We’re guessing you’re here because you want to stand alongside some of history’s geniuses of oil painting. You want to be rubbing shoulders with Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Da Vinci, in the pantheon of the greatest oil painters of all time.

Or maybe not; maybe your oil painting ambitions are a little more modest. Maybe you just fancy splattering that canvas with something beautiful, being able to wield a paint brush, or creating an oil painting of which you can be proud.

Whilst the first may be a little challenging – although not to say impossible – the latter is within everyone’s grasp. And we’re here to help you get there.

That’s why we’ve prepared this beginner’s guide to how to paint with oil. And although it is one of the more difficult painting mediums to master, its effects – its bold, vivid colours, its beautifully textured quality, and its glossy vibrant finish – make it one of the most rewarding media in which to work.

So, let’s have a look at some of the things that you will need to have to start painting – and some of the things that you will need to know. There’s a fair few of them. However, with practice, you’ll be as good a painter as you want to be.

Let’s take a look.

Oil Painting for Beginners

So, what do you need to know before you get cracking with your oil painting? That’s what we’re going to be answering here.

However, the answer depends on what exactly you want to be doing. Obviously, everyone has a few things in common. Yet, the amount of detail and the types of techniques you’ll want to learn depend on the sort of painter you want to be and the level of seriousness you’ll want to put into learning to paint.

Here, we’re going to be looking at the very basics, for those who are totally new to painting on canvas. Because that is always the best place to start.

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Oil painting is fun!

What is Oil Painting?

To begin with, then, what is oil painting?

Oil paint is a particular type of painting medium that is known for its viscosity, its slow drying time, and its use by some of the most important painters in history.

It’s made – as you can probably expect – from oil. From vegetable oils, primarily – including linseed oil, walnut oil, or the oil from poppy seeds. Oil is a great medium in which to suspend colour pigments because it has a very high saturation, meaning that oil paints can hold a lot of the colour, so they become incredibly bold on the canvas.

In comparison, watercolour – in which pigments are suspended in water – does not produce such vividness of colour.

The other characteristic thing about oil paint is that it is very slow drying, to the extent that some colours don’t dry fully even after months. This means that artists can retouch and correct their works after much time has passed.

In comparison to acrylic paint, say, which is incredibly fast drying, this feature of oil painting makes it ideal for beginners who shouldn’t need to rush.

Some Key Tools You’ll Need

To excel in oil painting – or, indeed, to get anywhere at all with it – you are going to need a certain number of practical tools with which to work.

You can imagine what most of these will be.

Paint brushes are a pretty good place to start. But note the plural: you’ll probably need more than one of different sizes before you can get going. Flat brushes are good for larger scale paint application, whilst round brushes are good for detail.

Meanwhile, canvases – primed and sized – are going to be necessary too, as well as a colour palette in which you can mix your colours. The mixability of oil paints is one of the perks of the medium – so don’t neglect it.

Otherwise, something to clean your brush – and water won’t do. You need a white spirit of some kind. We’ve moved past the days of turpentine, however, so try an artist’s white spirit. Any art shop will sell it.

Find out more about starting out in oil painting!

Beginner Techniques in Oil Painting – and Some More Advanced Ones

Once you have rushed out and bought all those things that you’ll need, it’s good to think about what techniques, skills, and knowledge you are going to need to make some progress in your painting.

Here’s where it all gets pretty serious, because if you don’t nail some of the fundamental aspects of this, your painting might not last as a painting for too long. The canvas can rot, your paint can flake or fade, and the whole thing can crack if you do the wrong thing.

But enough of the scary stuff. Really, it is very difficult for it all to go that wrong. Just do as we suggest and it will all go swimmingly.

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Start on your journey of oil painting

Preparatory Techniques in Oil Painting

So, what do you need to know before you start painting? There are three things really:

  • How to prime a canvas or surface;
  • How to thin your paint; and
  • The laws of paint application.

You can see the details of all this in our article on oil painting techniques for beginners, but let’s run through some of the basics here.

In regards to the first point, if you paint in oil on a surface that has not been primed – such as an unprimed canvas – you are going to be exposing the threads of cotton or linen in the canvas to the oil. This will make the fibres in the canvas rot – and your paint will begin to flake off.

Secondly, you know that you are going to clean your brush with white spirit – because water and oil don’t mix. However, these spirits are also essential for thinning your paint too.

Why would you want to do that? Sometimes you don’t want your oil paint to be as thick as when it comes out of the tube (such as when you are doing underpainting). As such, you can add spirits – and oil too – to your paints to make them less thick.

Finally, there are two primary laws of oil painting: fat over lean and thick over thin. In both cases, you want the fast drying paint to be applied first. Thick paint – and ‘fat’ paint, that paint that is oilier – needs to be applied later. As the thicker and fatter paints dry slower, thin paint on top will just crack.

Use Different Oil Painting Techniques to Achieve Different Effects

More advanced techniques come in truckloads – and the different techniques you’ll want to learn will depend on the styles in which you want to paint.

If you are interested in traditional landscape painting, you might want to try your hand at blending – the technique in which you mix together the boundaries of adjacent colours on your canvas. The effect smoothens the whole scene.

If you are more a Van Gogh fan, you’ll want to consider wet on wet painting (or alla prima, as it is known), or impasto.

Handy Tutorials and Resources to Improve Your Oil Painting

Finally, if you are looking for guidance or inspiration in your oil painting, there are plenty of places in which to look.

From the newer forms of entertainment and instruction – such as podcasts and video tutorials – to blogs, books, and the original paintings of famous artists themselves. All of this can provide inspiration and motivation in your own work.

Oil Painting Podcasts and Videos

Podcasts and online videos are some of the most popular places for people to get their information these days. And this doesn’t exclude the world of art either.

In terms of oil painting tutorials via video, the best place to look is of course YouTube, where painters such as Florent Farges and Lena Danya give live demonstrations of their work.

If you want to just learn about the history of oil painting, or about ideas around the creative process, check out the podcasts of Tate Museums. They cover just about everything, with a quality that you would expect.

Learn more about resources and tutorials to help with your oil painting!

Find Inspiration from the History of Art

However, there is no better place to look for inspiration and guidance than in the history of art itself. From Da Vinci and Rembrandt to Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky, history is full of oil paint artists – who are probably the reason that you wanted to paint in the first place!

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Those paint brushes won't stay clean for long...
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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.