Oil Painting for Beginners - Everything You Need to Know to Get Started
Oil Painting Basics
Many people feel intimidated or overwhelmed by oil painting. They don’t know where to start, are confused about the process, or are worried about solvents and toxins - hazards that I’m happy to say can be largely avoided! The truth is you don’t need many materials to start oil painting - just a tube of paint, a brush, a painting surface, and a little patience.
The best part is, you can go at your own pace. That is why I created this step-by-step comprehensive guide. Ultimately, with a little more information, what initially feels intimidating around beginning oil painting may actually end up being its selling point.
So, read on or click on anything in the outline below if you’d like to jump ahead to a particular section:
Oil Painting Supplies
Oil Painting Process
Additional Oil Painting Resources
Oil Painting Supplies
Oil Paints and Brands
What is oil paint? The best quality oil paints are made with just two ingredients: oil, such as linseed oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, and pigment. The process of making oil paint involves grinding up a pigment, usually with machines, into a very fine consistency, and then adding oil.
The oil is what binds the pigment together into a paint. The ratio of pigment to oil is usually around 3:1 depending on the pigment. The greater the concentration of pigment, the stiffer the paint will be out of the tube.
Paint-maker Winsor and Newton created a great video showing the process of making paint, which you can watch below. They also explain why some pigments are more expensive than others:
When it comes to brands of paint, in my experience, Winsor and Newton is consistent, reliable, and affordable. Their Artists' Oil Colour line is my go-to for both representational and abstract oil paintings along with Michael Harding's Artists Oil Colors, which is also very consistent but more expensive.
Winsor and Newton also make a student-grade line called Winton, which is not meant for professional artists but can be fine for beginners. Student-grade oil paints in general are less expensive than professional-grade oil paints, but for good reasons. Student-grade oil paints use less pigment and will often contain other fillers, binders, and driers, which reduce the overall vibrancy and quality of the paint.
My philosophy is - you never know when you’re going to paint something you’d like to last, so why not use the highest quality supplies that you can afford?
Between Michael Harding's Artists Oil Paints and Winsor and Newton Artists' Oil Colours, I find that I am able to create a complete and wonderfully vivid palette. Formulas vary between manufacturers and you may prefer working with one over another or notice different results with the same pigments. Both of these lines are considered to have a more "buttery" consistency than other lines (i.e. have a higher ratio of oil to pigment).
It's worth it to research and test out different lines of artist's oil paint to figure out what you like and which line or lines suit the way that you paint.
Other lines to look at include:
- Blue Ridge Oil Paint
- Daniel Smith
- M. Graham
- Old Holland
- Schmincke Mussini
When you're looking around, keep in mind that more expensive does not necessarily mean superior quality when it comes to artist lines of oil paints. All artist lines are meant to be professional-grade so it's more about your preferences.
Non-Traditional Oil Paints
Depending on your situation or time constraints, non-traditional oil paints may be a good option.
Advancements in oil paint technology have allowed for new formulas to be developed beyond the standard oil-and-pigment combination, including water-soluble oil paints and alkyd oil paints.
Water-soluble oil paints are made with modified oils. They behave like traditional oils except water can be used to thin the paint and all that’s needed to clean paint brushes is soap and water.
One of the most interesting things about water-soluble oils is that you can create watercolor-like effects and semi-transparent layers with ease. For example, I created a batik effect by dripping wax on a still-wet layer of paint. Once the paint and wax were both dry I carefully scraped the wax off and then applied more layers of paint:
Alkyd oil paints are made with polymerized oil. When mixed with a solvent, alkyd oils behave similarly to traditional oil paint. These paints are popular among some artists because they dry within a day or so, letting artists work faster because they can add layers sooner. Learn more and purchase alkyd oils here.
Creating a Color Palette
Example of a paint palette (image source). Many artists like to use a wood palette with a hole like the one above to put their thumb through. Other artists will use a piece of glass with tape on the edges. Some will even use a piece of foam core. This is my favorite paint palette, which is made by John Pike. I like it because it is easy to clean, doesn’t stain, and has a lid, which will cover your paints and prevent them from drying prematurely. I put mine on a table or small caddy beside whatever painting I’m working on.
Palette refers to the flat surface that you put blobs of paint onto and use to mix your paints. Palette also refers to the set of colors that you have chosen to work with. This is called your color palette.
When it comes to oil painting for beginners, you can start with a basic color palette consisting of red, yellow, and blue (the primary colors), white, and black.
However, you will get a wider range of colors if you include a couple of extra paints such as Burnt Umber and Raw Sienna.
Some artists will also suggest including a “warm red” and a “cool red,” a “warm blue” and a “cool blue,” and so on, in order to enhance a sense of distance or dimension in their word (learn more about using “color temperature” in painting here). There are countless choices.
I think it’s worthwhile to explore different hues and decide for yourself what colors you want to use. After all, having your own special blend of colors will make your work feel more cohesive and be more recognizable (i.e. "that must be a so-and-so painting!").
With that said, I’ve created a list of lightfast (Level I, which is the highest rating) and durable paints, which you can access and download as a PDF here.
There are over 100 colors listed and you won’t need all of them but from that list you can create your own unique palette. To simplify things, I’ve also created a couple of example palettes below. The first one is for anyone looking for a basic set of colors to get started with. The second lists the paints currently on my palette.
Example Palette #1
Limited or beginner’s palette with just 8 colors:
- Burnt Umber (PBr7)
- Cadmium Red Medium* (PR108)
- Cadmium Yellow Medium (PY35)
- Ivory Black (PBk9)
- Quinacridone Magenta (PR122)
- Raw Sienna (PY42 and PY43)
- Titanium White (PW6)
- Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
Example Palette #2
The 14 colors currently on my palette:
- Burnt Sienna (PR101)
- Burnt Umber (PBr7)
- Cadmium Red Deep* (PR108)
- Cadmium Red Scarlet* (PR108)
- Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35 and PO20)
- Cadmium Yellow Pale (PY35)
- Ivory Black (PBk9)
- Naples Yellow Light (PY138, PO62, and PW6)
- Permanent Green Light (PY74, PG7, and PW6)
- Prussian Green (PB15 and PY110)
- Quinacridone Magenta (PR122)
- Raw Sienna (PY42 and PY43)
- Titanium White (PW6)
- Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
Example #1 as a PDF
Example #2 as a PDF
I’ve listed the pigment codes next to the colors because manufacturers won’t always use the same pigments for paints with the same name. This is important because not all pigments have the same permanence or lightfastness.
Pigments to avoid include Alizarin Crimson (PR83) and Zinc White (PW4). PR83 has inferior lightfastness and will start fading within a decade or two while some research suggests PW4 is prone to delamination and cracking over time. Alternatives for these could be Cadmium Red Deep (PR108) or Winsor Red Deep (PR149) and Titanium White (PW6), respectively.
Learn about terms such as lightfastness and permanence here.
Learn more about how to read a paint label here.
*A note on Cadmium: in general, the pigments used in paints - whether you're using watercolor, acrylics, or oils - are all the same. Oil paint is not more dangerous than other types of artist's paints. When it comes to cadmium: "Cadmium itself is a heavy metal and is toxic but cadmium pigments are not classified as dangerous for use... The level of soluble cadmium in the pigments is so low that no hazard warnings are needed and they pose no greater risk after swallowing or breathing in than other pigment types. Cadmium pigments are restricted for certain applications but this restriction does not apply to artists’ colours." (Source)
Oil Paint Brushes and Tools
Some artists prefer to use natural animal hair or bristle brushes, such as hog hair, because you can “load” them with a lot of paint and the strokes create a textured, more traditional look. If you are interested in painting in this style, a great line to get started with is Blick.
One of the downsides of animal hair brushes is that they don't maintain their tips, especially in smaller-size brushes. Animal hair brushes also tend to shed more hair into your work. That said, there are some methods that help these brushes last and keep their shape. For example, some artists use a small amount of hair gel to shape their brushes. Others use Brush Shaper.
For capturing small details, I prefer synthetic brushes and Silverwhite is the brand that I find myself coming back to. These brushes are not very expensive and have lasted me a long time. The smaller round brushes in particular have been superior to other brands.
For beginners, a simple set of round brushes is a fine place to start.
The palette knife is another tool that some artists use. Palette knives are often used to create a thick texture sometimes referred to as impasto technique. Below you can watch a video of French artist Christian Jequel using palette knives to make a landscape painting:
Look up “palette knives and oil painting” on YouTube if you’d like to see how different artists use these tools. If you’d like to try one or two out, Blick makes a great basic line of palette knives.
Canvases and Panels
You can use a variety of surfaces for oil painting. Most artists use stretched canvas and below I outline the best canvases to use based on budget:
Best of the affordable canvases: Blick Studio cotton canvases and Blick Premier cotton canvases. These canvases have some texture and are great for acrylic paint, heavier applications of mediums, and abstract pieces. The canvases are also back-stapled to the frames, which makes it easy to remove if re-framing is ever needed in the future. The Premier canvases are going to be a heavier weight and higher quality than the Studio canvases, and more expensive. So, if you're just starting out, go ahead and get the studio canvases.
Best of the middle-priced canvases: Masterpiece Tahoe canvases. The surface of these cotton canvases is smoother, which is perfect for more realistic pieces with finer details. The construction of these canvases is extremely sturdy and like the Blick Studio and Premier canvases, the Tahoe canvases are back-stapled to the frames.
Best of the expensive canvases: Masterpiece Elite Heavyweight Oil Primed Linen canvases. These canvases are similarly constructed to the Tahoe and Carmel canvases but are made with linen rather than cotton. Linen - especially Belgian linen - is more expensive than cotton and some artists prefer linen for its greater historical durability. Linen is made from flax fibers, which are longer, stronger, and more flexible than cotton fibers and have more natural oil in them, making them less prone to damage from humidity. Combined with modern sizes and priming, however, the difference between linen and cotton is apparently minimal. That said, the Elite canvases are about twice the price of the Tahoe canvases. There is also an acrylic-primed version of this canvas which is suitable for both acrylic and oil paint (oil primed is only suitable for oil paint). If you are looking for a very smooth linen canvas surface of the highest quality, check out the Masterpiece Elite Portrait Smooth Linen canvases. These are available in acrylic-primed and oil-primed versions as well.
Regardless of how much a canvas costs, be sure to look at how each of the 4 sides of the canvas rests on the ground to make sure none of the sides are bending or warping. Also, lay the canvas flat on the ground to make sure none of the corners stick up. If it isn't laying flat on the ground, it isn't going to lay flat on the wall.
You can also construct your own canvases. Masterpiece sells individual stretcher bars and cross braces, so for a lower price, you can assemble their frames and purchase canvas separately and stretch it yourself.
Aluminum frame canvases are used by some professional artists I know because they are strong, rarely warp, and lightweight. With a linen canvas, they can be about as expensive as the Masterpiece Elite Heavyweight Linen canvases. Some artists feel the expense is well worth it. You can learn more about aluminum frame canvases here and mix and match aluminum stretcher bars here if you wish to construct your own.
Alternative painting surfaces include panels that are free of acid and that are structurally sound include hardboards, panels, and canvas mounted on panels. One of the upsides of using panels is that they are flat and smooth and don't "give" when you rest your hand on them. Panels are less flexible than canvases, which means over time the paint itself is less likely to crack due to movement. However, one of the downsides of panels is that because they are less flexible than canvases they are more easily damaged when bumped. Consider getting a small board or panel to see if you prefer painting on them over stretched canvas.
For boards, Ampersand Gessobord is a good choice.
For hardwood panels, I’d recommend Blick Premier Wood Panels.
For canvas panels, take a look at Masterpiece Ventura Hardcore Pro Canvas Panels.
Note that prior to painting on unprimed hardboard or panels, such as the Blick Premier Wood Panels, you must seal and gesso all sides of it in order to increase moisture resistance and even out the tension caused by the application of paint. If you are using acrylic gesso such as Golden Gesso and plan to paint with oils, do at least three coats of gesso.
In this video, I demonstrate how to prepare a panel for oil painting:
Oil Painting Process
Color Mixing and Color Theory
Reds, oranges, and yellows are usually considered “warm colors” while greens, blues, and purples are usually considered “cool colors.” However, certain pigments are considered to have “warm temperatures” even if they are cool colors or “cool temperatures” even if they are warm colors. Some artists will work with warm palettes while others will work with cool palettes while some will work with both.
Below is an example of how to put colors on your palette and mix them:
Creating a Composition
Creating a composition in painting involves arranging the elements of a painting in a way that is visually pleasing and effectively communicates what you are trying to paint. Here are some tips for creating an engaging composition:
- Establish a focal point. The focal point or focus is the area of the painting that draws the viewer's attention and is the most important part of the painting. Decide what the focal point of your painting will be and place it in a prominent position.
- Consider the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a basic principle of composition that involves dividing the canvas into thirds both vertically and horizontally, and placing the important elements - such as the focus - of the painting along those lines. This creates a sense of balance and harmony in the painting.
- Create depth. Use overlapping elements, atmospheric perspective (if painting landscapes), scale, and areas of shadow and light to create a sense of depth in your painting.
- Use contrast. Contrast is an important tool for creating visual interest in a painting. Contrast can be achieved through the use of light and dark values, complementary colors, or contrasting textures.
- Experiment with different compositions. Don't be afraid to test out different compositions before deciding to move ahead with one of them. Try creating a few sketches or thumbnail drawings to see which composition is most appealing to you.
A very simple composition to start out with would be a still life. A still life is a painting study of inanimate objects, such as fruits or vegetables in a bowl on a table or other objects arranged together. Place yourself at a desk or at an easel so that your still life is in view, put some small blobs of paint on your palette, and then paint away! Take care to notice where the lightest parts of your composition are and the darkest parts. If you don't like something that you painted, scrape it off with a palette knife and try again.
For more guidance around compositions, check out this article.
Oil Painting Techniques
Having an understanding of basic painting techniques will offer you more ability to express yourself in your paintings. Below are several techniques you might use when you paint:
- Underpainting: this is the first layer of your painting and functions as the foundational layer that everything else is built on. Although there is no set way to do an underpainting, many artists will make basic outlines and fill in values with one color that has been diluted with paint thinner. In other words, the underpainting is often a monochromatic guide for the artist to then add color, light, shadow, and detail.
- Dabbing: this technique involves lightly blotting paint onto your painting surface with a hog hair bristle brush (or other stiff brush). Many artists use this technique for impressionistic leaves or water.
- Gestural: this is a very expressive technique that allows the artist some spontaneity. When an artist is painting in a gestural way, they are using wide sweeping movements with their brush to create more rhythmic and dramatic marks in their painting.
- Sgraffito: this technique refers to scratching through a layer or layers of paint with the pointed end of a paintbrush or a palette knife to reveal something else, either a color from a previous layer or perhaps creating a pattern or shapes with the scratching.
There are many techniques listed here on Wikipedia if you’d like to discover more methods of painting.
The oil painting style Alla Prima (Italian for “at once”) refers to adding wet paint to wet paint. Instead of letting one layer dry and then painting another layer on top, painting Alla Prima style essentially means completing a painting in one sitting. In addition to the video below, which features artist Chris Fornataro painting a still life of an apple, you can see some great examples along with further instructions here.
Glazing with Oil Paint
Glazing is a method that can be used in the final layers of a painting to add depth and shadow. Typically, a little medium is added to oil paint to make it semi-transparent, which is then selectively painted over areas of a piece.
Below is a demo by artist Andrew Tischler outlining how to glaze with oil paint:
Varnishing Your Painting
When you are completely finished with your painting and it has dried, you may then add a layer or two of varnish. Not only does varnishing saturate the colors in your painting, it protects your painting from dirt, dust, and sunlight to some degree. My favorite varnish is Gamvar.
This is a superb varnish that can be removed with Gamsol if needed. It is available in Matte, Satin (aka semi-gloss), and Gloss. Some artists prefer Gloss to deepen colors and if a less glossy look is desired will use additional dry brushes to "paint" over the varnish once it's applied, which will absorb excess varnish. I personally prefer using the satin.
Note: if you have applied thick layers of oil paint, it may take months for your painting to dry.
Clean-Up and Studio Safety
Working in a well ventilated area is recommended. Set up your workspace with a fan that blows air away from where you’re working toward an open door or window in order to keep air moving. Air flow is less of an issue if you are not using solvents.
I mainly use Turpenoid Natural to clean my paint palette and brushes. To clean my palette, I’ll use a small amount of Turpenoid Natural on a paper towel to pick up any excess paint. To clean my brushes, I’ll put a bit of Turpenoid Natural on a paper towel then gently move my brush back and forth getting as much excess paint off as I can, then I’ll use warm water and Masters Brush Cleaner to remove the remaining paint.
It’s a good idea to get a designated oily metal trash can to dispose of rags or paper towels that are saturated with oil and oil paint. If you wipe excess paint on cloth or paper towel then this is a must because there is a small chance that these can spontaneously ignite and a specially designed trash can will keep fire contained.
Pigments in their raw powder form (i.e. prior to being blended with linseed oil or another binder) generally pose a much greater health risk than paint from a tube. Paint from a tube that has been blended means there is next to no chance of inhaling pigment, and if you wear gloves and keep your studio clean there is also very little chance of ingesting pigment. Sanding artwork can create dust, however, and precautions such as wearing an N100 mask (aka particulate respirator) along with gloves will reduce the risk of inhaling and ingesting dust.
Some paint thinners are toxic. Exposure to the vapors of turpentine and mineral spirits (even odorless ones) should be limited or avoided altogether. Examples of non-toxic options to thin paint include the seed oils mentioned earlier or other mediums that specifically state “non-toxic” on the label, such as Gamblin’s Solvent-Free Fluid.
All of this said, paint, thinners, and mediums etc. should always be out of reach of children and animals! It's also a good idea to wear gloves while painting and keep food out of your painting area.
Oil Painting Resources
Online Oil Painting Tips and Tutorials
Independent local art stores typically have knowledgeable employees whom you can ask specific questions with regard to what materials will help you create the art that you envision.
YouTube Channels with great instruction and oil painting tips at no cost include:
Paid online drawing and painting fundamentals courses include:
Many art supply manufacturers also provide free guides, tips, and educational links. For example:
In-Person Oil Painting Classes
For in-person instruction, ateliers tend to be less expensive than universities and provide more technical instruction whereas university courses usually focus more on theory. Some individual artists, such as Joe Paquet, offer mentoring, teach community classes or remote lessons, and may offer one-on-one instruction. Try searching for “oil painting classes near me” on Google or your favorite search engine and see what pops up.
Oil Paint Technical Information
When in doubt, check out manufacturer websites directly for technical information about the paints and materials that you work with. Often, there is a phone number listed somewhere on your painting supplies that you can call.
Resources for Further Learning
- The Painter’s Handbook by Mark David Gottsegen is perhaps the most useful all-around resource for learning more about painting materials and studio safety.
- Traditional Oil Painting by Virgil Elliott is considered by some to be the "painting Bible." It is a great resource for those wishing to study and learn the techniques of the Old Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Elliott also emphasizes and explains the proper use of materials in order to create lasting paintings.
- The Oil Painting Course You’ve Always Wanted by Kathleen Staiger outlines oil painting basics with guided lessons on color mixing, still life painting, landscapes, and portraits.
- Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John Carlson is considered one of the best guides to understanding value and the atmosphere’s impact on color palette.
- The Beginner’s Guide to Oil Painting by Craig Stephens would be a great choice for those interested in alla prima style painting.
I hope this article has provided a solid foundation for beginning oil painting. Mastering oil painting takes patience and practice to be sure, but even if every painting isn’t a masterpiece, you’re probably going to have a lot of fun.
If you’re interested to see a complete list of art materials and supplies needed to set up your art studio, click here.
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