You want to learn how to oil paint, but you have questions

Here are answers to 7 frequently asked questions about how to oil paint.

Questions are wonderful, that's the way we learn.

learning how to oil paint

  • Start an oil painting by putting a line drawing on the canvas, panel or canvas board. Use paint that has been thinned with a solvent.

Alternately, do a light pencil drawing directly on the canvas. Or do a drawing on paper and transfer it to the canvas with graphite paper.

Ready-made stretched canvas and canvas panels from the art stores are primed with gesso. The gesso keeps the paint from sinking into the canvas.

Find the answers to 7 frequent questions about how to oil paint.Express Yourself with an Oil Painting!

how do we use oil paints?

  • Paint thin to thick. Some people say, "Paint fat over lean." It's the same thing.

If we do it the other way around by painting thin over thick paint, the painting may crack after a period of time.

how to oil paint

  1. Start your oil painting with thinned layers of paint.

  2. As the paint progresses use less thinner.

  3. The final, top layer would be straight paint.

Start a painting thin (lean) by mixing the paint with some painting medium, turpentine or mineral spirits. The thin layer of paint will dry quickly.

As the painting progresses, start using thicker, fatter paint. That means use less medium. The fat paint dries slower.

The final, fat layer of paint will be straight out of the tube with no medium added.

More about how to paint a painting

what is a painting medium?

  • Some oil paints come out of the tube thick and stiff. Thick paint is difficult to brush. Mixing the paint with a painting medium makes it easier to use.

We can make our own painting medium by mixing half linseed stand oil with half solvent (turpentine or mineral spirits).

Store the medium in a glass container with a screw tight lid.

Oil paints are manufactured with linseed oil. So instead of using a medium, we could just add a little extra linseed oil to make the paint flow.

what paint and colors do we use?

  • Choose professional, artist paints when learning how to oil paint. There are many good brands of oil paints.

You may be wondering why use professional quality paint. Student grade paints are less expensive because they contain less pigment.

Less pigment means the paint doesn't cover as well. So we may have to use several coats to get bright, juicy colors.

Artist quality paints have more pigment. It takes less paint per painting. They actually are a better buy after the initial investment. 

High quality paints produce good quality paintings.

what colors do we need?

  • While learning how to oil paint use a limited palette of the three primary colors, plus white.

limited colors

  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Titanium White

Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Red Light and Ultramarine Blue

Titanium white is the best white for all around painting.

We use more white than any of the colors, so be sure and get a large tube of white.

A full palette of colors would include a warm and cool version of the six basic colors.

More about choosing paint colors.

what can we paint on?

When we are learning how to oil paint, there is a choice of three painting supports.

Gessobord is great for painting details in oil paintings.Gessobord is great for details.

Stretched canvas is the traditional oil painting support. The canvas is stretched over and around wood bars.

Cotton canvas is best for everyday oil painting. Linen with its smooth texture is great for portraits, but it is more expensive.

Panels may be made from wood or synthetic woods such as Masonite. They need to be primed with gesso in preparation for painting.

Gessobord is an archival panel, primed and ready for painting.

Canvas boards are the third option. They are suitable for student work and practice while learning to oil paint.

what brushes are used for oil painting?

  • Oil painting brushes are generally either soft or stiff.

Soft brushes are made from real animal hair or soft synthetic hairs. They are used for smooth types of work, such as portraits and possibly still life paintings.

Stiff brushes for oil painting are generally made from hog hair bristles. They are good for expressive work where we may want the brush strokes to show in the finished work.

what brushes should we start with?

beginner's brushes

It's good to not get fussy with small brushes when we are learning to paint.

When I was learning to oil paint, I used a #7 and #11 hog hair bristle brushes.

Today a lot of brands don't seem to have size #7 and #11, so #8 and #12 brushes will work just fine.

  • Hog hair brushes are great when we are learning to use oils. Stiff brushes move the paint around better and are easier to use with oil paint.
  • Start with a couple of brushes like #7 and #11. Flats or filbert brushes are both ideal for oil painting. Brights have shorter bristles, so they will leave more brush strokes.

When learning how to use oil paint, get the feel of using the paints before investing in more brushes.

Save paint by mixing the colors with a palette knife.

Learn more about mixing colors

what about clean-up?

Oil paints contain oil and we will need a solvent to clean our brushes.

Modern day artists use odorless mineral spirits or odorless turpentine.

  • The odorless mineral spirits, Gamsol made by Gamblin is considered one the best solvents for studio painting. Keep it in a covered container between painting sessions.

An apron or dedicated paint clothes are a good option when we are learning how to oil paint. Baby oil is noted for taking fresh paint off of clothes.

Periodically clean the brushes with Masters Brush Cleaner or a gentle dish detergent. If we clean our brushes well with mineral spirits, they may not need additional cleaning.

Have paper towels or rags available for clean-up while painting.

Find oil painting supplies, here.

where should we paint?

A dedicated painting area will encourage us to paint more often. We can leave our supplies out, so they are ready for painting at any time.

Good lighting is essential for painting.Good lighting is a necessity for painting.
  • Good lighting is a necessity for painting.

A north window is considered the ultimate light for artists.

Otherwise use daylight bulbs with full-spectrum lighting.

Regular incandescent bulbs provide a warm light. Paintings done under regular bulbs will appear cool and dull in daylight.

  • We need good ventilation in our painting area. An exhaust fan or a window cracked open are a good option.

A drop cloth will protect the carpet or floor.

More about our home art studio

how long does it take oils to dry?

  • Oil paintings may take a few days, up to a week or two (depending on the weather) to dry for safe handling.

The various colors dry at different rates. For example Burnt Umber, Raw and Burnt Sienna dry faster. The cadmium and quinacridone colors dry slower. Some colors dry with sheen and other are flat without any shine.

  • Depending on the color and how thick the paint is, it may take up to several months for an oil painting to dry completely.

Alkyd paints dry overnight - or within 24 hours

Alkyd paints are made with the same pigments as oil paints. The pigments are carried by an alkyd resin instead of linseed oil. They dry very fast compared to oil paints.

Alkyd paintings dry within 24 hours.Alkyd Painting on Canvas

Alkyds handle and look exactly like oil paints. If nobody said anything, we wouldn't know the difference.

They make it easier when learning how to oil paint.

Alkyds have a good painting consistency. They can used straight out of the tube without adding any other mediums. If necessary, they may be thinned with a little odorless mineral spirits.

Griffin alkyd paints made by Winsor and Newton have been my 'oil paints' since the 1980s. No painting medium is necessary with Griffin alkyds. All we need is the paint and some odorless mineral spirits.

start with small, simple paintings

Start learning to paint with small, simple paintings.Start painting small.

When we are learning how to oil paint choose a simple subject.

Small paintings are fun!

Paint the things we see in our environment.

Or use some of our own photos.

Be wary of using commercial photos or paintings that have copyrights.

A good place to find photos without copyright restrictions is at Pixabay.

have fun learning how to oil paint!



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