Oil Painting for Beginners: How to Paint With Oils

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You might have noticed that painting with oils isn’t as intuitive as just grabbing a brush and going to town.

It has a few secrets you’ll want to learn before jumping in. But, don’t be put off by that.

Oil painting is more forgiving than most think…

In this article, you’ll find out everything you’ll want to know about oil painting for beginners, including info on supplies, safety, helpful tips, painting techniques, and resources that I wish I knew about when I was a beginner myself.

Soon enough, the methods that were once a mystery will become second nature, I promise.

starting oil painting
Art by Dottie Lo Bue

What Stands Between You and Oil Painting?

It’s normal to feel uncertain when starting something new. If you’re coming from a place of confusion, nerves, or a lack of knowledge, it’s okay. You’re not alone!

No one is born knowing how to oil paint. All you need to get started is some information, the right materials, and the willingness to try and keep at it.

Below, you’ll learn about solutions to common roadblocks and ways to keep working through the uncertainty.

Is Oil Painting Hard?

Oil painting can be a challenge at first but a rewarding one that gets easier with practice.

Some common challenges for beginners who want to start oil painting are:

  1. Learning how the oil painting basics differ from other paints like acrylic or watercolor. (For example, learning how long oil paint takes to dry and that oil paint is not water-soluble!)
  2. Getting used to proper safety habits with toxic materials. (NO accidentally drinking from the “paint water” cup, please!!)
  3. Figuring out which art materials are necessary, especially with so many options available. (And differing opinions all over the place.)

And if you’ve already tried oil painting and are still struggling, this free mini-course has some great tips to help you succeed as an artist and how to apply them to your art practice.

evolve artist mini course

What Do I Need to Get Started With Oil Painting?

The oil painting supplies you’ll need to get started are:

learn to oil paint

Oil Paints

I recommend getting a warm and cool version of each of the primary colors and a white. You can mix just about anything with these colors.

If you want to work easily in grayscale for value studies, you can also throw in black paint, but for most purposes, you can mix your own chromatic black.

My current palette:

  • lemon yellow (cool)
  • cadmium yellow medium hue (warm)
  • cadmium-free red (warm)
  • quinacridone magenta (cool)
  • ultramarine blue (warm)
  • prussian blue (cool)
  • titanium-zinc white.

current color palette for oil painting

Difference Between Student-Grade and Artist-Grade Paints

Oil paint is composed of pigment + oil.

  • Student-grade oil paint is more affordable, but Artist-grade oil paint contains more pigment, so your colors will be stronger and more saturated. You’ll need less paint overall to do the same amount of work.
  • There are a lot of amazing brands out there. Old Holland is one of the highest quality paints you can get, but is priced on the higher end too.

Winsor & Newton makes an affordable artist series, and I’m happy with the quality. Daniel Smith oils are thick and saturated, and Gamblin is always vibrant as well.

Take your pick, but go for artist-grade when you can!

use oil paints

Brushes

Natural bristle, hog hair paint brushes are considered the best for oil painting. They can be loaded with a ton of oil paint and still retain their shape. They have a rougher texture and can be used well for dry-brushing techniques too.

Synthetic brushes have bristles that are usually softer, smoother, and more pliable.

My all-time favorite oil paint brushes are Blick’s Masterstroke Interlocking Bristle Brushes. They hold their shape but are not too stiff, so you can easily manipulate them to make all kinds of marks.

Brush Head Shapes

Flats are my oil paint brushes of choice. They hold a lot of paint and allow for big, broad rectangular strokes with the wide, flat sides. You can also achieve smaller details with the edge.

brushes oil painting set up
Image by Dottie Lo Bue

Filbert brushes are more oval but still flat and helpful for blending.

Brights are like Flats, but the bristles are shorter and the ends taper in.

Round brushes are good for detailed work.

Try an assorted set of brushes so you can test a full range of them.

Palette Knives

Palette knives are used to mix colors, apply, and remove paint. Always go for metal palette knives. Oil paint is thick, and the plastic ones often snap under pressure and go flying. I’ve seen it happen more than once!

Linseed Oil and Solvents

You can use paint right from the tube without adding any medium or solvent, but it’ll be thick and harder to push around on the surface, causing you to use more oil paint.

I love the flow of brush strokes I can get with a medium in the mix. My go-to is a combination of linseed oil and gamsol.

gamsol oil

NOTE: I HIGHLY recommend Gamsol if you’re going to be working with a solvent. It puts off WAY fewer fumes than other paint thinners like turpentine or even other versions of “odorless” mineral spirits. Still use caution, and be sure to read the safety section coming up!

Adding medium to your oil paints will make your paint more fluid and dynamic. With some trial and error, you’ll find the amount of paint to medium ratio that works best in any situation.

Linseed oil is a “drying oil”, which means it will eventually cure, so it’s suitable for oil painting (unlike baby oil, for instance, which will never dry). There are other oils used for painting, like walnut oil and poppy oil that extend the drying time, but linseed oil is what most oil paints are made with.

Find out more on how to thin oil paint.

What Surface Should I Paint On?

stretched canvas for oil painting

Stretched Canvas

A lot of painters love canvas for the bounce-back you get when you put down a stroke. It has a textured weave for the paint to grip onto. And you can buy it pre-made or learn to make it yourself.

Canvas is lightweight but can take up a lot of space.

Stretched canvas typically comes in three standard levels: traditional (thinnest profile width, back-stapled), gallery-wrapped (thicker profile width, folded edges), and museum-quality (thickest profile width, folded edges).

The thinner the canvas, the easier it is for stretcher bars to warp over time, especially in humid climates (not good).

TIP: If your canvas gets dented, lightly spray some water on the back side of the canvas. As the water dries, the canvas will naturally tighten back up. If you’re clumsy like me, this is a lifesaver.

oil painting tips

Wood Panels

Unlike canvas, there is no bounce. Your brush meets a solid surface.

These can be sanded to be extremely smooth if you prefer to push paint around on a sleek surface. They’re sturdy when made well, but can get pretty heavy at larger sizes.

They are also absorbent. You’ll want to make sure that the wood is sealed and primed before introducing oils to it.

Canvas and panels, while great, can get pretty pricy. And you want to be able to paint as much as possible to practice, practice, practice.

wooden panel for oil painting

Canvas Paper

A more affordable, low-stress surface is canvas paper. I recommend it, especially when you’re beginning oil painting.

You can buy it in pads. It has a nice texture like canvas, but you can tape it or clip it to a piece of wood (or cardboard, in a pinch), avoiding the bounce of canvas if that isn’t your favorite.

You get the best of both worlds without going broke or dealing with the pressure to make a masterpiece each time you paint a study.

Arches Oil Paper is a high-quality option. It’s a beautiful paper made especially for oil painting. It’s sturdy enough for washes and thick application requires no primer, and is acid-free, so you don’t have to worry about it disintegrating.

oil painting tips new

Easels

HFrame easels are a stable, adjustable option that allows you to work at any height and on small or large paintings with no problem.

Metal folding easels are great for plein air painting. They are lightweight, easy to set up, and fold into a tube that you can carry with a strap over your shoulder if you’re hiking to a painting spot.

TIP: No easel at home? Hang your work-in-progress painting on a wall to view it from a new perspective!

Aprons

Oil paints can be a MESS.

One misplaced dot of wet paint can wreak havoc. When a little goes a long way on the canvas, it also goes a long way on…well, everything else. While the messy painter look can be fun, spare your wardrobe. Aprons are your friend!

TIP: If you DO get oil paint on your clothes, put baby oil on them immediately and then wash with an oil-based soap and warm water.

Before I learned this trick, I may or may not have color-matched the carpet in my house in a panic and painted over some pthalo green splotches. But, you live and learn! (Please don’t tell my landlord.)

painting oils

Are Oil Paints Safe?

While oil paints are toxic, they’re usually pretty safe to be around as long as you’re not ingesting them.

There are some safety guidelines you need to know before beginning oil painting to make working with oils as safe as possible, since toxic materials are involved.

Guidelines to remember: 

  • Keep food out of your painting space.
  • Make sure that no children or pets can access your paints and solvents, and LABEL them.
  • Wear nitrile gloves while painting and cleaning if you are particularly sensitive to chemicals and/or want to practice extra caution.
  • If you sand a painted surface, ALWAYS wear a mask to prevent breathing in particles.

Some oil paints are more toxic than others. Pigments that contain cadmium are beautiful but are highly toxic and require more caution.

There are alternatives available called “Cadmium Free” and “Cadmium Hues” that approximate the colors without as much risk to your health.

oil paint image
Photo by Klara Kulikova

Solvents

Solvents like turpentine and even “odorless” mineral spirits put off fumes that are not healthy to continually breathe in.

You can work without solvents, but I find them very useful, so I suggest using Gamsol, Gamblin’s less toxic version of odorless mineral spirits.

  • ALWAYS work in a well-ventilated area and keep solvents away from children and pets.
  • Do NOT pour solvents down the sink.

There is no need to dispose of the solvent when it’s dirty! Simply let it sit in the jar, unmoved, and the paint particles will settle to the bottom. You’ll be left with a clean solvent that you can use again and again.

Can’t Follow Safety Guidelines Right Now?

If you don’t have a place to paint with good ventilation, try water-mixable oil paints or plein air landscape painting outside in the fresh air!

learn to paint with oil

What Oil Painting Rules Should I Know?

There are some common rules that help in the oil painting process:

  • Oil Paint can’t be mixed with water. Oil is not water-soluble, meaning water can’t break it down. You must use oils and/or solvents for painting AND cleaning.
  • Not all oils are suitable to be used as a painting medium. Drying oil, like linseed oil, will allow your painting to eventually dry. Non-drying oils, like baby oil, can’t be used to paint, but are useful for cleaning your brushes.
  • Try to work “Fat over Lean”. Fat refers to oil content. The highest oil content should be in the top layers of a painting to prevent cracking as it dries.
  • You can paint oils over acrylics, but not acrylics over oils.

Once you know this, it’s time to get started…

oil painting palette

Getting Started: How to Set Up Your Palette

There are infinite ways to set up paint on your palette. The best advice I’ve received is to find a way that works for you and stick with it. Your goal is to make the oil painting process as intuitive as possible.

By organizing your palette consistently, you’ll build up muscle memory and use less brain power to figure out what you need for your mixtures.

Set-up Tips:

  • Line your oil paints along the outer edges of the palette, so you’re left with plenty of color mixing room. (You can never have enough mixing room!)
  • Don’t be afraid to put out a good amount of paint.
    It can be scary since oil painting supplies are expensive, but oil paint doesn’t dry quickly, so you won’t be wasteful.
  • Try mixing each paint color with a small amount of white to clearly see the hue, since some oil paints are very dark straight from the tube.
  • Order your colors in a way that feels logical. My palette moves from lightest to darkest value.
    This keeps my yellows with yellows, reds with reds, and allows me to easily judge the temperature of each hue.

Understanding Color

To take full advantage of your paint, it helps to know a little color theory.

oil painting color wheel
Source: Dummies.com

All observed color is relative. It’s your job to ask THREE important questions when color mixing with your paints:

  1. Should this be warmer or cooler?
  2. Should this be lighter or darker?
  3. Should this be more or less saturated?

If you ask yourself these questions each time and make your adjustments based on them, you can nail any color, no matter how ambiguous.

oil painting basics for beginners
Image by Dottie Lo Bue

If you want to get well acquainted with the colors on your palette, you could create an oil color chart. This will help you understand your paints, how they mix and the different colors they create.

What to Paint?

The options are endless. If that feels daunting, here are some classic subjects:

Still Life

Great for beginners feeling out the oil painting basics. You can pick objects that are simple and work up to ones that have meaning to you. You have control over lighting, composition, color, etc.

basic oil painting tutorial
Still Life by Homero Salazar

Landscape

There’s nothing like painting out in nature, aka, en plein air. Lighting changes quickly, so you have to work fast and make decisions about what to keep and what to change up as you go. (Try not to work in direct sunlight if you can help it! You’ll be able to see your painting better in shade and get to skip the sunburn.)

oil painting for beginners

lanscape oil painting
Landscape Painting by Dottie Lo Bue

Portraits

Portraits are a great love of mine but can be rather complex. Simplify as much as possible. Think of the big shapes and planes of light and shadow, rather than jumping for more detail first. These painting basics will help with any subject. If you feel pressured to get someone’s likeness, self-portraits are great practice!.

portraits simple easy oil painting
Portrait Painting process by Homero Salazar

Figure

Check local colleges and galleries for figure model sessions open to the public.

Clothed models are great to work from too, so you can ask family or friends to pose for you!

figures my first oil painting
Figure Painting by Dottie Lo Bue

TIP: Check out New Master’s Academy for live figure drawing sessions online, to brush up on your skills if you don’t feel ready to tackle any of these subjects yet on your own!

If you want more things to paint, try these easy oil painting ideas.

Oil Painting Techniques for Beginners to Try

Alla Prima

Alla Prima is “Wet-on-wet” painting, where you can have a finished painting in one session. You don’t have to factor in drying time for adding layers. Simply load up your paintbrush and paint your heart out.

how to paint with oil
Image by Dottie Lo Bue

Underpainting

Refers to thin paint application, usually a thin wash of monochromatic paint that maps values, composition, and tones the surface before you follow up with thicker paint in later layers.

Often done in earth tones like burnt sienna or umber. I’m partial to pink underpaintings in quinacridone magenta because of the energy it can bring to oil paintings.

underpainting drawing
Painting by Dottie Lo Bue

Glazing

Glazing utilizes a thin wash of transparent oil paints to shift colors and unify the overall tone of an oil painting. The previous layer must be completely dry before glazing can be done.

Scumbling

Scumbling involves lightly “dry-brushing” a thin layer of opaque paint. Scumbling is used to soften a painting and add highlights.

Impasto

Impasto is an oil painting technique that involves the thick, textured application of paint, often applied with a palette knife. Think of frosting a cake.

Helpful Oil Painting Exercises

Evolve Artist has a free Oil Painting for Beginners mini course! In it, they’ll give you three exercises to get you started and on your way to mastering oil painting.

  • Working strictly in grayscale can help you hone value.
  • Learning to paint gradients.
  • Palette-knife mixing and practicing brushstrokes.

oil painting excercise

How to Clean Up After an Oil Painting Session

Clean-up can be a meditative and relaxing time, just like cooling down by walking after running.

If you’re painting the next day, you can leave the palette as is. If it is a while before you paint again, you can place the palette into a sealed palette storage box, and it’ll stay wet for as long as you need.

Brush Cleaning

Oil paint is stubborn, and it takes some steps to get your brushes clean and ready for your next session, so put on some music and clean away!

  • Step 1: Wipe excess paint from the brushes with a rag or paper towel.
  • Step 2: Use solvent to loosen excess paint residue on the brush and wipe again with a paper towel.
  • Step 3: Fill a jar or brush cleaning tank with baby oil or safflower oil and press your brush against the sides, saturating the brush in oil. Wipe excess oil, then repeat with more oil until little or no paint comes off. 3
    NOTE: Some brush cleaning pots have rough wire mesh at the bottom. These chew up your brushes. The brushes pictured below are the exact same hog hair brush, but the lefthand one was damaged by the wire mesh. Try the Silicoil Brush Cleaning Tank instead for a gentler option.

silicon for oil paint

  • Step 4: Take the brushes to the sink and use OIL-BASED bar soap (like Fels Naptha) or brush soap and warm water to clean the remaining baby oil from your brushes. Afterwards, gently dry with a towel and lay flat so they keep their shape as they dry.

Some Final Oil Painting Tips for Beginners

Here are some general oil painting tips I recommend for any beginner:

  • Don’t be too precious with your work. Don’t be afraid to paint over something to make it better.
  • Make note of how you’d mix colors you see in real life or what compositions you’d make from a scene. Visualize everything as an oil painting.
  • Start oil painting with big brushes to map overall shapes in your painting before using smaller brushes.
  • Vary your brushstrokes and use both thick and thinner paint.
  • Stand back from your oil paintings often to look at the whole image.

Study Artists You Love

One of the best ways to learn about oil painting is to immerse yourself in it and study the artists and oil paintings you look up to. If you can, travel to museums and galleries near you to see work by some great masters in person!

Many contemporary artists working in oil painting have an online presence. One of my favorite oil painters, Nicolás Uribe, does incredible painting livestreams called “Our Painted Lives” with Daniela Ocampo.
They explore different prompts, oil painting techniques, and have conversations every Monday through Friday. Viewers listen, learn, and paint along.

Find or Build a Community

Make friends with other painters! Share your oil painting progress on social media, comment on other painters’ posts to support them, swap references, do challenges, and stay involved to keep up your motivation and inspiration!

Frequently Asked Questions

how to start oil painting on canvas

Is Oil Paint Good for Beginners?

Oil paint is great for beginners. Despite the initial learning curve, oil paints are versatile, forgiving, and allow for all kinds of exploration. They are introduced to beginners in most foundation painting classes.

Is Oil Painting the Easiest?

Oil painting isn’t the easiest, but once you know the general rules for using oil paints, it is totally doable.

Can I Learn Oil Painting on My Own?

You can begin to learn oil painting on your own with the extensive resources available online, but it can help to have some support.

If you ever feel stuck, you can find more structured guidance at home in online oil painting courses like Evolve Artist.

Now Let’s Paint!

You know the oil painting basics now, so you can grab your brushes and canvas and go for it. Oil painting is by far my favorite medium and I’m so excited for you to dive further into it.

And if you end up loving oil painting and are committed to improving your art, I recommend seeking a mentor or taking online oil painting classes such as Evolve Artist. If you’re interested in leveling up, read my full Evolve Artist review.

And tell us all about your journey with beginning oil painting!

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