Oil Painting for Beginners - The Guide of the Basics

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Oil Paints are by far the most dangerous painting medium to work with. Starting to paint with oils without a clear understanding of all the materials you are using can put your health at risk. It can also effect the longevity of your painting. I am not here to preach to you about what is the best painting medium in the world- they all have their pros and cons. This guide is for beginners to inform them of the basic materials used for oil painting, how to use these materials, and proper clean up.

Before You Begin:

There are several things you need to buy to paint with oils, but first I'll start off with the paint. You will need at least red, yellow, blue, black, and white oil colours. Oil colours come in tubes of various sizes. I highly suggest buying the biggest tubes you can find for black and white oil colours since these tend to be used up the most. The smaller tubes will last much longer for the other colors, especially the special ones such as Manganese Blue and Dioxazine Purple. A pea-sized drop can go a long way, because oil paint comes out very thick from the tube.

Oil paint is so thick that it can keep its shape upside down.

There are usually two standards companies offer for oil colours. The cheaper oil paints are made for art students and beginners. These paints mix just as well as the professional paints. They also usually have excellent permanence and lightfastness. The only major difference is the pigments. Professional oil colours use the more expensive pigments. Some of these oil colour combinations have been around for hundreds of years. The cheaper academy oil colours use cheaper pigments that give off a similar color to the original. I suggest beginners start off with the cheaper oil colours. Some professional oil colours can cost over $25 for just one small tube of paint. If you buy a combination of professional and student oil colours, they can still be mixed together.

Oil paints for art students are the best choice for beginners.

The next essential things you need to buy are oil colour thinners (also called solvents) and mediums. The thinner and medium are both necessary though they both make the oil colour more fluid. There are a few thinners used for oil painting. The cheapest is mineral spirits which works fine. I personally buy the low odor thinners even though it is more expensive. Turpentine is also a good thinner but can have a strong smell. Some thinners also serve the duel purpose for cleaning up brushes.

This bottle of thinner is a low odor substitute for turpentine.

Far as mediums, there are several kinds of oils you can buy for oil colours. Some speed up the time it takes for oil paints to dry. Some dry very pale. The most common medium used for oil painting is linseed oil. This medium has been around for hundreds of years and has had a good track record on aging with bliss. The only problem with linseed oil is it can leave yellow droplets or a yellow hue in pale oil colours. Many artists use poppyseed oil for the lighter colors since it dries very pale. Unlike linseed oil, poppyseed oil is not as strong with keeping the color's luminance over time.

As you can see from this picture, linseed oil is even more yellow than vegetable oil.

Many things artists go cheap on, but not brushes. Oil paints tear up cheap brushes pretty quick. I suggest buying brushes with lifetime warranties on them. I learned this money saver from my brother who is a carpenter. At first the brushes may be real expensive, but in the long run you'll save a lot of money. But if you plan to paint with oils just a few times, then the cheaper brushes will do. The best types of brushes for oil are bristle, sable for oils, and synthetic brushes. A palette knife is a painting tool you should buy too. It isn't absolutely necessary, but it makes mixing colors easier.

Palette knives can be used like a brush with oil colours.

From my experience, I find myself using a size 4 bright brush most often. A bright has a flat brush, and it does not form a sharp point. This brush forms a rectangular shape. For very fine details, I use a small round brush. This brush is round in shape with a sharp tip. Sometimes it is difficult to work with a very small round, but I have a problem keeping the tips sharp on the bigger ones. Another essential brush is a large 12 or 14 sized filbert or bright. A filbert brush is similar to the bright except that the brush has a rounded tip. There are some other kinds of brushes you can buy such fan and angular brushes, but they aren't necessary for a beginner. Still, they are fun to experiment with.

Left Brush: Bright    Middle Brush: Round    Right Brush: Filbert

Next thing you will need is a container to store the medium and thinner you pour out to use. Also, you will need a palette. A metal can or a glass jar will be good enough to hold the medium and thinner. Do not use paper, plastic, or Styrofoam cups- the medium and thinner will eat through it. For the palette, any one will work well, but I suggest buying a flat one. It is much easier to mix colors on a broad, flat surface. What I do sometimes is use a small primed canvas for my palette. I don't clean it off so by the time I'm finished with my painting, the palette canvas is completely covered with paint too. People are often fascinated with all the globs of paint.

Finally, the last crucial item for oil paints is a primed stretched canvas. Small ones are not too expensive. It's usually cheaper to make your own stretched canvas, but you have to buy some supplies in bulk. I suggest buying your canvas first to see if you enjoy the medium. Make sure the canvas is primed well. Oil colors will eat through anything that hasn't been primed. The cheapest surface to paint is a canvas board, but I don't suggest using this. Canvas board can warp with ease.


The surface you paint on has to be primed whether it be stretched canvas or canvas board.

Painting with Oils

Fat over lean- this is the key term art teachers use to describe proper oil painting technique. Oil colour squished out from the tube is a very fatty substance because of its linseed or safflower oil vehicle (the substance that holds the pigment). If the layer of paint on top has less fat than the bottom layer, then this would cause the paint to crackle as it dries. Oil acts just like water- it wants to be even throughout all the layers of paint. As oil moves to the surface of the painting where there is less oil, the paint can crack. You can still paint an impasto painting (a painting with thick layers of paint), but it would be easier to do that with acrylic paint.

To prevent the paint from cracking, the oil colour has to be thinned down. For the first layer of the painting, use a mixture of mostly thinner with a small fraction of medium to thin the paint. The first layer you paint should contain the least fat in all of the layers you paint. The first layer is a good time to paint the general color of every thing in the picture. Before you can paint the next layer of paint, though, the first layer has to dry.

For the second layer of paint, the thinner will have to have more medium added. Not too much needs to be added. Adding the oil medium to the thinner will make the paint have more fat in it then the previous layer. This will prevent the painting from cracking. For every layer, more and more oil has to be added to the thinner to prevent the paint from cracking as it dries.

This illustration gives an example of the layers of a properly painted oil painting (the palest layer is the bottom on the canvas).

Continuing to add fatty oils to the thinner with each new layer you paint is the key thing you need to know before you begin painting. Be sure to work the most you can on each level of paint for this will save on medium. This is not difficult on a small canvas, but it is easy to forget for a large painting. For more depth on painting with oils such as painting people or scenes, go to your local library or bookstore.

Important Note: Drying time varies depending on the how much medium and thinner you use to thin the paint. Colors also differ in drying time. The more medium in the paint, the longer it will take to dry. Some colors will take forever to dry even if you use a little medium. I know I get frustrated with my Titanium White at times since it hates to dry up. It can take over a week for a layer of paint to dry, or it might just take a day. Having multiple projects is best for oil painting.

Safety Rules

Improper clean up and misuse of oil paints can lead to some hazardous situations. Below are some important rules you always need to follow when working or cleaning after painting with oil colors.

  1. Work in a well-ventilated area with open windows and running fans. The fumes of oil colors, mediums, and thinners can be dangerous for your health. If you become dizzy or lightheaded, this could be a serious sign.
  2. Never dispose oil colors, medium, or thinner down the drain or into the dumpster. All liquids and rags full of these liquids need to be locked away in a container full of water and brought to a place where it may properly be disposed of. Keep this container away from heat for these liquids are flammable.
  3. Never mix any other type of paint with oil colors, medium or thinner. When acrylic paint was first developed, some artists mixed it with oils. Many artists became very ill. Unfortunately some of them died.
  4. When cleaning up, tightly cover your mixture of thinner and medium. Also, seal up any rags with thinner or medium in them in a closed container full of water. Do not leave them lying around for they might suddenly combust and start a fire.
  5. If you spill thinner or medium onto your hands, wash them off immediately to prevent skin irritation.
  6. Leave the room if you ever feel lightheaded, nausea, headache dizzy, or irritation of the chest or eyes white painting with oil colors.

Cleaning Up

Oil paint can't be rinsed off with water like other paints. Soap and hot water will get some of the oil paint off of the brushes, palette, and the carpet just in case you dropped some. Adding vegetable oil to the lather of soap and water helps take out more of the oil colour. You can also use your thinner if it is made for cleaning brushes, but they will have to soak in the thinner for a while. You may not want to clean off you palette right away. Oil paint can be wet for several hours and be reused. If you have big globs of paint still on your palette then don't wash them off.

As stated in the safety rules above, put rags and leftover medium and thinner waste in an airtight container full of water. Put this container in a cool place to reduce the risk of the chemicals from spontaneously catching fire. Bring the container to a place where it can be properly disposed of. Your local landfill or waste management will probably be able to help you do this. Also, do not forget to tightly seal the medium and thinner you are keeping for the next time you paint. Remember to store them in a cool, safe place where they won't be messed with by any pets or children.

The Painting is Finished - Now What?

The entire process of oil painting is very slow, including the complete drying time. When you finish your oil painting, you may want to varnish it right away, but doing this will ruin your painting. Oil colours need a full nine to twelve months to completely dry. This means you'll have to wait nine to twelve months before you varnish your painting. The oil colours may feel dry to the touch, but the oil is still moving inside the paint. Artists know this because the crackle effect from improper oil painting technique does not show up until months later. Even if you use fast drying medium and thinners, you will still have to wait nine to twelve months since there is still lots of oil in the painting.

Oil painting is one of my favorite mediums to work. Some people absolutely despise the long drying times. Others absolutely love the long drying times. It is something every artists or even just a hobbyist should come to experience. Have fun, be creative, and keep safe.

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