The oil painting has been a classic medium dating back as far as the early 15th century. Their versatility and bold colors make them a great choice for artists looking to get into painting, and there really are only a few “rules” you have to follow in order to learn the basics. Once you understand how the medium works, you’ll be able to use a variety of techniques to make your pieces come to life.
There are a few advanced techniques the oil base allows for, such as blending, and scumbling, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. Oil painting can be very relaxing, and it lends itself to a lot of different styles and techniques. While it may sound complicated at first, you’ll soon find that it’ll become surprisingly simple once you practice a little. It can even be an almost meditative experience if you allow yourself to really get lost in your work. With this “oil painting for beginners” tutorial, you’ll have everything you need from start to finish.
Oil Painting Kit for Beginners
Before you start working, you’ll need to pick up a few supplies. While you don’t need to break the bank, getting at least some decent quality tools will make it easier to control the medium on canvas. Getting quality brushes is going to be important since cheap brushes can easily flatten and shed, not only making it harder to achieve more textured brushstrokes but can also leave bristles and hairs from the brush stuck On your piece. Here is a breakdown of all the tools you’ll need and what to pick up before you start.
When looking for a brush, you’re going to want to go with either animal hair brushes, preferably hog or horsehair. Animal hair tends to hold its shape much better than synthetics. Since higher end synthetic brushes use a mix of synthetic bristles and animal hair. I recommend avoiding the low budget synthetic brushes as they tend to lose their shape very quickly, and tend to shed even after light use. You’ll want at least three flat brushes and three round brushes of varying sizes.
- 15 different sizes from 3/0 to 12 ¨C
- Brushes are handmade with care, using the finest material
Picking an easel isn’t too complicated. Simply pick something that will hold whatever size canvas or board comfortably. You can also place your canvas on a flat surface such as a table if you don’t want to use an easel, but using an easel makes looking back and forth between your subject and the canvas a lot easier, and is generally a much more comfortable way to paint.
- Easel with an adjustable bar with 7 instant height adjustment settings
- Beautifully handcrafted from seasoned beechwood
There are a variety of palettes available and which one you choose really depends on how you have your workspace set up and what feels most comfortable for you. If you like easy cleanup, you might opt for a disposable palette, or if you want easy and direct access to your paints a handheld palette might be more your speed. Here’s a brief rundown on a few palettes and how they work.
This palette is instantly recognizable as it’s become almost a symbol of artists in general throughout pop culture. This is the kind of palette the great masters used throughout history, and with good reason. It allows quick and easy access to your paints, as you’ll be holding the palette in your offhand while you work. The main downside is that you’ll be holding it pretty much the entire time, so expect your arm to get a bit tired during a long session. The colors mix well and the surface of the palette is easy to work with. Also, you don’t have to over-clean the palette either, as you can just lay new colors over dried sections of the palette as needed, and scrape off any excess paint with a palette knife. This would be my most recommended palette due to how easy it is to use, and it is the most comfortable to work with.
- Cleans easily and lasts forever
- Palette measures 11.75
These types of palettes are best for anyone who likes a quick and easy cleanup, or don’t want to invest a lot of money into a good palette just yet or are just starting out. The disposable plastic palettes are the cheapest variety and basically do just enough to get the job done. Mixing colors feel satisfying enough, and depending on the shape and style it can be comfortable enough to use, but you should eventually look towards upgrading to a longer-lasting palette if you decide to take this up as a long term hobby. There are also paper palettes that come in sheets which can be a little easier to work with than the flimsy plastic ones.
- Acid free palette paper, 50 Sheets
- Smooth mixing surface, 12 by 16-Inch
Choosing your starting colors is very important. You’ll want a combination of colors that lets you mix any other color you might need for your piece. You’ll want the three primary colors (red, blue, yellow) as well as black and white so you can mix whatever other colors you might need. I highly recommend grabbing a starter set of paints. Personally I find Windsor & Newton brand the best to work with, as they are thick, high quality, easy to work with, and have bold and vibrant colors. If you insist on purchasing your colors individually, I’d recommend getting at least the following colors to start:
- Windsor Blue
- Cobalt Blue
- Cadmium Yellow
- Cadmium Red
- Burnt Sienna
- Titanium White
- Ivory Black
Choosing Your Surface
When it comes to finding a surface to work with, you’ll primarily be using stretched canvas. Stretched canvas is easily hangable, and offer a more professional look once you have a finished piece. If you want to experiment and do some sketching, canvas boards are an option if you want a less expensive alternative to just play around with.
- Stretched and stapled onto pinewood bars that create a firm frame
- Cotton Surface Ideal for Many Types of Media
The Rules of Oil
With the supplies out of the way, there are a few things you’ll need to understand how oil paint functions. The drying time depends on the thickness as well as how much oil is in the paint. The thicker and more oily the paint, the longer it takes to dry. It’s important to keep this in mind since you’ll be working in layers.
You always want the bottom layer of paint to dry before the top layer. This is because the paint can crack if the top layer dries first. To keep this from happening, you want to make sure that the lower layers are thinner than the upper layers since thinner paint dries more quickly. You’ll also want to make sure the top layers are more oily since that will dry more slowly.
To do this, use less paint along with solvents and paint thinners for your base coat and underpainting to ensure it dries quickly, and then start working directly from the tube without mixing solvents in. This will ensure the paint dries in the proper order and prevent your top layer from cracking.
Alternatively, if you keep layering paint straight from the tube evenly, without letting the previous coat dry, this also makes sure the paint dries in the proper order. This Alla Prima style can be fun to work with and great for painting when time is of the essence (like trying to capture a sunset), but you also won’t be able to use many of the oil painting techniques that revolve around letting the previous layer dry.
Before you start it is important to understand a few basic safety rules about oil painting. While oil paints are generally just pigment and oils, there are some stabilizer chemicals in there as well. So you’ll want to avoid letting the paint spatter directly onto your skin if possible. This is especially true if using solvents, as the solvent can allow the paint to enter your skin. Wear gloves and an apron to cover as much of your exposed skin as possible. Also, since paint can be dangerous if left on the skin for too long, it should go without saying that you should NEVER put brushes in your mouth.
Also, always paint in a well-ventilated area. Solvents, as well as oil paint itself, can emit some powerful fumes which can build-up if there is nowhere for the fumes to escape to. Always have an open window or some way for the air to escape your painting studio, as breathing in these fumes can be dangerous for extended periods of time.
Lastly, when it comes to disposing of your paint and solvent waste, dump your excess pigment and used a solvent in a closed metal solvent can. After you’re done, simply let the can sit for a while and eventually the solvent will rise to the top. You can then dump the solvent into a separate container for future use. As for the pigment, you can either wrap it in aluminum foil and bring it to your local waste processing facility, or you can mix it with an alkyd medium and use it as a way to tone your next canvas. NEVER simply flush solvents and oil paints down the drain, as this can wreak havoc on your septic system, and in many areas can be considered illegal.
Oil Painting for Beginners: Step by Step Guide
With the rules of oil painting and your supplies out of the way, it’s time to get on with actually painting your piece. There are a few steps that will always be pretty much the same no matter what you are painting. Since white canvas can be a bit difficult to paint with, you’ll always want to prime your canvas. From there, you can properly plan out your piece.
1. Toning Your Canvas
Toning your canvas is the first step of any oil painting. You’ll want to mix your paint with some paint thinner to get a nice thin coat of paint, and cover the entire canvas in a solid color. You’ll want to use a neutral or earthy tone, or whatever color is going to be the base color of your piece. Make sure you cover the entire canvas, even if it means using a second coat. If you are painting on something like wood which has a rougher texture or is porous, you’ll have to prime it with Gesso first before toning.
Once your canvas is toned, its time to start sketching. You can use a light coat of black paint to start outlining rough sketches of structures and shapes, such as mountains, breaks in the terrain, horizons, and structures like buildings and other architecture. You can also use a pencil to make these marks as you’ll be painting over this, and you won’t have to wait for the underpainting to dry. Check this video about underdrawings shows what a basic sketch should look like:
3. Color Mixing
In order to add color, it is important to understand how to mix paint. In order to keep your paints from turning into a muddy mess, restrict yourself to only using two colors, and maybe white. When you think about basic color theory, each color is made up of two other colors (for example purple is a mix of red and blue). When it comes to painting though, even your primary colors can be a mix of two colors. Some yellows have more of an orange hue, some blues have more of a greenish hue, etc.
Keeping these secondary colors in mind will help you get exactly the colors you’re looking for as opposed to a muddy mess on your palette. Have a color wheel handy if you’re not confident in your color mixing skill and use it as a reference on what kinds of colors to mix. Since your color selection is limited, you’ll be using white to help lighten colors as needed, or in rare cases a tiny amount of black to darken things.
4. Your First Coat
Once you have your sketch finished, it’s time to start adding color. Your first coat, or underpainting, is setting up the color for your piece. Figure out what the base color for each section of your underpainting will be and fill it in. You’ll want to use somewhat large brush strokes here, focusing no blocking out your colors. Find the most prominent colors in each section of your subject (for example focusing on the brown of a cliffside rather than the occasional bit of green moss) and focus on those.
5. Mistakes Happen
If you make a mistake, don’t panic. Mistakes are most easily fixed in the underpainting process. Don’t use solvents directly on your piece to fix mistakes as that will just lead to a mess and possibly make things worse. For thin paint, simply wait for it to dry and paint over it with a thicker coat. For thicker paint, simply scrape off the section you want to remove and wait for the underlying paint to dry before trying again.
6. Adding More Layers
Once the base colors are set and dry, the next step is to start building off of the base layer. Use smaller brush strokes here, and a slight amount of paint on your brushes. This is where your brushstrokes start to become more important. Start adding some general details and blending the shades of color together.
In this example, you can see how the artist starting to add the main lines of the painting.
Keep adding layers and more detail until the painting finally comes together. Start basic, but work your way towards more details and really capturing the textures of your subject. Focus on the main focal points of your piece and make those the most detailed.
7. Adding Details
While it may be tempting to add a ton of detail and paint every little rock or blade of grass, when it comes to painting less is more. The brain can automatically recognize patterns and fill in the blanks. This is basically called the Law of Closure.
Looking at this animation from Gizmodo, even though all that is pictured is a moving mass of black blobs, our brain recognizes it as a trotting dalmation. You can use the same technique in your painting, giving just enough detail to let the mind fill in the rest.
Oil Painting Techniques for Beginners
There are three techniques you’ll want to understand when using oil paints, aside from simply applying paint directly to the canvas. These are the three techniques I mentioned earlier; blending and scumbling, along with a few other tips to keep in mind.
Since oil paints take much longer to dry than water-based paints, they are much easier to blend. When blending, you essentially paint the shades of color on a surface in their approximate locations. Once you have the colors blocked out, use a dry clean flat brush to drag the colors perpendicular to the light. This will blend the two regions of paint together, creating a transition gradient between the two shades.
Scumbling is a technique that is used to achieve a broken color effect. Essentially, you take a dry brush with some paint and drag the brush over an already dry area. This will leave gaps in the paint being applied, letting the undercoating show through. This technique takes advantage of optical color mixing.
Optical color mixing is when we perceive nearby colors as mixed. You can see how color mixing works in this image from The Virtual Instructor. The yellow circles in the image appear to be more of a yellow/green hue thanks to the blue circles nearby. The entire art style of pointillism is based around color mixing.
By using scumbling, you can add more texture to your paintings without having to actually paint out every little detail. This closeup of one of Monet’s paintings demonstrates how scumbling looks.
Straight oil paint isn’t always to way to go after your first underpainting. Using solvents or washes on your final coat (once everything is dry) can lead to some really beautiful effects. Using a painting medium (usually a mix of solvent and oil) can completely change the consistency of the paint and how it behaves. Adding healthy amounts of medium to your paint will give it a more flat and transparent quality while adding only a little will give it a more solid color but thinner consistency.
Once your painting is complete, put it somewhere out of direct sunlight to dry. The heat from the sunlight can affect the drying time of the top layer, and you might risk cracking the paint if the top layer dries first. Exposing the paint to too much sunlight can also cause the colors to become a bit faded or washed out. Allow at least 24-48 hours for drying, and then look over your piece to make sure you have no other final revisions or changes you want to make. If you’re happy with the overall result, all that’s left is to sign and display your work.
As you can see, oil painting is nowhere near as intimidating as many people initially think. While I never really considered myself a master oil painter, it was more of a meditative process for me, allowing me to just set aside the stress and worries of day to day life for a while and get out of my own head. I personally used a more Alla Prima style to my painting since my painting style was very impressionistic, but all in all, the main thing to remember is that sometimes less is more. Avoid painting every little detail and try to get the feel of an area instead. It can be surprising how much the mind will fill in details that aren’t actually there.
The most important thing is to have fun, and don’t try to get it perfect on your first try. Coming from someone who’s their own worst critic, I had the most fun and did some of my best work by simply painting and seeing what the colors looked like. Just experiment, don’t overthink it and enjoy the process. If you liked this tutorial, or have any of your own work or techniques you’d like to share, feel free to reach out in the comments section.