Are you curious about oil painting, even eager to give it a go, but not quite sure how or where to start?
I’ve put together this quick and easy beginner’s guide to oil painting, which I hope will help you get a feeling for this wonderful medium – how to start oil painting, what you will need, how to learn oil painting, and how to get the best results and have the most fun.
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Table of Contents
- What is Oil Painting?
- What Basic Oil Painting Supplies Will You Need?
- What’s the Best Way to Learn Oil Painting?
- Most Popular and Widely Used Oil Painting Techniques
- Tips and Techniques to Make Oil Painting More Effective and More Fun!
- What Are Some Good Books on Oil Painting?
- Who Are Some of My Favorite Famous Oil Painters
In this article, I will go into some brief detail about:
- What oil painting is, and why you might want to try it
- What basic supplies you’ll need to get going
- The best way to really learn how to paint with oils
- Some basic oil painting techniques
- Some great books on oil painting
- Some of the most famous major artists who used oil paints
This is not intended to be a complete how-to article, but instead a fun and informative introduction to this wonderful medium, and a primer that provides enough information so that you can at least get started, while at the same time hopefully piquing your interest and pointing you in the right direction for what comes next.
I will also spend some time talking about the best way to learn, and especially the amazingly affordable and effective Evolve Artist Program, a great online art education which, brilliantly enough, uses oils and oil painting as its main focus for teaching.
So, now that we’ve primed the canvas, let’s dip our brushes in and begin to paint a picture of what oil painting is all about!
What is Oil Painting?
Why should you try to paint in oils?
What is the difference between oil paint and other paints?
Is oil painting better?
Is oil painting more expensive?
Will your canvases eventually sell for millions of dollars?
You probably already have some idea of what oil paints and oil painting are all about, but to put it in the most simple terms:
Oil painting is the art form involving painting with oil-based pigment paints – as opposed to, for example, acrylics and watercolors, which are water-based.
Many of the world’s greatest artists throughout history have used oil paints to create their masterpieces, and some of the most recognizable, valuable and beautiful paintings were made with oils.
Oil paints are more expensive than other media – like acrylics or watercolors, to name just two – and they are generally thought to be a bit more difficult to learn, work with and master, but they allow qualities and effects in painting that no other media can achieve.
In particular, oil paints are known for:
- The wide range of techniques you can use (much more on this below)
- The way they capture and portray light, and the range of light and shadows
- The depth, beauty and intensity of their colors
- The ability to layer and the sense of depth, three-dimensionality and realism you can achieve
- The wide range of textures, finishes and apparent surfaces you can portray
- The durability and long life of oil paintings
So, yes, to answer an earlier question, in many ways oil paints are “better” than other media, although each type of paint and each type of painting has its own benefits. To be sure, though, even with a little talent, a little education and a little practice you can make truly beautiful paintings with oils.
And while that’s probably enough of a basic definition of oil paints and oil painting, I should say that, from my own perspective, I don’t totally agree with a couple of the assumptions about oils:
- I don’t think oil painting is really that difficult, although certainly there is an art to mixing, layering and texturizing oils (and more), to realize their full potential, and taking some classes with a good instructor can be invaluable.Still, it is great fun for even an abject beginner to just get some oils and brushes, a canvas and an easel, and see what happens – likely something quite lovely!
- I also don’t find oil paints or supplies to be particularly expensive, especially compared to other professional level paints and supplies like watercolor and acrylic. And there is some really fantastic stuff out there that is amazingly affordable – but more on that in a bit!
What Basic Oil Painting Supplies Will You Need?
Here I’m going to concentrate on only the most essential kit – the basic tools and supplies you will need to get started and get painting.
And since this is a guide to oil painting for beginners, the recommendations I will offer for the best specific products in each case will be for inexpensive, student grade supplies – but still first quality ones, that I myself have tried and absolutely love.
The short list of essential tools and supplies for oil painting would include:
- Oil Paints – at least cadmium red, cadmium yellow, titanium white, burnt umber, magenta, ultramarine, phthalo blue and black
- Oil Paint Brushes – everybody ends up having their favorite shapes and sizes, but you should start with at least a couple of small and medium brushes and one large fan
- Canvases – decent quality pre-prepared canvases make learning and painting so much easier, and a canvas board is also a good popular choice and a great painting surface
- Palette – you need a place to thin, mix and play with the paints, and a dedicated palette is super important
- Palette Knife – not just for mixing wet paint and scraping excess paint, but even for painting
- Easel – so you can work easier and more effectively, and take care of your body and your muscles, and so you don’t get oil paint all over your, well, desk? Couch? Dining table?
- Other Supplies – especially linseed oil to thin paint and turpentine or mineral spirits for cleaning your brushes
And I’ll say it again and again – good, or even the best, paints, brushes and supplies don’t have to be expensive, but better supplies will make everything easier, more fun and more effective, and keep you more encouraged and engaged!
All-In-One Oil Painting Kits
Instead of putting together a complete set of supplies, you can save a lot of time and frustration by selecting a good complete beginning oil painting kit – just make sure it really is good, because again, with oil painting especially, cheap paints and cheap tools will be doubly frustrating, and enormously ineffective, in the long run!
My favorite is from Bob Ross, and while it does not have quite as high of quality as the individual oil painting tools below, the paints, brushes, easel and canvases are pretty amazing quality for the money, and to get them all together like this is just wonderful.
I also love the really big, and amazingly cheap, US Art Supply kit, which for the money has a really complete selection of tools and supplies, and so much paint and canvas that you can go crazy playing and experimenting!
Keep in mind, though, that with either kit you will still need at least mineral spirits for cleaning your brushes and linseed oil for thinning the paint. And maybe a beret.
Best Oil Paints for Beginners
Best Budget Oil Paint for Painting on Canvas
Set of 10x 37ml Paint Tubes
An obvious choice and easy recommendation, the Winsor and Newton Winton oil paint starter set has all of the most important colors, in rich, creamy paints that mix beautifully and are a joy to work with – better than many “professional” level oils, and at a great price!
Best Oil Painting Brushes for Beginners
Round 6, Filbert 6, Flat 6, Bright 8, Fan 3
This is also an easy choice, since you can get a really affordable set of paint brushes that are of essentially professional quality, and will take you as far as you care to go with oil painting, and offer the most important and useful sizes and shapes.
Stainless Steel Palette Knives Color Mixing Set for Oil and Acrylic Paint
The Creative Mark stainless palette knife set has a perfect selection of five knives with that ideal balance of spring and tension.
As nice and proper as old-school wooden palettes look, these Seongokeen acrylic palettes are actually a lot better for real-life use, and quite inexpensive.
8x10 Inch / 10 Pack - 5/8 Inch Profile Triple Primed Canvas for Oil and Acrylic Paints
12x16 Inch / 6 Pack - 5/8 Inch Profile Triple Primed for Oil & Acrylic Paints
8x8 Inch, 12 Value Pack - 8 Oz Triple Primed 100% Cotton Acid Free Canvases for Painting, White Artist Canvas Boards for Acrylic, Oil, Watercolor & Tempera Paints
9x12 Inch, 12 Value Pack - 8 Oz Triple Primed 100% Cotton Acid Free Canvases for Painting, White Artist Canvas Boards for Acrylic, Oil, Watercolor & Tempera Paints
I’ve used a lot of pre-stretched and pre-prepped canvases that were not so nice to paint on, but Phoenix canvases and boards are consistently great.
Best Budget Single Mast Easel
69" High Aluminum Single Mast Artists Studio Easel and Floor Display Stand - Professional Heavy Duty Adjustable Extra Large Canvas Height Up To 47"
This US Art Supply single mast aluminum easel is affordable, light and portable, and yet incredibly solid and stable.
You will also need a couple of other supplies, specifically for thinning your oil paints and for cleaning your brushes.
While linseed oil is the traditional stuff for thinning oil paint, and turpentine for cleaning, odorless mineral spirits will do both, are safe, non-toxic and better for the environment, and work great!
Still, I use several different oils when I’m painting, and wouldn’t want to be without them, or a good premium turpentine, in addition to mineral spirits. Above are the products I use, including a wonderful basic linseed, a rich and thick stand oil, excellent turpentine and my favorite mineral spirits.
Ok, maybe not essential, but really, how cool would you look in this?
What’s the Best Way to Learn Oil Painting?
It would be great if I could simply offer a complete and helpful how-to guide to the oil painting process, explaining in a few words how to get started and how to complete your first oil paintings.
Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t work that way – with oil painting especially.
Oil paints are incredibly expressive, and once you know what you’re doing you can do so very much with them – layering, shading, light and shadow, contour and dimensionality, and absolutely complete and amazing control over colors.
But all of this takes practice, and it is not just a good idea, but I would say a real necessity, to have at least some basic lessons, to learn how to deal with the thick and rich texture of oils, how to blend, layer and block, how to capture the incredible sense of light and shadows that oils allow for, how to achieve three dimensional appearance, a sense of motion or stillness, and the realism and life that the best oil paintings are so well known for.
So I am going to at least write out a couple of sections here – one on the most widely used oil painting techniques – both beginner and more advanced – and the second on my own tips and recommendations for making your oil painting experience more successful and fun.
But I cannot emphasize this enough – oil painting is sort of a different world, a medium which is more difficult and does ask for very specific knowledge and skills, and there is no other art form I can think of that benefits more from at least a small amount of formal education.
So before we get into the tips and techniques, let me recommend the best online school I know for learning oil painting – from the basics to fairly advanced techniques – as quickly, easily and effectively as possible – Evolve Artist Program.
Evolve Artist Program – Fast, Fun and So Effective!
Click here to check out more about Evolve Artist Program: watch the interview with the founder, Kevin Murphy; graduate, Daniel Folta; and check out the art supplies in the Unboxing video
Below is a couple of examples of students learning progress:
The Evolve Artist Program is focused on the most complete and effective art education possible, and their award-winning teachers and coursework cover both the all-important technical foundation of painting and art in general, the more advanced processes and techniques, and even the insight, tips and tricks that only come from long hours, years even, of experience.
And, brilliantly, they feel the best way to really teach, and learn, art, and in particular painting, is by using that most expressive and rewarding of all media – oil painting! In fact, not only does much of the coursework feature and use oil paints and oil painting, you even get a small kit of professional oil painting supplies when you sign up.
And this essentially old-school formal art education is, despite its thoroughness and effectiveness, much faster and more fun, and less expensive, than you could possibly imagine.
So if you want to really know and understand the media, and get not just the oil painting basics but more advanced techniques as well, and if you want to get the most out of this incredibly medium and go as far as possible – especially if you think you could use some basic art education, or some refreshing, along the way – there is absolutely no program I know of that comes close to the Evolve Artist Program, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
Most Popular and Widely Used Oil Painting Techniques
Here I will list, and very quickly explain, seven of the most famous and widely used techniques, which are either pretty exclusively used in oil painting or especially effective in this medium.
While this list contains both basic beginner techniques and more advanced ones, I am just going to list them here alphabetically.
You’ll notice that these painting techniques are all somewhat advanced, though, and I am not listing the basic techniques and processes one must learn and master to paint in oils with any level of even basic competence – like mixing and thinning oils, blending colors, preparing canvases, selecting, using and caring for brushes, palette knives and other tools and lots more.
But again, that’s all the kind of stuff you would cover in a good painting course, like the Evolve program described above. The list below is more meant to be just fun and interesting, and to maybe offer some ideas for those of you who are already somewhat proficient in oils, or just want to play around and see what happens!
Also called “wet on wet,” this is simply painting upon a background or earlier layers that have not dried. This allows a painter to quickly capture light, mood or a moment in time, and you can complete a painting in a single session, whereas some masters might take months or even years to build dry layers upon older dry layers in completing their masterpieces.
A technique in which light, darkness and their contrast are used to dramatic effect. Chiaroscuro works especially well with oil, which has such beautiful ability to capture and portray light. It is best to begin with the highlights and work out into the darker areas.
Glazing is the application of a thin, nearly transparent layer of paint onto paint that has already fully dried. This can create a sense of depth, physical contour, light and contrast, and can give the surface of a painting a beautiful sheen. Compared to Alla Prima painting above, glazing can be a very slow and time-consuming process.
Taken from the French word for gray, this is a striking and surprisingly expressive painting technique – or maybe more of a style – which only uses a single color for the whole painting. Usually a grayish tone, though often with the warmth of soft browns and reds, this single color is fully explored from the darkest and most dense shades to the lightest, and the result can be amazing in its range of light, its realism and three dimensionality.
A bold and impactful advanced oil painting technique, impasto involves painting with strong and direct strokes, usually using paint thickly, so that your strokes are clearly visible. This technique, at one level or another, was often employed by Impressionists, and can create a strong mood, a sense of light or water, add dimension and bring emphasis to a part of a composition.
A way of applying paint to a canvas with a stiff and dry brush, which creates lines and textures and results in an image or area without any real smooth details. This is a great way to create a certain texture, a sense of motion or a particular mood.
A kind of guide often used by new oil painters, underpainting involves making a light oil paint sketch, in a single neutral color like light brown, of the painting’s subject, as well as blocking out the background with shades of the same color. Then you allow the sketch to dry and use full colors and normal painting techniques to create the finished work, letting the sketch guide you in placement and vision.
Tips and Techniques to Make Oil Painting More Effective and More Fun!
I have covered these exact same tips and techniques in another article – Best Oil Paints and Oil Paint Set – and here I am simply adapting the list from that earlier piece.
Whether you are planning on getting into a program like Evolve, or just getting some oil paints, brushes and canvases and seeing what happens, these nine suggestions, tips and tricks can make the whole affair easier, better and even safer, and all are well worth keeping in mind while you’re painting.
- Layer your paints – fat over lean – this most important rule allows you to really layer effectively without cracking or shifting of paint, and paint with higher levels of realism, dimension and life, with a greater range of colors, light and shadow.
Fat over lean means that you should paint the bottom or foundation layers with a paint mixed with less oil, and increase the oil content with each additional layer – simple, but so very important!
- Smaller paintings, simple subjects – oil painting is amazingly effective and powerful with even the largest and most complex subjects, but such undertakings can be quite overwhelming to the new artist, so paint a vase or a flower before you paint a big, busy landscape.
- Practice with monochrome painting, paint sketches and limited colors – like starting with simple subjects, single colors and simple color schemes can help you relax and become more comfortable with oils before you begin to really explore their enormous range and potential.
- Gesso – prepare your canvases well, or buy good pre-prepped canvases, to make your painting easier and to make sure that it all works best – from a simple dab or stroke to the most complex advanced techniques.
- Good paint and brushes – poor quality paint and brushes are frustrating and ineffective, and ultimately more expensive, and may make you want to give up, while excellent – though not necessarily expensive – kit can make all the difference.
- Keep brushes and work areas neat and clean – for easier process, better flow and higher concentration, a clean and undistracting studio, or even just a tidy easel, can make a big difference.
- Try to forget about money – again, “excellent” oil paints, brushes and canvases aren’t necessarily expensive (of course some are), and to find the best cheap supplies will not only make your painting easier and better, but also allow and encourage you to practive play and explore more and more.
- Well-ventilated area – nothing can change a photorealistic oil painting into an abstract blob faster than fainting in front of the canvas. Seriously, for health and well being, remember that oil painting involves fumes, and working in a well ventilated area, or even outside, is absolutely a must!
- Take breaks and stretch – true with any kind of painting or artwork, moving about and getting the blood flowing can improve physical technique, clear the mind, maintain bone and muscle health and decrease fatigue. So regularly move away from the canvas, stretch, drink water and take some deep and slow breaths of non-fumy air.
What Are Some Good Books on Oil Painting?
Here I would like to list a few of my favorite books on oil painting in two areas.
The first are books on oil painting techniques. While I don’t think a book can really take the place of a proper education from a good and effective teacher – like, again, you would get from Evolve Artist Program or other excellent online learning platforms – they can be great for explaining basic and advanced oil painting techniques, giving ideas and inspiration.
And the second section of books I’ll recommend are simply books with beautiful oil paintings. Yes, you can see most or all of these masterpieces online, but there is something about thumbing through a really high quality physical book, with a well curated selection of beautiful paintings and superb print quality, that computer viewing can never match.
Best Books on Oil Painting Techniques
By Kathleen Lochen Staiger
A highly regarded oil painting course that goes from the basics to quite advanced techniques.
By Jan Matěják
A well designed and well presented book of intermediate and advanced techniques that are truly essential and valuable for any oil painter to know and use.
By Jeremy Galton
A wonderful reference book to have on hand, with a huge selection of different techniques, methods and processes and clear, easy to follow explanations.
Best Books of Oil Painting Masters and Masterpieces
- Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History
- Art History Vol 1
- Art History Vol 2
- Art: The Definitive Visual Guide
- Art, Second Edition: A Visual History
Although these beautifully printed books do not focus specifically on oil paintings or oil painters, they are wonderful and lavishly illustrated surveys of the history of art, and so have superb illustrations of the great oil painting masterpieces through time.
- The Louvre: All the Paintings
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings
- The Hermitage: 250 Masterworks
- The National Gallery: Masterpieces of Painting
- Masterpieces of Painting: J. Paul Getty Museum
As with the above general art surveys, a catalog of one or more of the world’s top museum’s art collections can’t help but include a large and magnificent selection of oil painting masterpieces by the great masters – and when they’re this well made and printed, they can’t help but awe and inspire us.
This list of twelve stunningly beautiful books features great masters who used oils either exclusively or primarily, and in addition to being simply extraordinary volumes to view, they all give you a true idea of what can be accomplished with oil painting – as well as plenty of ideas and inspiration!
Who Are Some of My Favorite Famous Oil Painters
Wow, just so many! An enormous number of women and men who are now known as the major artists of their time used oil paints exclusively, predominantly or at least regularly, and really the most famous, recognizable and stunningly beautiful masterpieces of painting were done with oils.
So to close I will list 16 of the most important artists in history, all of whom used oils either exclusively or predominantly, and show one example of a great masterpiece in oils for each artist.
Leonardo da Vinci
Vincent Van Gogh
Rembrandt van Rijn
Thanks so much for reading my latest article – An Artist’s Guide to Oil Painting for Beginners – and please check out my website – Art Side of Life – for more buyer’s guides, articles, tutorials, artist interviews and tons of other resources for commercial artists, fine artists, art students and beginners, crafters and anybody else exploring their own creative side!
Also check out the other articles in this series on oil painting:
- Essential Oil Painting Supplies for Artists
- Best Oil Paints and Oil Paint Set
- Choosing the Best Oil Paint Brushes
- Choosing the Best Oil Paint Palette
- Choosing the Best Canvas for Oil Painting
- Best Palette Knives and Palette Knife Set
- Choosing the Best Painting Easel
- Best Oil Pastels for Artists
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