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Oil paints are one of the most popular mediums for painting because they are extremely versatile, have a long history of use by master painters, are archival, and are easy to use.
To get you started, there are some things you need to know about and a few recommendations for how to get started painting in oils.
Oil paints have many advantages over other mediums such as acrylics and watercolors:
Why Oil Painting For Beginners?
- They are easy to change. When you are painting, you are constantly adjusting things. With oils you can easily scrape off a wrong color and re-apply new color to your painting. With acrylics this is much more difficult to do because they dry faster, and with watercolors, you have the problem that they are very difficult to change once you have put a color down.
- Oil paints are versatile because you can vary the drying time and consistency of your paint by using different mediums. This lets you to work with a wide range of painting techniques, such as blending to soften edges, glazing to create luminosity or to adjust the colors, and scumbling to create texture.
- They have been used for centuries by master painters, and so have stood the test of time.
- Oil paintings are also favored by art collectors compared to acrylic and watercolor paintings.
What Is Oil Paint?
Oil paint consists of ground-up colored pigment suspended in a drying oil, usually derived from seeds or crushed nuts, such as linseed oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil. Some oil paints also have additives to help add bulk (often the cheaper paints), as well as extenders to make them dry more slowly.
It forms a tough, colored film after exposure to air for a few days.
Oil Painting For Beginners: Recommendations
Recommendation 1: Give it a try
Some people think oil painting for beginners is difficult, but this is simply not true once you know a few basic techniques. In fact it is far easier than watercolor, and even easier than acrylics when you take into account the problems of fast drying acrylics. Oil painting is the best medium for beginners in spite of what is often repeated on the internet. (See my guide to choosing a painting medium for more information why).
Recommendation 2: Avoid solvents
Another misconception is that you have to use dangerous solvents. You can use them, but you do not have to. There are two ways to avoid using solvents:
- Use water-soluble oils. See my article on water-soluble oil paints.
- Clean up with soap instead of solvents, or use a non-toxic cleaner, such as Brush Flush (see below for where to get this).
In fact, it is best not to mix oil paint with solvents as it weakens the adhesion of the paint to the painting surface.
Recommendation 3: Start with inexpensive materials
Start simple and build up your skills one by one. Again, don’t believe that you need expensive brushes and the best quality oil paints. You will learn far more quickly by playing around freely with inexpensive materials. In this way, you will not worry about wasting paint, and this in the end will be far more important to your learning.
Recommendation 4: Start With Small Paintings
The fasted way to learn oil painting for beginners is to paint small. This encourages you to try out techniques and play with colors so you get familiar with how they work. You can buy some small 6×8 and 9×12 inch canvases or canvas boards, but I prefer painting with oils on paper for studies and learning. You can gesso the paper first using white acrylic gesso to stop the oil sinking into the paper, or more easily, just buy a pre-prepared paper such as Arches Paper for Oils.
All paintings in this article, I did plein air, and are very small.
Recommendation 5: Use a simple palette
If you are a beginning oil painting, you do not need many colors. You can select just one yellow, one red, and one blue, plus white. I like to add black so you can quickly make a cool gray. Otherwise it takes a long time to mix a neutral gray. Do not believe people who tell you never to use black! The secret is not to use it in your darks, but instead use it to make neutral grays. It is the neutral grays that are the secret to masterful color.
Take a look at my painting below, and notice how gray the background is.
One easy palette is:
- cadmium yellow
- alizarin crimson (good for still lifes, and man-made colors), or cadmium red dark (good for muted landscapes)
- ultramarine blue
- mars black
- titanium white
When you get more experienced, add a warm and cool version of each color. I suggest you add alizarin crimson, cadmium orange, and cobalt blue hue, or phthalo blue.
As you get more experience, add more colors as I do here. The secret to oil painting for beginners is to start simple. I have built a structured program of learning oil painting for beginners that starts simple, and builds up your skills one-by-one. This way you don’t get overwhelmed and will see steady progress. (see details on my online painting classes here)
Drying Oil Paintings
If you dilute the oil paint with turpentine or other thinning agents, your oil painting will dry relatively quickly, and be tack-free in a few days. Thicker layers, containing more oil, will take longer. Oil paint continues to dry, and get harder with age over the years. Some oil paints will dry faster than others, depending on which pigment is in them and if they contain extenders.
Oil Painting Supplies
Here is a basic set of oil painting supplies and equipment:
- A range of small to large paintbrushes designed for oil painting. Hog hair brushes are best for oil painting. Buy one big brush (around 1 inch wide) and one little brush to start with.
- An easel or pochade box.
- A palette – larger is better. You can buy any pieced of plexiglass for a good palette.
- A basic palette of oil paints (see below).
- A painting support (canvas or paper) to paint on (see below).
- Odorless solvent (optional). Gamsol is the best, but actually I don’t use it.
- Linseed, safflower, or walnut oil if you paints are too stiff.
Oil Painting For Beginners: A Step-by-Step Process
Here is a basic process suitable for oil painting for beginners. Actually it is used by many professionals as well.
Total Time: 3 hours
Step 1: Map out your major shapes
Using thin paint, map out where you major shapes are going to be. There is no need to draw accurately at this stage. You will refine the drawing with paint later on. However proportions are very important at this stage.
Step 2: Block in the major shapes with thin paint
Block in the big shapes with thin paint. Start with the darks and the middle values. Don’t add much white to the paint at this stage, and avoid it completely in the darks.
Step 3: Block in the light shapes
Block in the light shapes using thicker paint mixed with white. Only work on the large shapes at this stage and make sure your values are correct. In my online painting classes I include several lessons on how to build up your skills with values. It is one of the most important lessons you will learn.
Step 4: Paint the smaller shapes
Finish the painting by painting the smaller shapes, but be careful not to break up the larger shapes you painted in steps 2 and 3. The secret to great paintings is to design beautiful large shapes at the beginning and not to lose them by adding too much detail. This is easier said than done, and you will need to develop some skills in this area to get good.
- basic palette of oil colors
- 2 brushes, one large, one small
Materials: canvas or paper for oil painting
Oil Painting Techniques
Here are some useful techniques for oil painting for beginners
For More Information
- for more information on a non-toxic brush cleaner for oils, see Brush Flush.
- for more information about the technical side of oil painting, see: https://www.britannica.com/art/oil-painting
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Please feel free to share it with friends. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, take a look at my online painting classes.
Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy