A lot of artists want to begin painting in oils, but they worry that it will be complicated. But not only does oil painting not have to be scary, it can be easy getting started.
Here are five tips for easier oil painting.
You don’t need all those colours.
Most manufacturers of artists’ oil colours make up to 100 or more different colours available. They’re all lovely, and it can feel utterly overwhelming as you try to decide which ones you’ll need. For most paintings, I use about five. Cadmium yellow, cadmium red deep, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, titanium white. With these basics I can mix most colours I’ll want. (The burnt sienna is my workhorse. It can make any colour look like you took it right from nature.) On grand occasions I might add cadmium yellow deep or cadmium yellow light for a sunnier yellow, quinacridone rose for a softer and brighter red, pthalo blue to turn a painted sky warmer, and dioxazine purple for cooling off anything. I don’t actually need to, but an artist doesn’t want to get too habitual. (That’s a joke. I’m very habitual.)
You do need good paint.
When you first start out, it can be tempting to try saving money on paint. This is false economy. The oil colours called Artists’ Oil Colours have more pigment in them. Your mixed colours will be truer and your paints will go further. Student Oil Colours have more oil, more filler, and less pigment. You’ll use them up more quickly and you won’t find them as easy to mix.
You don’t need a fancy set-up.
I use a flat-pack microwave cart for a painting table. It’s got casters! And a stainless steel top and a drawer and two shelves. My palette is a nice big piece of cardboard that I cover with tinfoil whenever I want a new surface. I actually mix paint on throwaway paper palettes then transfer it to the tinfoil wrapped cardboard because I like a clean look. Ordinary plastic wrap over the mixed paint colours when I’m done for the day helps them stay malleable for a week or more. One palette knife for mixing and paper towels for wiping off the knife and I’m ready to go.
You do need good brushes.
I watched a video of someone transferring a photo print to a canvas using gel medium which she painted onto the canvas with a really cheap brush. Watching her struggle against her tools caused me almost physical pain. Her brush bent in all the wrong places, wouldn’t take any pressure, and left paint in lumps on her canvas. Do not try this at home! A 1/2 inch flat brush can can cost anywhere from $4.00 to $20.00 and up. Plan to spend about $14.00. A hog’s bristle brush will allow the application of paint in either a smooth or textured surface and let you lay one colour over another without displacing the initial colour, depending on the angle at which you take the brush to the painting surface. A synthetic brush is great for blending right on the painting. If you buy one good brush instead of a dozen cheapies, you’ll do yourself a favour.
Take your painting surface seriously.
Stretched canvas, prepared panels, paper with a non-absorbent surface – all good for creating different appearances. The only surface I don’t recommend is canvas board. It’s made with inexpensive canvas glued onto inexpensive cardboard and it will fight your colour application and eventually warp. I also don’t like prepared boards that are made to look like canvas. Artificial surfaces never give as good a result as the genuine article. Just like life.
And now you’re ready to go. Questions? Just ask.
And oh – enjoy!
This article was originally published as a blog post in 2016 and has been updated for 2021. If you’d like to know when new articles for your art practice are published, click here.