If you’re a beginner, oil paint, compared to other paints, might seem complex and hard to deal with. But don’t let that initial perspective keep you from becoming an oil painter!
In this article, you’ll learn why oil painting has a reputation for being hard and how to get past any hurdles between you, your paint, and the canvas.
- What Are Oil Paints?
- Is It Harder to Paint With Oil or Acrylic?
- What Are Some of the Challenges of Oil Painting?
- What Can You Do to Make Oil Painting Easier?
- Should I Take an Art Class to Learn to Oil Paint?
- Is Oil Painting Hard?
What Are Oil Paints?
Oil paints are a combination of oil and pigment that are ground together to make rich, creamy, slow-drying, long-lasting paints.
The more pigment used in the mixture, the more vibrant and saturated the colors will be on your palette and in your paintings.
Refined linseed oil is most commonly used in the making of oil paint. However, other oils like walnut, safflower, and poppyseed can also be used to make paint that is even slower drying and less prone to eventual yellowing.
Oils have been used in most famous oil paintings by master painters from art history like Jan Van Eyk, Vermeer, Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, and countless others.
The same pigments and processes used years ago are still found in modern oil paints used by contemporary oil painters because of their vibrancy, rich texture, blend-ability, and extended working time.
Is It Harder to Paint With Oil or Acrylic?
Whether it is harder to paint with oil or acrylic is subjective. In the battle between acrylic vs oil paint, it depends on your goals with painting and your personal preferences for qualities like drying times and blend-ability.
Most oil painters will tell you it’s harder to paint with acrylic paint, while acrylic painters will usually tell you it’s harder to paint with oils. This is because each artist is used to the qualities of their preferred medium that they started painting in.
Oil paint dries much more slowly than acrylics dry, which can be frustrating for some people.
It will take longer for you to have a finished painting with oils, but it also means that there is a lot more time to mix and blend your colors carefully.
Oils initially have more of a learning curve with all the extra art painting supplies and materials, so it may be easier to learn acrylic on your own. But, oil paint is still an excellent medium for beginners with the right guidance.
What Are Some of the Challenges of Oil Painting?
Some of the challenges of oil painting include understanding the materials, overcoming the cost, and maintaining proper safety in your working space.
- Learning how to use medium and solvents (as opposed to using water like you would use to thin water-based paints) and how to thin oil based paint.
- Getting used to handling the paint with your brushes and/or palette knife.
- Maintaining proper safety with some toxic and flammable materials.
- Understanding slower drying times and what impacts them.
- Coming up with a practical clean-up routine.
Thankfully, the challenges covered in this article can be solved by implementing some simple routines and practices, which we share below.
And many painters (myself included!) find that the benefits of painting with oils far outweigh the challenges.
There are a lot of art materials and supplies necessary for oil painting. This initial obstacle gives it a reputation for being hard compared to simpler painting mediums.
However, once you have the materials and understand how to use them, it becomes natural and beneficial to work with them.
- Oil Paint: To have a workable range of colors, you’ll want to get a warm and cool version of each primary color, a white, and perhaps black, to start. There are also great starter sets available, like Gamblin’s. Or, you can check out our review of the best oil paints and find the brand for you.
- Paint brushes: Having a selection of various sizes of flat or round natural bristle paint brushes will allow you to make both big marks and fine lines.
- Medium: Linseed oil is the perfect choice to thin your paint and improve the flow of your brushstrokes, without slowing down the drying process too much.
- Solvent: Gamsol is the best and safest odorless mineral spirit solvent to thin paint for underpainting and clean paint brushes as you work.
- Palette: Palette paper is a quick and easy option for mixing your colors.
- Palette Knives: Using a palette knife is helpful for mixing colors and applying them to the canvas.
- Painting Surface: You can choose a white canvas, wood panels, or canvas paper. Most artists think they have to use canvas at first, but canvas paper is the most affordable option with the least hassle, and you can paint directly on it.
- Easel: H-Frame easels are great for at home or the studio and let you step back to look at your paintings from afar.
- Brush cleaning supplies: You can use baby oil, a jar or brush cleaning tank, and an oil-based soap for the easiest clean-up.
You can learn more about the art supplies you need by reading our guide on how to use oil paints!
How Much Do Oil Paints Cost?
Oil paints cost more than other types of paint, but a little goes a long way, so it’s possible to paint with them on a budget.
The cost of oil paint varies by brand, as well. Winsor & Newton’s 200 ml tube of Titanium White is currently $25.50 on Blick’s site, while Old Holland’s higher-end paint in a 225 ml tube of the same color is $52.83.
Student-Grade vs. Artist-Grade Oil Paints
Student-grade paints, like Winsor & Newton’s Winton line, contain less pigment and more fillers. They’re a cheaper option, but the quality of the paint and vibrancy of the colors reflect the lower price.
Artist-grade paints, like Winsor & Newton’s Artists’ Oil Colors, are made with better materials and a stronger ratio of pigment to oil, so you get brighter, more saturated colors and have to use less paint to make your paintings pop.
Using Oil Paint Medium and Solvents
It might seem challenging at first to introduce a new element to your paints, rather than simply diluting paint with water like you might be used to with acrylic paints.
But mediums are easy to use and helpful in the oil painting process.
Refined linseed oil improves the flow of thick paint and creates an even wet surface to work on. It’s great for alla prima and impasto techniques because it slows drying a bit, without going overboard and overextending the time.
Many artists choose it as their medium over other medium types for its convenience and the ease of working with it.
Gamsol is Gamblin’s version of (less toxic) solvent that allows you to thin your paint to create thin washes of color that dry very quickly.
To prevent oil paintings from cracking once dry, it’s recommended to follow the classic fat over lean rule. This just means using thicker paint with more oil-content over thinner layers of paint with lower oil-content.
Using gamsol to create a thin wash of paint for your initial layers is a simple way to achieve this because it dries faster than subsequent layers of thick paint.
Oil painting’s reputation for involving toxic materials is another big factor in why it can seem intimidating to work with.
With the proper precautions, though, working with oil paint is perfectly safe.
- Always work in a well-ventilated space with plenty of fresh air. (And choose gamsol as your solvent to cut back further on harmful fumes!)
- Label all jars of solvent and medium properly, especially when working in shared areas.
- No ingesting paint! So, keep your food and drinks well away from your working area.
- Always wear an appropriate respirator mask if sanding a dried painted surface so you don’t breathe in particles.
- Carefully dispose of oil-soaked rags and paper towels since they are flammable.
- Wear nitrile gloves if your skin is particularly sensitive or if you want to keep them nice and clean.
- Keep all painting supplies away from children and pets.
If you are still concerned, limiting the number of toxic materials in your practice is possible. You can choose to skip using solvent altogether and avoid pigments that include cadmium and lead.
If you’re not used to oil paint’s longer drying time, it can take some extra patience and getting used to it.
If you want to try oil painting techniques like glazing, you must wait for the painting to be totally touch dry. And to use simple methods like masking off areas with tape to create sharp edges, you also need a dry surface.
This can take a couple of days or more, depending on the materials you used and the thickness of your paint application, so it’ll slow down your progress.
Ultimately, slow drying time is a great benefit, though, and makes many things easier rather than harder!
- It makes blending, softening edges, and color-mixing worlds easier. Working wet-on-wet and pushing paint around is so much fun when you get the hang of it.
- It allows you time to carefully consider your painting choices, so you won’t feel rushed.
- You don’t have to worry about your colors drying out on your palette. You save paint and some of the heartache of acrylic painting that happens when you’ve got the perfect color mixed and then suddenly it’s all dried up.
Alkyd and Liquin
If you’re in a rush or just really not a fan of the slow-drying, though, you can use a fast-drying medium like galkyd or liquin to help you out.
These are resin-based mediums that you can mix into your oil paint mixtures on your palette and they’ll cut the drying time down by far.
Learn more about drying times and how to work with them in our oil-based paint drying time guide.
Admittedly, cleaning up oil paints is more involved than cleaning up acrylics, watercolors, or gouache. But if you have a good system, it isn’t too troublesome!
As with everything else in art, there are hard ways to do things, where you’re fighting the materials. But there are also easy ways to do them once you learn to work with the materials.
Oil is not water soluble, so just soap and water aren’t going to cut it for brush cleaning. Instead, you’ll need oil to help you out.
The Easiest 3-Step Method to Keep Your Brushes in Tip-Top Shape
- Remove all of the excess paint with a paper towel or rag.
- Clean your brush first with baby oil in a brush cleaning tank, swishing it around until the pigment dissipates.
- Lastly, cleanse your brush with an oil-based soap and water and allow it to dry flat to retain its shape.
What Can You Do to Make Oil Painting Easier?
To make oil painting easier, you can build some consistent routines for your art practice.
- A designated painting space is helpful if you can make room for it. You don’t have to worry as much about setting up and cleaning up every time you go to paint. Just get to work whenever inspiration strikes.
- Setting up your paint on your palette in the same order every time you paint is a small habit with big results.
It’ll help you build muscle memory when color mixing, so you’ll need less brain power when figuring out your mixtures. (Always good to save brain power wherever we can, right?)
And since oil paint doesn’t dry quickly, you can leave all of your colors out on your palette, even for a couple of days, without worrying about them drying out.
Try Water-Mixable Oils
If you are particularly sensitive to fumes, have pets or children, lack a well-ventilated working space, or just want to cut out some material costs, you can try painting with water-mixable oil paint instead of traditional oil paints.
Water soluble oils sound impossible, but they’re modified oils that can mix with water. Since you can use water to thin your paints rather than toxic solvents, there’s less stress all around, but still many of the benefits of working with oil paint.
Water soluble oil paints let you take advantage of oil painting techniques, blend-ability, long working time, and rich consistency without compromising safety.
Oil Painting Exercises
Before jumping right into complicated subjects, try starting with simple still-life subjects to learn the materials and the feel of the paint and medium.
Even better, do some value studies to practice your color mixing and brush strokes.
Evolve Artist’s Free Oil Painting for Beginners Mini Course provides some great exercises to get you started if you want some more guidance!
Supplies That Make Oil Painting Easier
Some supplies aren’t absolutely necessary to begin painting, but they can make the process easier, less stressful, and more enjoyable.
- Paint Tube Roller/Squeezer: Tube Squeezers help you to get every last bit of oil paint out of your tube, without having to roll it up yourself and squeeze like your life depends on it, often cracking the tubes and making a huge mess.
With the cost of oil paint, you don’t want any of it to go to waste, trapped in a tube instead of on your palette. (I got one of these recently, and I honestly wish I could travel back in time and tell myself to get one sooner.)
- Palette Paper makes life easier when you don’t have time to clean up your palette either in the middle of a painting or at the end of a session.
- Silicoil Brush Cleaning Tanks are the easiest way to clean your brushes without harming them. The wire coil gives you a springy surface to scrub your brush gently, without causing any damage.
Should I Take an Art Class to Learn to Oil Paint?
Taking an art class to learn to oil paint can be extremely helpful. Oil painting classes offer much-needed guidance and support if you’re struggling with learning to paint by yourself.
They can motivate you to stick with it and not give up before you get past the learning curve in the beginning.
And with great online art classes available, you don’t have to be overwhelmed trying to learn alone, even if there are no in-person art classes around you.
If you’re looking for an in-depth online oil painting class, Evolve Artist is the perfect choice for those ready to explore painting and commit to oils.
They’ll teach you everything you need to know about painting with oils from the foundations up, with personalized support along the way.
You’ll never have to find yourself lost or overwhelmed as you learn the skills necessary for anything from portrait painting to learning to paint landscapes.
They even provide the best paint out there for you. (Remember Old Holland from earlier?) It’s all included with your tuition and mailed straight to your house when you sign up!
You’ll be able to skip all the hassle of getting your own supplies and start painting confidently, knowing you’ll be making the best oil paintings you can.
Read our detailed review of Evolve Artist for more information.
If you sign up today with our coupon code ARTIGNITION100 you can save $100!
Is Oil Painting Hard?
Oil painting isn’t hard. Once you learn your way around the materials, build good habits and routines, and seek some guidance, you’ll be as comfortable with it as any other medium in art.
Many artists learn to paint with oils as total beginners to art, so you can do it too.
And if you want to get a solid head start with oil painting, I recommend courses like Evolve Artist.