The beauty of oil painting lies in its flexibility and its ability to produce a depth of color.
It is also slow to dry, meaning that if you wanted to paint with it, you can work with it a lot longer than other types of paint.
In this guide, we’ll be discussing how to start oil painting.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
Table of Contents
- What is an Oil Painting?
- Are Oil Paints for Beginners?
- Why is Oil Painting Popular?
- What Oil Paints Should You Start With?
- How Do You Start Your First Oil Painting?
- 10 Tips to Start Oil Painting
What is an Oil Painting?
The origins of oil painting date back to the 7th century BCE, when anonymous artists used oil possibly from walnuts or poppies to decorate an ancient cave complex in Afghanistan.
Its first examples in Europe date from the 11th century, but it was not made widely popular until three or four centuries later when the techniques of mixing color pigments with various oils were perfected.
The medium of oil paint itself consists of these colored pigments suspended in drying oils.
This is why it is known as a particularly difficult medium, as it is thick and viscous, like a smooth, buttery paste.
However, one of the benefits of oil painting is that it is very slow to dry, so mistakes can be blended or fixed with ample time.
Generally, these oil paints are applied to stretched canvas using either a brush or, in some cases, a painting knife.
Because of the absorbency of the canvas material, a primer is usually applied before the oil paint to create a smooth, non-porous surface.
Most oil paintings are finished with a coat of varnish, to protect the natural oils from decay by air, abrasions, or dirt.
Are Oil Paints for Beginners?
Although most people associate oil painting with older, traditional types of art, the medium is actually incredibly rich and versatile, and can easily be used by artists with a range of experience levels.
All it takes is a little bit of research, some careful preparation, and a bit of courage to master this technique, which yields incredible results.
Why is Oil Painting Popular?
Oil has been used by many artists for centuries because of its versatility, its smooth application, and most importantly, the visual results it presents.
Oil paints are easily blended with one another, which makes subtle variations in color effortless to achieve. It also offers artists a better ability to create details of light and shadow.
The glossy, intense color richness of oil paints is appealing to artists who want to capture the most vivid and realistic reproductions of nature, human life, and their imagination.
This is why oil paints continue to be used by so many artists, and why their appeal still holds strong today.
What Oil Paints Should You Start With?
Oil paints can be very expensive, costing upwards of $40 for a 37ml tube of high-quality paint (at the time of this posting).
Unless your budget is limitless, you may want to start with cheaper or more affordable paints, so you can experiment with different colors, techniques, and brands without feeling like you’re wasting a lot of money.
Different brands may also make different colors that you prefer – for example, one brand may make a particular shade of red that suits your needs, but a different brand may have the best shade of blue to paint your sky.
It is best to test and experiment, so using cheaper tubes at first can help you find the materials that you prefer working with. One popular brand is Winsor & Newton.
How Do You Start Your First Oil Painting?
Once you are familiar with the medium of oil painting, and you have chosen the paints you want to use, follow the ten steps below to start your first oil painting.
Like with any new skill, the most important step is simply to start.
10 Tips to Start Oil Painting
1. Set Up Your Environment For Success
The pigments in oil paint often contain hazardous chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin, so it would be a good idea to wear protective gloves and clothing.
The fumes can also be toxic and cause dizziness or fainting, so it is best to work somewhere with good ventilation – an open window, door, or even outside.
2. Gather Your Materials
Taking the recommendations from the section above in this article, you will want to take these oil paints, as well as a selection of brushes, rags, a palette to mix your colors on, and support or easel you want to paint on.
Bring them into your art studio or your dedicated work space so you can take inventory of what you have.
Of course, on this support you can set up the canvas you are going to use for the painting. You will also need primer and may want to use turpentine to thin out the oils you are using.
3. Prime Your Canvas
To do this, many artists use a material called acrylic gesso, which is a thick white primer.
You can also use rabbit-skin glue, which dries clear, depending on what effect you want to achieve.
A white primer will give a lighter, more brilliant finish overall, while a clear surface to start from will give the colors more of their true quality.
4. Limit Your Palette
It can be overwhelming, when you first start using oil paints, to choose the colors you think you will need, or want.
You may be faced with an entire wall, even an entire store, of different shades, and be clueless about where to begin.
It is better to start with less, rather than more, as you can always mix colors using your palette, or come back and buy more later.
5. Choose Your Subject
It is best to select something you are interested in painting, as you will likely be spending a long time looking at it and considering how best to portray your subject on the canvas.
It is also a good idea to choose something with some variety, but nothing too complex.
Nature is a popular subject because it uses organic lines and plenty of colors, while painting buildings in oil may pose more of a challenge, because of the perspective and ratio that it requires to get it right.
Of course, it all depends on the type of painting you want to do, so make sure your subject aligns with the finished outcome you want to achieve.
6. Practice With a Palette Knife
Instead of starting out with a brush, it is recommended to try and create your work with a palette knife first.
A palette knife is made from a thin steel blade fixed onto a wooden handle and can come in many different shapes and sizes.
A good model to start with is a two to three-inch flexible blade, with a simple teardrop shape.
Rather than focusing on ‘drawing’ in oil paint with a brush, the palette knife will encourage you to think of creating shapes with color instead of lines.
7. Mix your colours
Using a palette to mix colors is an easy way to maintain continuity throughout the paintings.
You can come back to the same color you used in a different part of the canvas, without having to try and achieve an exact color match again.
It also means you use less paint from the tube, as you can start with a small amount on the palette, and add more as you need.
Conveniently, oil paint is extremely slow to dry, so you don’t need to worry about using up all the paint on your palette before it goes to waste.
8. Layer Your Paint
Oil painting is one of the best mediums for creating layers. Often, artists will start with a base layer that lays the groundwork for the rest of the image.
It is easier to create layers on the canvas once the base layer is dry, rather than painting into wet paint, but again, it depends on the effect you want to achieve.
It is much easier to blend colors, light, and shadow with wet-on-wet paint, so it is good to experiment with different techniques as you go.
9. Have fun!
The purpose of painting is to express yourself and have a creative outlet for your ideas.
Rather than focusing on producing something perfect and polished, it is more beneficial, especially while you are experimenting and developing your skills in oil painting, to relax and focus more on how you feel while you are painting.
If something doesn’t work out, mistakes can easily be painted over, blended out, or wiped off with a rag before the paint dries – which takes a long time.
The painting should be an expression of you, but it could also incorporate inspiration from other oil paintings you have seen, and love.
10. Varnish Your Work
Once you’re happy with your masterpiece, it is important to add a finishing coat once all the pigment layers of oil paint have completely dried.
A commonly used varnish is damar, a resin-based varnish that thins the paint increases its transparency, and speeds up the drying time.
As a topcoat, it seals over the paint and creates a glossy finish to protect your work from dirt, cracking, or discoloration.
To further explore oil painting tips, we recommend checking out this in-depth video by Katie Jobling:
Harriet Maher a freelance writer based in Otautahi New Zealand, where she grew up. After completing an Honours degree in Art History at the University of Canterbury in 2014, she was awarded a full scholarship for a Masters in Art History at the University of Melbourne, which she completed in 2017. She has a lifelong desire to learn, so she’s passionate about new and innovative art practices, and she’s always seeking out new ways to look at and understand art. Her writing attempts to make the invisible seen, and the unsayable said.