Looking for some beginner oil painting tips? The following is a comprehensive oil painting tutorial which will help novices make sense of the various oil painting materials and techniques. Which thinner to use? What are mediums for? How to clean my brushes? It’s all here!
So you want to learn how to paint with oils?
It’s a worthwhile pursuit and a fairly inexpensive hobby if you keep things simple.
Bookmark this page. Go ahead… do it now before you forget.
You’re going to want to come back here from time to time. Why? There is simply too much information to digest in one sitting. You’ll need to reread parts of this oil painting lesson later on when you need a quick reference to oil painting basics!
So what is oil paint?
Perhaps you’ve been to a museum and saw that some of the artworks were labeled as “oil on canvas”. This means the artist painted oil paints on a cotton duck or linen canvas material.
Oil paint is very simple. It’s typically ground pigment (color) and vegetable oil (fluid binder). That’s it! A while back humans figured out that some oils dry to a hard, stable film. Colored pigments were then added to these drying oils to make oil paint!
It takes a while for these oils to dry but that is what makes oil painting so special. You can work with oil paints for such an extended amount of time before they dry. This is one of the reasons working in oils have become one of the most popular painting mediums of all time!
Are Oil Paints Safe?
Almost all of the commercially available oil paints sold in tubes to artists are safe to handle. Always check the labels of your paints, but most companies have gone through great lengths to ensure that the paints pose no threat to the artists using them. Just don’t eat them or inject them into your bloodstream and you should be just fine.
Honestly, about a quarter of your paints are nothing more than vegetable oil and rust. Not too scary right? But more on that later.
Oil Painting Supplies
At first glance oil painting supplies can seem quite expensive, but you can be assured that once you have the supplies you’ll get a ton of use out of them. Your initial outlay of cash will last a long time. With proper care your brushes can be used for many years and your paints will last a long time too! Let’s go over some of the basic oil painting materials you’ll need to get started…
Choosing the right brushes for oil painting can make a noticeable difference in your progress as a painter. There’s so many shapes of brushes but most that you would use for oil painting fall into three categories:
- Round – Round brushes are cylindrical-like; most have a curved tip or even a pointed tip.
- Filbert – Filbert brushes are a hybrid of a round and a flat brush. Filberts tend to be oval in shape and have a semi round tip.
- Flat – Flat brushes are rectangular in shape and have a flat tip.
Here’s another view of these three brush types. Note their differences in how they are shaped!
As if choosing a brush shape wasn’t confusing enough, brushes also come in a variety of bristle materials. You’ll find that brush bristles are generally classified as being natural (hog hair, sable, etc.) or synthetic (nylon, taklon, etc.).
Most brush manufacturers give the general advice: “Use synthetic bristles for acrylics and natural bristles for oils.” But in practice most professional oil painters use a variety of brushes.
I have found natural brushes to be most useful for oil painting when used as part of my larger brushes (1/4 inch wide and larger) while synthetic brushes perform better at smaller sizes (smaller than ¼ of an inch wide).
If you are an oil painting beginner, choose a variety of brushes and pay attention to the ones that work well for you. You’ll most likely develop likes and dislikes. Get a variety of sizes, shapes and various bristle materials to see what you prefer.
The best oil paints are the ones you use regularly and get good results with!
Most companies offer, at their core, a similar range of oil paint colors. What’s really fascinating is that many of these same colors have been around for hundreds of years. Most “earth colors” which are the brownish-yellows, oranges, and reds were staple colors in old master palettes and beyond. These are inorganic pigments that are naturally occurring on earth. People would mine these colors and refine them until they could be used as suitable pigments. Now we incorporate a little more science into the manufacturing process but at their basic level most of these earth colors are subtle varieties of iron oxides. Yes you are painting with rust!
Modern chemistry has opened up the oil painter’s palette to a far greater gamut of colors, especially with widespread use of organic pigments. Now we have a multitude of colors that are so incredibly saturated in color.
But all these options have made choosing oil painting colors and learning to paint even more confusing. It would be wise to get to know the pigment notation on the backs of each tube. You don’t have to memorize this information, but start paying attention to it. The reason for this is many manufacturers combine pigments or change names to sell consumers a larger selection of colors. Paying attention to the pigment notation on the backs of each tube will help you avoid buying duplicate colors or shun colors that have poor quality pigments in them.
When starting out your oil paint colors should consist of a handful of earth colors (yellow through red), enough saturated colors to get each hue of the color wheel (think ROYGBIV) and white/black.
Don’t think that there is any magic color that will make you paint better, because there isn’t.
Unless you are going to stretch and prepare your own canvases, oil painting really doesn’t require many tools. Besides your tubes of paint here’s a quick list of oil painting tools you’ll need to get started:
- Brushes – with bristles sturdy enough to push around paint
- Palette knife – for mixing paint
- Palette – a flat surface for holding and mixing your paints
- Rags or Paper Towels
- Easel – not completely necessary but helpful
You can get started with disposable palette paper, but as you gain experience you’ll want to experiment with some of the more permanent palette setups that are frequently used by serious painters. This can include a handheld wooden palette, or even a large glass palette that sits flat on a table. Keep it simple to start.
There’s a great amount of discussion regarding oil painting primers. If you are working on a ready-made canvas or panel, you have nothing to worry about. The surface has already been primed.
The two main primers widely used in oil painting are acrylic based gesso, and oil-based primer.
If you are new to oil painting, just stick to using pre-made painting surfaces (canvas or panels). You can experiment with painting surfaces later on when you are experienced enough to tell the differences.
Oil Painting Techniques
There’s a bunch of oil painting techniques that artists use to create a wide range of oil painting styles. The good news is you don’t need to know them all. In fact, there are only a few techniques that you should attempt to employ right now as a beginner. You definitely need to know how to mix your paints. You also need to know how to get your paintings started and make corrective adjustments to your painting while in progress. Not to worry, these techniques will be covered shortly.
Painting is nothing more than pushing paint around, usually with brushes but occasionally with a palette knife, rag or even a finger! You can create amazing paintings simply by pushing around oil paint with your brushes and employing little else.
Oil paint is very thick and requires quite an effort to brush out. While it’s best to get accustomed to the high viscosity of paint you can also thin your paints out slightly to aid in the process.
Here are some oil painting techniques for beginners:
Mixing Oil Paints
Avoid mixing large quantities of paint with your brushes. Not only will this not thoroughly mix the colors together but will mangle the nice shape of your brushes decreasing their useful lifespan dramatically. To mix your oil paints you’ll want to use a metal palette knife.
The palette knife will keep you in absolute control of the paint mixing process. You’ll be able to thoroughly mix your colors and move them around your palette at your command! Want a demonstration on how to mix oil paint? Check out this video on using a palette knife to mix your paints:
Traditionally, oil painters have used oil paint washes to get their paintings started. A wash is simply oil paint that is diluted with thinner. (see thinners below) A wash allows you to quickly block-in in your color to establish the basic colors of a painting. This is great way to cover up the blinding white of a pure, untouched canvas quickly!
Some experienced artists even use the oil paint washes as the initial “drawing” of their composition. They will use a smaller brush like a pencil and draw out their composition on canvas. This in not for the faint of heart and takes much guts and skill to begin this way. I only mention it because you will more than likely encounter painters starting their paintings with no pencil or charcoal work at all… just washes.
Glazing is the process of painting a translucent layer of oil paint over a previously dry layer of oil paint. It’s a great oil painting method for altering colors without having to completely repaint an area. This indirect method of painting requires the artist to think in terms of layers of paint. Each glaze layer results in the painting’s colors becoming more accurate and the painting as a whole closer to finished.
To glaze an oil painting you must first mix up a glaze. A glaze is nothing more than your oil paint (color) and a medium (extender). The medium extends the paint making it more transparent. This is the most important aspect of a glaze. If the glaze does not allow the layer underneath to show you are not glazing.
You can glaze using just about any of the mediums that are made to mix with oil paints. From linseed oil, to the fancy alkyd concoctions, as long as your paint is translucent you can practice glazing over your oil painting layers.
Here’s a video demonstrating the subtle but important differences between a wash and a glaze:
When working on oil paintings, especially complicated ones with many details, you’ll rarely be able to finish the painting in one sitting. This forces you to work on the painting over the course of days or even many weeks. While working on a long-term painting you’ll most likely encounter the need to paint on top of a dried layer of oil paint. While you can simply paint on top of the previous layer with no problems, the new layer of paint won’t be easily blended into the dry layers of paint underneath. This is where oiling out is very helpful.
By laying down a tiny amount of oil medium first, the new layer of paint can be painted into this wet layer. The wet layer acts as a buffer between the previous, dry layer and the new wet layer of oil paint. You’ll be able to push the paint around and soften your edges making the two layers more seamless.
Oiling out is also helpful for restoring the color loss that occurs when some colors become “sunken in”.
What is sunken in oil paint?
After oil paint dries, some colors will lose their saturation and appear “dead”. Oiling out will restore some luster to the dry, sunken in paint and therefor restore its color saturation. This allows the artist to make more accurate judgements about the colors of the dry paint.
Oil Paint Drying Time
Compared to water-based paints, oils take much longer to dry. How long an oil painting takes to dry is determined by many factors including atmospheric conditions, the paint body itself, and any thinners or mediums added to the paint.
In general oils are slow to dry!
You can expect pure oil paint, taken straight from the tube, to dry to the touch in 1-3 days. This would be the case under normal atmospheric conditions and considering the paint is brushed on relatively thin (less than a 1/16 of an inch).
You may have heard that oil paint takes months or even years to dry. While this is mostly true, that doesn’t mean you have to wait that long to declare a painting finished which can be handled or hung on a wall. You see, oil paint generally dries from the outside in. Oil paint dries and hardens due to oxidization, not evaporation like most other water-based paints. Oil paint will first develop a “skin” and become dry to the touch. It will then continue to dry completely as it slowly oxidizes throughout the entire paint layer and as a result the paint layer hardens.
It’s the oil binder in the oil paint that makes the paint dry so slowly. Vegetable oils are mixed with pigments to form oil paint. Most often linseed oil is used but you’ll sometimes come across paints made with safflower oil, poppy seed oil and even walnut oil. Each has their own drying times, but rest assured, they are all quite slow to dry!
Mixing thinner into your oil paint will make it dry faster. Thinner will make paint runnier, not yielding much textural brushwork. This is usually considered a benefit when adhering to classic oil painting traditions such as working in layers. Most oil painters have embraced the first layer of paint as a way to quickly establish a painting and thinning out one’s paint a wee bit has always been the way to do this.
As a general rule of thumb traditional oil painters use more thinner at the start of a painting (the first layer). They then decrease the amount of thinner they use with each subsequent layer of paint. This is known as the “fat over lean” principle.
Fat Over Lean
Consider the oil in oil paint to be a fat. When thinner is added to paint it becomes leaner. The fat over lean principle recommends painters to use less thinner in any new layers of paint. So if working in layers of paint each layer should be slightly fattier when compared to the previous layer. This is to ensure that the painting ages gracefully over time. Since oil paint dries so slowly and becomes brittle with time we have realized that using really thinned out paint on top of thicker layers of non-thinned out paint can cause some problems with paintings later on.
If you want to thin out your paint with a solvent (OMS, gamsol, turps, etc.) just remember not to use too much and to decrease the amount you use with each new layer. If you don’t work in multiple layers you have very little to worry about.
To be honest, don’t be paralyzed by the fat over lean principle. It’s more important to keep practicing painting. Your knowledge and skill at paint application can increase along with your ability to render pictures!
Modern times have resulted in diverse needs and therefor different requirements from one’s paints.
Oil painters who want their paint to dry quickly but retain thick brushwork sometimes resort to mixing their paints with an alkyd medium. There’s a variety of alkyd mediums now available on the market and they all drastically reduce the drying time of oil paint. More about alkyd oil painting mediums below.
How Long Does it Take for Oil Paint to Dry?
Without adding anything, oil paint can be dried faster! Painting in thinner layers will ensure that an oil painting dries faster. Letting your painting dry in a warm, dry, environment with plenty of airflow will also promote drying.
Want to slow down the drying of your paints on your palette?
Some oil painters put their palette in the freezer overnight if they want to reuse the same paints overnight from day to day! The cold from the freezer slows down the oxidization of the oils in the paint. Remember that oil paint dries via oxidization.
Oil Painting Mediums
Not long into your oil painting endeavors you’ll start to wonder about the various oil painting additives. You’ll undoubtedly come across a slew of oil painting mediums at the art store. Engaging in online discussions will bring to light all kinds of fanciful recipes for paint mediums. It’s best to keep a cool head and not buy into somebody else’s exclamations that they are using the holy grail of oil painting mediums. In fact, the less you add to your paint the better. I know conservators (the folks whom restore paintings) will also agree.
The main reason for mixing a medium into your oil paints is so you can slightly thin out your paints but retain the oiliness. Contrast this with washes that are made using a paint thinner. The higher the ratio of oil to paint the more transparent the paint becomes.
If you are truly yearning to learn how to oil paint, playing mad scientist with a box full of mediums is only going to get in the way of your progress. Stick with a single medium for several paintings. Use it only when you need your oil paint to be thinned slightly. Over time you can experiment with another medium but remember not to overdo it.
The two main oil painting mediums you’ll encounter are oil-based and alkyd-based.
The oils used to make paint are simply vegetable oils that are known to dry to a hard film and mix well with pigments. Not all vegetable oils exhibit these favorable properties so don’t go mixing olive oil or anything else you have in your kitchen pantry into your paints. These select, artist-grade vegetable oils can be modified so that they will age better. Refined linseed oil is a good example of this.
Often manufacturers will purify and modify the PH level of the linseed oil so that your painting will stay in better shape over the years. It’s best to use these modified oils that are designed specifically for oil painting rather than using a less refined oil that you pick up at the hardware store. In other words, it’s best to avoid that quart can of linseed oil you have sitting in the garage, at least for your fine art painting purposes!
Modern chemistry has introduced a much wider range of oil painting mediums. The widespread production of alkyd painting mediums has had a drastic impact on painting methods and moreover the drying time expected from an oil paint.
Alkyd mediums by in large drastically reduce the drying time of an oil paint film. If you are in a rush and want your thick, luscious paint strokes to dry fast you’ll probably benefit from adding a small amount of an alkyd medium to your oil paint. By mixing in the medium even your heaviest of brush strokes will most likely develop a dry skin in less than a day. Compare this to days or even weeks of drying time if the alkyd medium wasn’t added. Knowing the ever growing impatience of modern man and you can see why alkyds have become so popular!
Almost all of the major oil paint developers have their own line of alkyd mediums. The two most popular being Winsor & Newton’s “Liquin” and Gamblin’s “Galkyd” or “Neo Megilp”. Like opportunistic directors of a successful T.V. show these paint developers have produced a wild assortment of spinoff characters based on the success of their original alkyd medium. This includes alkyd mediums in gel form, liquid form, etc.
Using a tiny bit of an alkyd medium (liquin, galkyd, etc…) is not such a bad idea when you are starting out. It will allow you to paint more often because your painting will usually dry overnight. Use a minimum amount of these painting mediums and stick to a single medium per painting.
Less is more when it comes to paint additives.
One of the best oil painting tips one can receive is to focus your attention on actually painting better rather than stocking up on the latest painting mediums and gadgets.
Oil Paint Thinner
Thinning oil paint is necessary if you every want your paint to have more flow and is vital for cleaning up your brushes at the end of a painting session.
An oil paint thinner makes the paint more watery adding flow and transparency to the paint. You can thin your oil paint with various chemical liquids. While turpentine used to be the oil painting standard many years ago we have much safer and superior products available for our painting needs today.
You can thin oil paint with paint thinner or odorless mineral spirits (OMS) bought from a hardware store. These thinners give off harmful vapors so it’s best not to use them in small, enclosed environments. Chemistry has advanced greatly in the field of oil painting thinners. Turpenoid and Gamsol have become two of the go-to thinners for the modern artist. They are slightly more expensive but are considered far safer than traditional paint thinners.
If I had to choose my preference of oil paint thinner from most favorable to least favorable would be:
- Standard “Paint Thinner”
How To Thin Oil Paint
The best way to thin oil paint is to add small amounts of thinner to your paint on a firm palette and mix the thinner and paint together with a palette knife. You have to physically grind the paint and thinner together so you will need to apply pressure with the palette knife. Adding a few drops at a time and gradually adding more thinner when it is thoroughly mixed in will give you control and the desired viscosity of the paint. Thinning oil paints is easy once you know this technique!
Once you have thinned out a blob of oil paint so that it is a watery consistency you have created a wash. You can read about washes above to see how artists paint with them!
Most oil painters keep a couple of jars filled with thinner. This has been the most popular way of getting the color off a brush when switching to a new color. At the end of a painting session swishing around paint-filled brushes in thinner will give you a head start on cleaning your brushes. Cleaning oil painting brushes is a ton of work. But more on that later 😉
Varnishing an Oil Painting
After an oil painting is complete it is customary to varnish it. An oil painting varnish is nothing more than a clear, top-coat that sits on top of the painting acting as the final layer. It’s function is similar to the clear coat put over paint jobs on automobiles.
A painting varnish has the following benefits:
- A varnish restores any loss of color saturation. To great effect, sunken in areas of dead-looking paint can be revived back to the way they looked when the paint was wet.
- A varnish protects the actual paint from the environment. Over time dirt and atmospheric nuisances will build up on the painting’s surface. It’s better that these impurities dirty up the varnish and not the painting itself because the varnish can be removed and reapplied!
- A varnish yields a uniform luster to the painting. A final top coat of varnish will give you the choice of how glossy or how matte the overall painting should be. You have total control over the sheen-level and most of all it will all be uniform. This is awesome because oil paintings rarely dry to a uniform sheen making them look blotchy when left unvarnished.
The best vanish for oil painting is one that is easily removed. Never use a painting medium as a varnish or anything that is considered permanent. Only use a picture varnish that is meant specifically for oil paintings. Some of the bigger paint companies make excellent painting varnishes.
- Artists’ Varnish by Winsor & Newton
- Gamvar by Gamblin
These modern varnishes are very clear, resist yellowing and are quite easy to remove.
Legend has it that you have to wait a full year to varnish your oil painting. I don’t know a single artist that does this and nobody seems to have any problems. As long as your painting is dry to the touch and doesn’t have any squishy blobs of paint you should be able to varnish it with no problems.
Don’t get caught up in paint-tech-hype and best practices rhetoric. This can be paralyzing when you are starting out as an oil painter. There’s painting forums that do more harm than good, in these respects, because they paralyze their readers with fear.
How to Varnish an Oil Painting
Once your painting has dried you can varnish it. Lay your painting horizontally and make sure your work area is clean and well ventilated. Most varnishes throw off a large amount of fumes because they are made mostly of solvents.
- Thoroughly mix up the oil painting varnish (non-glossy ones separate completely).
- Apply oil varnish with a clean brush as a thin layer over the surface of the painting (do this quickly).
- Next, make several passes with no varnish in the brush. Use a crosshatching pattern with the brush making it just barely touch the painting surface. This will even out the varnish and pop most of the bubbles if there are any.
- Let the painting dry horizontally for at least a day.
Even though most modern varnishes will dry to the touch in 6 hours or less it’s best to let them fully cure for a few days before putting the artwork in a frame. If you rush it, the fresh varnish can stick to the painting frame and when you remove the frame at a later date you’ll have to pull it apart from your painting. Yikes, the varnish was there to protect your painting not ruin it!
Oil Painting Brush Cleaner
Cleaning oil paint from your brushes is notoriously difficult, but there are things you can do to make your oil painting cleanup easier.
Remember that thinner thins out your paint? That’s one of the first things that can be done to reduce your brush cleaning time. Really give those brushes a thorough cleaning in your oil painting thinner of choice. In fact, make sure you clean each brush one at a time in thinner. It will be less work with the soap and water as a result.
Clean Up Tips
Wiping all visible hunks of paint with rags or paper towels will also make a big difference in your clean up. Run your brushes through several rags before and during your cleanup attempts with thinner.
Using several containers filled with thinner will make the cleaning process even more efficient! Fill two jars with solvent and use one as your first thinner rinse and the other as your second thinner rinse. This will remove the overwhelming majority of the oil paint from your brushes. Work sequentially from container #1 to container #2, one brush at a time and wiping into rags. (rags covered in thinner and oil paint are combustible and need to be disposed of properly!)
So you’ve cleaned the oil paint off with thinner… now what?
The last little bit of oil paint can be removed with soap and water. In striving for efficiency you can use soap designed for removing oil.
Using Soap & Water
Not all soaps are created equally. Some soaps are very aggressive at breaking down oil and are marketed as such. These types of soaps are always much better at cleaning oil paint from your brushes.
To clean paint from brushes with soap and water do this:
- Rinse any paint / solvent out of the bristles with warm water
- Wipe brush against soap bar so that the bristles become filled with soap
- In the palm of your hand work brush back and forth building up a lather
- Rinse out all the soap and paint by squeezing the bristles between your fingernails while under running water
- Repeat steps 2-5 until no more paint is visible
Look closely for oily bubbles. When the brush is clean, you won’t see any. If the brush had much white paint in it, determining if it is clean is tricky.
Once clear of oil paint, dry your brushes just a little, but not completely. You actually want your recently washed brushes to be damp so that you can reshape them back to their original form. Hanging brushes to dry, bristle down, is ideal but laying them flat on a table is okay too.
It can be tricky to remove all the paint from a brush, but it is a worthwhile effort. If oil paint does dry in the bristles the brush is ruined. They do sell brush restoring chemicals, but your brush will never be the same as it was. Its shape and performance will be lost forever so do take the time to properly clean your brushes!
Drying / Storing Brushes
Avoid standing your brushes up in a container. That small amount of moisture left in the bristles can collect in the ferrule (the metal part) and will eventually soak into the wooden handle. This inevitably swells the wooden handle and cracks the varnish. This varnish will then flake off and the ferrule will loosen up. There’s nothing worse than attempting to paint with brush tips that wiggle or fall off.
Learning how to use oil paints can be difficult enough, make sure you take good care of your brushes and they’ll give you many hours of enjoyment rather than frustration!
I tried not to be too technical and hope things were clear to you. I really just want you to get started. The biggest problem I see with folks getting into the fine sport of oil painting is information overload and strong opinions from arm-chair, wannabe-conservator, weekend-renaissance, hair-splitters. The internet has exacerbated the problem to an exponential degree.
There’s way too many mediocre painters whom spend their hours bickering back and forth on social media and in painting forums over oil painting best practices. These people are annoying and distracting to your painting education. These ass-clowns seem to genuinely love endlessly arguing over minutia.
Please stop reading this and everything else right now. Go make a couple of paintings. Then, come back and review this material again. You’ll pick up some nuanced advice you weren’t ready for the first time around.