a particular old-school cachet associated with the medium of oil painting, mainly because it was commonly used and eventually popularized by a lot of masters of the European Renaissance. Ancient oil paintings continue to endure and describe stories in an extremely fascinating way.
However, that does not mean that oil paints cannot be used to create fascinating contemporary art, nor does it mean that fresh artists should feel intimidated by the medium on the whole.
If the thought of attempting to use oil paints frightens or intimidates you, you aren’t alone! It’s only natural that you want to find out more about exactly what you need to get started in the process, and how to do it. Oil paints are actually quite easy to use once you know how.
If this sounds like something you’re interested in, this beginner’s guide to using oil paints is for you!
Why Oil Painting?
The question “why should you try oil painting instead of using watercolors or acrylics?” is a bit of a loaded one. However, there is a very simple answer – and we’re here to give it to you!
To begin, oil paints are one of the most popular tools used by successful painters throughout the past couple of centuries. They are a relatively easy medium to work on the canvas and also allow flexibility for the artist while increasing the depth of the colors used.
As a result, oil paintings appear to be held in much higher regard by art collectors compared to acrylic or watercolor paintings. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule.
Not only are oil paints extremely versatile but you can also vary the consistency and overall drying time of your paint by using additional oil, mediums or paint thinners. This means you can practice many different painting techniques such as scumbling, glazing, and blending, to help you improve your skills.
In summary, you can’t go wrong with oil painting! If you’re a complete beginner to the whole process it’s best to jump right in and get familiar with your new tools. It’s a pretty straightforward process but we will discuss the things you do need to know later in this article.
What Is Oil Paint?
Oil paint is created by combining a slow-drying paint consisting of ground-up colored pigments and a drying oil – this is typically linseed oil – that then forms a tough, colored film when exposed to the air.
The overall quality of the oil paint will vary depending on the pigment that is used, how fine it is, and then the medium in which it is applied.
However, each color formulation is unique and behaves differently according to the nature and properties of each pigment. This covers things including its degree of transparency and its texture.
Oil paints, unlike water-based painting mediums like watercolor or acrylic, require oxygen from the air to properly dry – this is called oxidation. Watercolors and acrylics dry by having the water in them evaporate.
Through the process of oxidation, different colors can retain different drying times. For example, Raw Sienna will dry quicker than Titanium White.
You may also want to think about making oil paint more fluid when mixing it with more oil, a medium or even adding a solvent. As convenient as this is for artists frequently using the oil painting technique, it may also weaken the paint. Oil paint is seen as being at its most stable when it is taken straight from the tube.
Basic Oil Painting Supplies
Many, yet not all, artists prefer to paint with an easel. It’s not a requirement but it might help you to prevent your back from hunching over while painting. If you’re only now getting started with oil painting, it’s best if you start extremely basic.
Try to find a used easel or invest in a small tabletop easel — the cheaper the better! Learning to oil paint on this starter easel will be a great way of easing you into using oil paint. It also gives you the chance to learn how to use an easel so when you go on to buy a new one, you know what to look for.
You don’t need to be an established artist to use a palette! This is the term used to describe the surface where you mix your paints. It can be a large piece of ceramic or glass, or could even be something as cheap as disposable palette pages.
As a beginner, a good rule of thumb is to have a palette space that spans about half the size of your canvas. This will give you plenty of space to mix your colors and spread them on the palette without the paint mixing or making things feel too crowded.
A Basic Palette Of Paints
If you’re just getting started with oil paints, you can buy a kit that is already stocked full of the colors that you need to save you a lot of additional work. If you feel comfortable mixing colors then you can start by buying individual tubes of yellow, blue, red, black, and white paint as a base for your color palette.
Here, you must make sure that you’re buying oil paint instead of water-soluble oil paints! This is because these two types of paint are entirely different.
A Surface To Paint On
When you’re finally ready to apply the oil paint to a surface, you will need a sturdy surface to paint on. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be a canvas!
Provided you treat your surface with a primer (usually gesso) to prevent the paint from seeping through and damaging the surface underneath, you can paint on just about any surface including different types of wood.
Odorless solvent actively speeds up the drying process of oil paint while also thinning the paint. It is also useful for cleaning and reconditioning paint brushes to prevent paint contamination. You may also use it to clean and wipe down every part of your workspace.
Linseed oil will dilute oil paint. You will use it almost like you would use water to thin watercolor paint. However, linseed oil has an oil base which means it is a much softer medium to use when thinning your oil paint to achieve a perfect consistency. You also won’t lose a lot of the paint’s texture, which is ideal.
Paper or Cloth Towel (For Wiping Your Brushes)
Oil paint brushes are expensive and are arguably one of the most important tools you’ll use as a painter. This means it’s important to thoroughly clean and wipe the brushes clean after each use.
Once you have rinsed your brushes in an odorless solvent and washed using some soap and water you can then wipe them clean on cloth or paper towels, making sure that every bristle is clean.
A Range Of Brushes
As a beginner, you don’t need to break the bank to buy every type of brush. Once you begin painting you can quickly learn the types of brushes that you typically use and which brushes give you the types of effects you want.
You can start with a small selection of small, medium, and large round brushes for your collection. This should be more than enough to get you started!
Varnish is a protective coating applied to the surface of an oil painting to enhance and preserve its colors and texture. Varnish acts as a shield against dirt, dust, and other environmental factors that can damage or dull the surface of the painting over time.
There are different types of varnish available for oil painting, each with its own characteristics and benefits. Matte varnish offers a low sheen finish that does not reflect light, while gloss varnish offers a high sheen finish that can make colors appear more vibrant. Satin varnish is a middle ground between matte and gloss, offering a subtle sheen that can enhance the colors without being too shiny.
When applying varnish to an oil painting, it’s important to make sure the surface is clean and dry. Varnish can be applied with a brush or spray, and it’s recommended to apply multiple thin coats rather than one thick coat. This helps to ensure even coverage and avoid drips or bubbles.
It’s important to note that varnish can alter the appearance of an oil painting, so it’s recommended to test the varnish on a small area of the painting before applying it to the entire surface. Additionally, varnish should not be applied to a painting until it has fully dried and cured, which can take several months or even years, depending on the thickness of the paint layers.
Overall, varnish is an important part of preserving and enhancing the beauty of an oil painting. By choosing the right type of varnish and applying it carefully, artists can ensure their artwork remains vibrant and protected for years to come.
Suggested Beginner Oil Painting Color Palettes
As a newbie to the world of oil painting, it can be difficult to completely understand the terminology when it comes to oil paint colors and color mixing. There are also many varieties of available colors, which can be very confusing!
However, there are some suggested colors you need in your palette as a beginner. We have outlined these for you below.
This is a purely blue color with a slightly red tinge to it that helps to create the most brilliant purple and neutral green colors. You can mix this color with white to create a high chroma blue, sky blues, or even inky waters.
You may even want to add in a little bit of yellow to create fading hills! Overall, this colored pigment is transparent and lends itself well to making glazes.
In an oil palette, cobalt blue is a useful color that is unbeatable for glazing. This is a clean blue that is neither warm nor cold. It’s best used on the color palette.
It can be the perfect color addition for any palette to create the perfect light sky blue, or even as a glaze over a mountain landscape to add some depth to a painting.
This is a much deeper and overall more rounded yellow color with red undertones. You can mix it with cadmium to get a vibrant orange color for sunsets. However, it can be quite expensive to purchase.
If you cannot afford cadmium yellow, you can substitute it for Hansa yellow. They are close in color but Hansa is more transparent and lacks some of the warmth.
Cadmium Yellow Light
Cadmium yellow light is a much brighter and cooler color that is best used for rendering golden linings and bright sunlight within clouds. In essence, it’s lightfast and extremely useful in an oil paint palette – especially for a beginner.
When it is mixed with cadmium red light it produces clean and high-chroma oranges. When it is mixed with ultramarine blue it usually results in a saturated and slightly warm green color.
Yellow ochre is one of the oldest pigments used by mankind. It is generally a very warm yellow earthy color that is transparent and has excellent lightfastness. It has excellent covering power and high tinting strength, meaning it works exceptionally well in places where you must overpaint.
Cadmium orange is a highly saturated ‘true orange’ color that has excellent lightfastness. It is a relatively opaque orange color that has high tinting strength and also has moderate drying properties. The color mixes well with greens or blues when trying to achieve colorful grays.
This delightful color adds some much-needed strength, brightness, opacity, and passion to the work of any artist. It is an opaque color that, when mixed with white, has a high tinting strength and works well when layered with other colors. It’s also used as a primary red to create a solid secondary mix.
Alizarin crimson provides a deep, intense, yet transparent red that is highly suited for creating shadows, landscape painting, and also mixing vivid and dark purples after being combined with ultramarine. It is a fugitive pigment and will likely fade over time if it is exposed to direct sunlight.
Raw Umber Or Burnt Sienna
Raw umber is a natural earthy brown-toned pigment that has been used in many art mediums for years. It provides a cool and dark color that, with a touch of white, could add depth and dimension to your painting without much effort.
It also creates a more subtle, muted color. When heated to higher temperatures it becomes burnt umber
Burnt sienna is considered to be a warm, natural, and earthy color with a very low saturation that presents as an orange tone. It might also show as a dark red color that lacks the coolness or green hint of raw umber. Burnt Sienna tends to work very well as an underpainting beneath land or seascapes.
Titanium white is one of the most commonly used whites used in paintings. It is known for being a bright white – almost blue in shade – that has a high tinting strength and excellent opacity. Painters will usually use this in conjunction with another color to lighten the shade.
Oil painting is one of the most interesting ways to paint. You can apply these paints to many surfaces ranging from specific wooden boards to a typical fabric canvas. Essentially, you need a surface that is dry and won’t warp over time.
Birch and maple woods are popular choices. Whatever wooden board that you choose, you must make sure the surface that you end up painting has been properly primed with gesso before you begin.
There are two commonly used types of canvas for oil painting, both with their unique properties. These are:
Stretched Canvas: This is canvas stretched over a frame. These are the surfaces that you will likely be doing the most of your oil painting on.
Canvas Boards: These are a cheap and sturdy alternative to stretched canvases. A canvas board is usually just a canvas attached to a sturdy surface such as cardboard.
How Do You Clean Your Brushes?
Cleaning your brushes after every session can be a bit of a hassle, especially if you’re someone who enjoys painting regularly. But cleaning is crucial to maintain the condition and quality of your brushes.
You’ll find it beneficial to clean your brushes while painting or in between coats when using oil paints. This ensures the longevity of the bristles and will also add a much-needed sheen to the painting that you’re doing.
Using A Solvent
The majority of people will use a solvent or oil to clean their paintbrushes. Though this comes with the risk of damaging the brushes and the bristles, it is the most effective way to clean your brushes because the paint is oil-based and water will not be effective.
You must dip your wet brush into your paint-thinner or chosen mineral spirits and swish it around.
Tap your brush onto the side of the bottle or jar you’re using to ensure paint-thinner doesn’t get everywhere.
Wrap your brush in paper towels and pull them through to remove the remaining paint and excess solvent. Be prepared to repeat this step multiple times until the brushes are completely clean.
After the paint has been removed, dip it into warm water with some dish soap to condition and restore the brush hairs.
Using Artist’s Soap
Other people opt to use an artist’s soap to clean their brushes often which preserves the bristles. With this method, all you need to do is take the brushes and work them onto a bar of soap, followed quickly by thorough rinsing with some warm water.
Tips And Tricks
Now you know more about the supplies, surfaces, and colors you should consider using as a beginner, it’s time to learn some handy tips and tricks to get you on your way. We’ve outlined some of these below.
1. Invest In Brushes
You must make sure to buy only professional grade paints instead of student grade. This is because professional grade has a much better ratio of pigment to the binder.
You also need to purchase high-quality brushes (either synthetic or hog) that are specifically designed to be used with oil paint. These are extremely durable and will withstand the use of solvents while also being able to lift the heaviness of the oils.
However, if you’re completely new to using oil paints, you must remember that you don’t need to buy every single artist’s brush out there — a very small collection consisting of three different-sized brushes will be more than enough to get you started!
Feel free to buy more brushes and experiment with the different styles and shapes in your paintings. Bristle brushes are the most commonly used brushes with oil paints.
2. Prime Your Painting Surface
As we have already established, oil paints can be applied to many different surfaces including wood, sand, and paper. Whatever surface you end up choosing for your painting, you must apply a primer known as gesso to the surface.
This will prevent the surface from the acid that is present in the paint and will also enable the paint to adhere to the painting surface in a much easier way.
If you don’t want to do this, you could even use a canvas or a pre-primed board as a base for your painting. Add more layers of gesso if you prefer a smoother surface to start your oil painting.
3. Take Time To Get To Know Your Materials
Like any other hobby, you must understand what you’re doing with all of your materials before you begin to use them. This is easier said than done but is relevant nonetheless.
For instance, when you’re working with oils, it’s a good idea to remain vigilant about the ingredients used in your paints. A lot of oil paints are manufactured with non-toxic and natural materials yet there are still quite a few that still contain solvents. Some even contain extremely toxic turpentine!
You want to make sure that you understand exactly what you’re working with to prevent accidents or mishaps from occurring.
Turpentine and solvents are also highly flammable so it’s a good idea to work in a well-ventilated area where you remain far away from the sources of ignition.
4. Try Painting With A Palette Knife
You should never underestimate the role of a palette knife in the process of oil painting!
The palette knife is an essential part of any beginner’s tool kit when learning the ropes of oil painting. It helps to mix colors that can then be directly applied to the painting surface with a brush.
However, you can also use a palette knife to put the color on the canvas. It creates a crisper, cleaner color while ensuring that your brushes do not become severely clogged up with the oil paint.
Learning how to use a palette knife in this way will also help you to understand different methods and styles of applying oil paint to a canvas, without requiring any major expertise.
Your knife might even be the key to creating a different design that could create a much more effective look in your finished artwork.
5. Paint The Same Subject Again And Again
We understand that oil painting can be quite frustrating at times. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding painting methods with some extraordinary beautiful results.
There are no secrets to becoming an artist: only practice. This means that to establish some sort of technique when using oil paints, and to understand what you’re doing, you might want to try repainting the same subject repeatedly.
By doing this, you will become very familiar with the subject – so much so that it will become almost second nature to paint it. As the saying goes: practice makes perfect.
Not only will it help you to learn some valuable oil painting skills but it will also shine a light on the evolution of your art and overall technique.
6. Oil And Water Don’t Mix
One of the most important things you must remember when learning how to paint with oils is that oil and water can’t be mixed! This is because they repel one another. It is also a huge reason why turpentine and solvent ingredients are a necessary evil in terms of oil painting.
This also means that you will not be able to clean your brushes just in water. You will discover that water does little to nothing to remove the oil paint from your hands or your paint brushes.
As a result, you must make sure to have a solvent at hand after you have finished your painting for that particular session so you can easily wipe your brushes clean.
7. Ventilation Is A Must!
Using solvents is a common practice when using oil paints. While solvents are convenient they could also become toxic or harmful to your overall health. This means it’s important to practice safety when you paint.
A simple way to prevent this is to set up your art space in a well-ventilated area as the solvents that you make will give off fumes. If you can’t physically do this, make sure that there is an open window nearby your workstation so that you’re breathing in the fresh air.
In this space, you should keep your supplies and palettes visible and ready to use at all times. This will allow you the opportunity to look at and think about your work, even when you’re not painting, and will also make sure that no accidents occur.
8. Start Small
As with any other subject, it’s in your best interest to start small and then increase your objectives with your artwork.
Painting something small allows you the opportunity to try out some new techniques while also experimenting with different colors. This is great as it means you aren’t spending too much of your time or materials on the process of learning the ropes.
We’d recommend buying some small canvases (usually 8×10 inch) or canvas boards to initially practice on. You could even begin by applying oil paint to paper although we wouldn’t recommend doing this every time.
9. Learn The Rules Of Layering
There are a couple of major rules you need to follow when it comes to layering an oil painting. We have outlined these for you below.
Fat Over Lean: every layer must be more flexible than the one underneath. This can be achieved by adding more medium to each of the new layers, making it more flexible than the last while also reducing the risk of the paint cracking.
Thick Over Thin: when you’re painting with heavier colors, it’s best to start applying thicker layers over thin ones. This is because thinner layers are quicker to dry.
If you enjoy the Impressionists’ impasto style, you must remember that these thicker layers must be uppermost. Thinner layers on top of any impasto layers are far more likely to crack.
Slow Drying Instead Of Fast Drying: it’s in your best interest to use fast-drying colors as underlayers. If a thin fast-drying layer is applied over a thicker slow-drying layer, there’s a high likelihood that your oil painting will crack.
This is because the top layers will have already quickly dried down on top of layers that have not yet dried.
10. Have Fun And Keep Trying!
Much like any other skill, the more practice you can get in with using oil paints, the more developed your oil painting skills will be! An understanding of how to choose and mix colors and apply them to a canvas also means that your final work will also look much better.
It’s very easy to feel defeated at the first hurdle when it comes to using oil paints. But you can’t give up!
While we can’t guarantee that you’ll become an all-time great at using oil paints, your skills will greatly benefit from a bit of well-timed practice.
But don’t force yourself to paint! If you’re not feeling up to the challenge then maybe leave it for another day. Forcing yourself to use oil paints will likely take all of the fun and enjoyment out of the activity, which is not something you want to do.
So, if you want to make some great artwork, you must have patience, keep practicing, and – most importantly of all – have fun while you’re painting!
And that concludes this beginner’s guide to using oil paints! After reading this article, we now hope that you have more of a concrete understanding of how to use oil paints, and why developing a technique is so important!
We also hope that you know which tools you need to create your oil painting including the paints themselves, a painting surface, and solvents to clean your brushes.
There’s lots more to learn about color theory but this will come in time as you practice and get used to actively using the oil paints to create stunning imagery on your chosen canvas.
Whether you pursue oil painting as something on the side or dedicate lots of time to learning the craft, there is a lot of potential for you in terms of the artwork you can produce using these tools! All you need is a bit of patience, dedication, and ambition, and you’ll soon begin to see results!
Joseph Colella (Joe Colella) is an Editor and Writer at WastedTalentInc. As a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech).
While Joseph holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent fashion he spent years applying for various Art degrees; from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), to failing to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney.
While he jokes about his failures at gaining formal art qualifications, as a self-taught artist he has had a fruitful career in business, technology and the arts making Art his full time source of income from the age of 18 until 25.
His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. Joseph’s art has been sold to private collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia.
He is a trusted source for reliable art advice and tutorials to copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.