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Oil Painting For Beginners: 5 Expert Recommendations

Lerici Harbor, by Barry John Raybould, 40cm x 40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2019
Lerici Harbor, by Barry John Raybould, 40cm x 40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2019

If you are considering learning oil painting, I have prepared this guide to oil painting for beginners to help you.


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Introduction – Painting for Beginners – Oil

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 Is Oil Painting Good 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.
Gluhi Do Valley, Montenegro, by Barry John Raybould, 30cm x 40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2021
Gluhi Do Valley, Montenegro, by Barry John Raybould, 30cm x 40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2021

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:

  1. Use water-soluble oils. See my article on water-soluble oil paints.
  2. 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.

Val di Chiana Sunset, Tuscany Italy, by Barry John Raybould, 10in x 12in, Oil on Linen, 2019
Val di Chiana Sunset, Tuscany Italy, by Barry John Raybould, 10in x 12in, Oil on Linen, 2019

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.

Italy Florence, The Arno, by Barry John Raybould, 25.3cm x 30.4cm, Oil on Linen
Italy Florence, The Arno, by Barry John Raybould, 25.3cm x 30.4cm, Oil on Linen

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.

oil painting palette for beginners
oil painting palette for beginners

Take a look at my painting below, and notice how gray the background is.

How to draw curves accurately
Beijing Still Life, by Barry John Raybould, 15.5cm x 15.5cm, Oil on Linen, 2017

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)

Plein Air Painting Step One: Prepare Your Palette
Plein Air Painting Step One: Prepare Your Palette

Recommendation 6: Oil Painting safety guidelines

Safety Tips for Beginner Oil Painters

Here are some safety tips for oil painting for beginners

  • Put discarded materials in the hazardous waste bins, particularly if you are using cadmium or cobalt based pigments.
  • Put old oil painting rags that have linseed oil on them in a metal, not a plastic, bin. This is because rags with linseed oil in them can combust spontaneously. A metal bin will not burn and so it is safer.

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

Alla Prima Pochade 11X14 Yellowstone Lite Pochade Box
Alla Prima Pochade 11X14 Yellowstone Lite Pochade Box

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.
Cat. No. 1386 plein air painting in Montenegro
Beach in Montenegro, by Barry John Raybould, 30cm x 40cm, Oil on Linen, 2020

Oil Painting For Beginners: A Step-by-Step Process

Painting for beginners – Oil
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

Cat. No. 1221 Painting Tutorial Step 1

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

Cat. No. 1221 Painting Tutorial Step 3

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

Cat. No. 1221 Painting Tutorial Step 6

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

Cat. No. 1221 Painting Tutorial Step 10

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

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, and want to learn more about my Visual Music & Poetry® model, take a look at my online painting classes.

Happy painting!

Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy

What The Students Are Saying

Oil Painting For Beginners: 5 Expert Recommendations


  • Is making color swatches, even when starting out with a very limited palette (such as the Zorn palette) necessary? I hear it’s essential for learning color mixing. I am not particularly interested in that type of exercise, although I’m sure it’s quite valuable. Thanks!

    • Hello Dawn, it is not absolutely necessary to do color studies when starting to learn how to paint, but it will definitely speed up your learning. When you are beginning oil painting, it is good to spend more time on practicing mixing colors, rather than spending a lot of time on drawing and composition. Then once you have mastered the color aspects, you can move on to other things. My philosophy for beginners learning to paint, is to take is one small manageable step at a time, rather than trying to be too ambitious. If you try to do something too ambitious and it doesn’t turn out well, you can get very quickly frustrated and disappointed. But if you choose a small task and then master it, it is much more satisfying. I hope that helps answer your question.

  • Hi Barry, thanks for this demo. Looks great. However, I’ve seen this approach in other places and I have the same observation: it kind of assumes you’ve already chosen and mixed your colours for the painting. As a relative beginner this has been the hardest part to learn because so few instructors really dwell on it – perhaps they have internalised this process to such a degree that they take it for granted. I will certainly try this method though! Many thanks again for the post.

    • You raise a good point James. There are two ways of solving this problem. One is the use of a color study, or an even simpler color map, before you start the main painting. The second way is to mix colors on the canvas, blending them until you achieve a color harmony. Both ways work. You don’t need to mix colors on the palette before you start. When recommending a method of oil painting for beginners, I generally take into account their skill level. So for example a beginner oil painter might simplify their palette to make the painting process easier, at the expense of being able to achieve a more complex color harmony. Then once they have systematically built their skills, they will later on be able to comfortably handle a full spectrum palette, which in the hands of a more experienced painter, gives far more options for achieving a beautiful color harmony. I hope that helps a little.

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