Mastering Oil Painting:  10 Ways I Became A Better Painter

Mastering Oil Painting: 10 Ways I Became a Better PainterThere was a time when I felt I had mastered painting values, compositions and had developed a fairly routine painting process.  Actually I had hit a painting plateau and wasn’t really getting better at oil painting.  I was good but not good enough.  Mastering painting required me to work through some problems, many I was not even aware of.  I’m grouping these painting problems into 10 areas of study.  If you have painting experience already, these are the areas of study that will propel your painting to the next level!

Mastering Oil Painting:  10 Ways I Became A Better Painter



I’ll be the first to admit that once I started getting decent at painting I never wanted to pick up a pencil again.  Pencil drawing seemed so slow and less important compared to painting. Why draw in pencil when I can use a large brush to fill in large areas in no time at all?  The problem is: Big brushes make big mistakes and if you rush into a painting without doing proper preparation you’ll actually spend more time to arrive at a mediocre painting.  Nowadays I spend less time fixing paintings and arrive at a much higher quality painting.  How?  I avoid most painting fixes late in the painting process by drawing more first.  Yes, drawing!  Draw more preliminary drawings, thumbnail sketches, and anything necessary to work out all your mistakes in pencil and paper first.  Make sure you have analyzed the perspective, forms and fully measured out your painting’s elements in pencil long before you touch paint to canvas.




It took me many years to figure out that the edges of the objects in my paintings, although small were causing some of the bigger problems within my artwork.  In the younger part of my painting career I painted nearly every object with a sharp edge.  This made my paintings look fake and more like collages.  The objects I was attempting to paint looked more like stickers stuck onto my canvas.   This certainly limited the variety and illusion of space I was attempting to convey within my painted pictures.  Consider the edges between your painted elements and understand that not all edges should be created equally.  Some edges should be painted softer and some should be painted harder.  How you paint that small area where one object ends and another begins can be equally as important as how you paint the objects.   More often than not, I find that rounded objects look best when they contain slightly softer edges.



Different artists have their own philosophies on blending paint.  Some artists like to use sweeping motions with flat brushes, while other’s use a tapping motion with smaller brushes.  Some painters claim not to blend at all.  While I believe this last claim to be somewhat of an exaggeration you do need to be able to push paint around effectively to create subtle color gradations from time to time.  Remember, your tools can make a difference.  If you are attempting to paint an ultra-smooth transition confined to a small area you are going to need high quality, small brushes.  This is where sable brushes work well.  I’ve even been happy with some of the higher quality synthetic brushes that are on the market nowadays.   Don’t forget that it’s actually easier to blend your oil paint with no medium added.  As counter intuitive as this may sound, it’s the stickiness and drag of the oil paint that makes it highly blendable.  Excess medium or thinner typically makes your paint too slippery and after a few stokes everything runs together eliminating that nice gradient you were after in the first place.



I’ll admit it.  I was a medium junkie when I first started getting the hang of painting.  I made excuses to add painting mediums to everything.  I would even formulate my own mediums.  Maybe I wanted to feel like a hipster, wannabe, mad scientist or just didn’t understand how to paint well enough.   Whatever the reason, I let mediums get in the way of what I was trying to do: To create beautiful works of art.  Nowadays I use far less painting medium when I paint, in fact I use my painting medium more for cleaning my brushes while painting more than anything else.  While I would not want to paint without an oil painting medium within reach, I am much less dependent on them now.  Using less mediums might also preserve your artwork longer as well.  Long after you’re dead and your paintings live on you’ll really be in good graces with the conservators restoring your artwork if you use fewer mediums.  Keep it simple silly!



If is often said that timing is everything and this can also be true of the oil painting process.  Some things are easier to paint when you time them properly.  If you want to have soft edges it’s generally a good idea to paint everything in that area at the same time while the paint is wet.  Other times it’s a good idea to wait on an area of your painting.  Perhaps you have painted some extremely detailed areas of an object.  It’s tempting to keep working on that area but sometimes it’s worth letting that area dry first.  This way, any additions you paint can be wiped off without wiping off everything and having to start over.  This is especially true of any painted details that are not properly drawn in and require some degree of improvisation.  I have learned to be patient when it comes to the painting process.


6Color Temperature

The various color temperatures within your artwork can make the difference between a good painting and a great painting.  When it comes to color temperature less is more.  Often, art teachers try to get art students to push the warm / cool contrast within their paintings.  While this can sometimes be a good idea it is all too often abused and overdone.   When it comes to color temperature, less is more.  You should be paying attention to the color temperatures within your paint mixtures but understand that temperature is most effective when the viewer is hardly noticing it at all.  What does this look like?  Let me explain…  Your neutral colors (white, black, grays) will look warm next to cool colors, but these same neutrals will also appear cool next to warm colors.  Instead of reaching for a complementary color or a distinctively cool or warm color, consider a more subtle approach and try working with neutrals first.  You can always warm or cool them further.  If you try to cool down a paint with, for example, ultramarine blue, you often create a paint mixture that is far too cool.  Work more with neutrals and remember subtlety is king.



Real life is pretty dull.  Paint manufacturer sell you highly saturated tubes of paint because you can always mix them down to create mixtures of less saturated paint. However, you cannot make a paint more saturated.  When I was younger I fell in love with saturated colors and abused the heck out of them.  I made excuses to see hues in the subject matter I was attempting to paint and always resorted to a paint mixture that was more saturated than reality.  This killed any amount of realism I was going for in my paintings.  Think how much more meaningful a small area of saturated subject matter becomes when everything else is much less saturated.  Tone it down folks!


8Wet Paint Magic

There’s magic in them, there paints!  Every painting is somewhat of a struggle.  Starting a painting can be frustrating and after several hours of painting I always feel a great sense of accomplishment.  I always sit back and relish in how I’ve taken a canvas and taken it to a point at which it’s completely covered or almost covered with paint.  This is when my mind always wants to quit for the day.  “Let the paint dry, just to be safe.” is always what I’m thinking at this point.  Sometimes these thoughts are right but often I am just about to enter into the most pleasurable part of oil painting.  It’s that magical hour in which you get to paint into and on top of wet oil paint!  I can’t tell you how many great things happen during this time.  As long as I haven’t used too much medium or solvent (I rarely use much anymore), the oil paint moves, blends, and seems to obey my every command.  The only trick to painting into a completely wet painting is watching where you place your hand.  This is where a mahl stick can be handy.


9Reduce Color Clutter

My palette of colors has definitely shrunk over time.  I have refined my selection of oil paints based on my subject matter but most importantly my understanding of color.  It’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about the science of color and how to effectively mix a range of colors in your artwork.  While a three color palette has a limited gamut (don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise), you probably don’t need as many colors as you think.  Are you putting cobalt blue and ultramarine blue on your palette?  What’s the point?  They are almost the exact same hue.  Unless you are choosing them distinctly for their mixing properties such as transparency, tinting strength, drying time, etc.  Your lack of color knowledge can be cluttering your palette with redundant options you don’t need.  Learn everything about your colors and don’t be afraid to delve into the science a bit.  As you advance in your painting you should look to decrease the color clutter on your palette and in turn decrease your guesswork and frustration.  Do this by increasing your scientific-based color knowledge!


10Analysis of Forms

It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of painting.  The luscious paint strokes and saturated colors can really draw a painter’s attention away from some underlying problems in a painting.  Long before you get into the actual painting process make sure you have analyzed the structure of the forms that will occupy space within your artwork’s picture plane.  Are your ellipses drawn properly?  Do the perspective angles make sense?  Are hanging objects drawn with proper verticals?  Most forms can be put into geometric containers and proofread for their correctness.  Work out all these problems first in pencil and paper and the painting process will proceed smoothly.  Don’t forget to analyze your artwork’s overall form structure long before you get into the details.



Mastering Painting: Concluding Thoughts

It’s not easy to master painting.  As in life there are things you know, don’t know and then there are things things you don’t know you don’t know.  (Think about it for a moment).  Okay.   Most of the problems I had as a younger painter were unknown to me.  These were skills and mindset problems I was unaware of. I had painting problems I didn’t know I had.  Hopefully after ready my list: 10 Ways I Became A Better Painter you can reflect upon your own artistic abilities and limitations.  Painting is a long steady grind.  It takes years to master painting, but it’s a worthy pursuit.

Thanks for reading.




  1. elaine dobrowolski says:

    The information you have shared with us here is sooooo relevant….every single one of the 10 areas you list here for us. I am so very glad I found it to read & put into practice. Thank You so much. Number 7 regarding toning / desaturation…..I too, have heard many times….”gray it down” & to ” gray it down” means using the complementary color …..***I would like more freedom from that equation…Would you kindly enlighten us here with alternatives….maybe ???? (*_*) Thank You …..

    1. John Morfis says:

      Yes Elaine. Adding a complement is one way to reduce the saturation of a color. As in, a small amount of red will make green duller. The problem is the two colors you are mixing are rarely perfect complements and there lies a big problem. You start to shift the hue and end up with a different color entirely while reducing the saturation. I switched my methods years ago and have never been happier. How? … want to reduce the saturation of a color? Simply mix the value in a neutral gray first and then add that gray to the color. You will get a very predictable reduction of saturation without changing the hue or value (too much).

      1. elaine dobrowolski says:

        I Thank You , Sir…..I will work with mixing the value of the color in a neutral gray & add it to the color…..This will be very interesting…..(*_*)

  2. LU LOURENCO says:

    Thanks for sharing your artistic knowledge with us, it`s very important to me. God bless you for this, thank you very much!!

    1. John Morfis says:

      My Pleasure Lu! Thanks for commenting.

  3. This really helped me understand colour theory and form. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. John Morfis says:

      I am so glad May. Good luck to you and all of your painting!

  4. Thanks a lot for this useful article!!! You have explained every little struggle so true:) Thank you for sharing your experiences with us:)) My biggest problem is being patient, sometimes it’s really hard but Me like any other amateur painter should never forget that things aren’t perfect in the beginning and it definitely take time, practice and patience :))
    Good luck with your paintings

    1. John Morfis says:

      Good thoughts Zara, and even with experience and skill you will have to keep reminding yourself about this things at different levels. It’s a life-long quest!

  5. Almost 4 years after this article was written, it is still of immense use! My paintings were coming out slightly off and I didn’t know why, reading this has pointed out small changes I could make to greatly improve their quality. Thank you so much!

    1. John Morfis says:

      Thanks Kathryn, painting is a life-long pursuit. I’m still learning things 25 years later!

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