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How to begin and plan a new oil painting.

Updated on March 2, 2013

How to oil paint.

Making a start with an oil painting can be quite a daunting experience. Most opt for watercolours; I think people see them as an easier option, remembering their poster paint experiences of school.

There is no doubt that you really need a safe area to oil paint in, by safe I mean somewhere with good ventilation and where no one will brush past when you are not there and get paint on their clothes. It depends how big you are going to work, but you will need room for an easel of some description, I’ll come back to that.

Before we start, I’m going to give you brief look at what you will need.





For oil painting, you really need hog’s hair brushes, stiff, and tough, that will withstand the rigors of working on a canvas surface. Some canvas texture is quite abrasive and will break the ends off your brushes quite quickly, so old brushes can be used as workhorses for covering big areas with colour.

You do need a good selection of sizes and shapes; the main shapes being; fan shaped, square ended, round and filbert, which is shaped a little like the end of your finger. For fine work I use a synthetic bristle brush, cheap enough to throw away when it goes out of shape.

I clean my brushes with turpentine substitute, but never use this to thin your paint or you may find it leaves a white powdery deposit on the surface that may not appear until weeks after you have used it.

There are a number of low odour thinners which I would recommend to try to find. The American paint supplier Bob Ross inc have in their range of products a very good odourless thinner which can also be used on your canvas without problems.



In Britain, we have two main suppliers of oil paints; these have been about for many years.

I prefer a company named Winsor Newton; I like their pigments and the texture of their paints from the tube. It is a personal thing but there transparent sap green and one or two other have such a vivid and lively colour. I also use most of the Bob Ross range of colours although used out of the usual format of a BR style painting they can be very wet. There are a few others, but you will only get what you pay for, buy some of these cheap imports from China that are sold by supermarkets and you will get what you deserve. You can’t make a good painting with inferior materials.


Canvas and painting surface options. Which surface should I use?

Again, it is a personal thing, and not until you have painted several pictures and used different surfaces will you be able to answer this one. There are dozens of options and it is worthwhile talking to other artists, who will all know best and what is the perfect surface.

Without doubt the cheapest surface is the back of a piece of hardboard, which I used several times when I was a student in the 1960’s.

Oil Board., is thick card usually with one side rolled to give it some texture.

Canvas Board. Is usually canvas stretched over card and glued to it.

Stretched canvas. This is probably the most popular amongst serious and more experienced artists.

Different companies offer different types of canvas, try not just to buy on price. I like an Irish linen canvas, which is soft and responds to your brush strokes, you feel to be caressing the painting.

Buy pre-stretched and primed canvas it saves a lot of hassle. Check the canvas for flaws before you buy it, some cheaper canvas have slight flaws in the weave, and it may not seem too bad when it is only with primer on, but can bet your bottom dollar that it will be somewhere really obvious once you have your paint on it. Different cloth has different weaves and it can make a difference to your finished work. May advice is don't buy canvas on line because you can't check it.

There are also lots of shapes, for a beginner I recommend you stay with a 6x4 ratio,

12x8, 18x12. You may find square difficult because we are used to looking at pictures, photos etc in this ratio, what was called 'n' print size.

Photo below you can see the amount of canvas that I keep in stock, just in case I need a different shape, my favourite size is 24x18"

I have a friend with a framing business that churns out frames whenever I need one.

my shelves stacked with different shapes and sizes
my shelves stacked with different shapes and sizes | Source
table top easel, useful for small work
table top easel, useful for small work | Source
Large studio easel for work as big as 4' by 6'
Large studio easel for work as big as 4' by 6' | Source


Again there is a massive amount on the market, it is a common sense sort of thing. I have about six different ones including field easels that include a carry box and adjustable legs. Go for something cheap and cheerful to begin with, but make sure it will do what you want.

A good one can be expensive, buy the best you can or put it on your birthday wish list and hope someone buys it for you.

Other bits and bobs.

Bits and bobs

Rags by the bucket load you will need, once used just chuck them in the bin. An assortment of pots and tubs to clean and hold your brushes, take a tip, when your brush has paint on it and you want to keep it awhile put in bristles up in a jar or it will roll off the table and onto your carpet in a jiffy, not good for marital relationships.

Pencils and a good clear plastic rule, not ruler that is the queen God bless her. For real fine work I have a magnifier on an extending arm. Plenty of spare paper for planning and making your design on.

Where do I start?

Whatever the subject you choose there are a few basics to follow. If you are working from a postcard or photograph don’t try and get an exact copy, you might as well stick with the photo in that case. Imagine the scene under different weather conditions, at a different time of day. If there are people or animals in the picture, what about moving them to make a more interesting picture? You can change just what you want, it’s your picture no can say that it is wrong. Obviously if you are including a well-known landmark then it has to have at least the right shape. Taking out a tree or moving it is the fun part of painting and drawing.

Once I have decided on the subject I like to have a long think about it, I think about the story of what is happening the sounds and smells of the scene.

In this picture, the girls are Whitby bait girls, making their living from baiting the thousands of fishing hooks with muscles. The inspiration for this was a famous photograph by the nineteenth century photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (Hon. F.R.P.S.) between 1875 and 1910 who had the foresight to capture the world at that time for posterity. Over the years thousands of visitors to Whitby and that area will have sent this scene home on a postcard.

First Steps

I’ve not copied it exact, I rearranged the girls to suit my painting, I’ve also changed their faces, and used portraits of girls from some of Renoir’s paintings. The chap in the back is Claude Monet from another Renoir. In the original, the girls are hardly aware of the camera or so it seems, but I turned my girls a little so that the viewer seems involved in the conversation. I also gave the lady in the doorway a little dog curled up at her feet, for no other reason than I think it should be there.

First, I divide up both canvas and picture so that I can enlarge it without having to take measurements. Divide them both in half and then in quarters along both x and y-axis, if certain areas have lots of detail just subdivide them as many times as you need.

In the first painted sketches below you can still see my lines to split up the canvas. Using thinners I roughly added a few key features to start building the scene.


Add more detail

Now below you can see that I have continued to build the picture making sure that the background perspective kept in the same plane as the foreground figures; it is very easy to suddenly find that doorways are too small or large and appear to be at a strange angle all because the perspective is not correct.


more detail

Here is a close up of the girls as I developed the picture.


The colours I've used to make the seppia types tones are; Van Dyke Brown for the very dark areas, Raw Umber, for the richer tones, Burnt Umber for the mid tones, and of course Titanium white for mixing colour and Zinc white to add reflection.

the canvas was a 30"x24" pre-streched with a medium course weave.

I like painting with this very limited pallet, because it is a challenge at times to make it all work. I also found that they sold very well and people enjoyed the nostalgic scenes.

Below are the last photos that I took, a lady bought it off my easel and I never got chance to take a picture of the finished effort. My studio was open to the public at that time, and I also sold artist materials too. Now my private studio is my own space, except on a Thursday when a few old art buddies come over and we have a good chin wag and throw a bit of paint about too.


My old studio

Click thumbnail to view full-size
some of the pottery I had on offer and a few paintings which had been class assortment of my potsyou are never too old!
some of the pottery I had on offer and a few paintings which had been class pieces.
some of the pottery I had on offer and a few paintings which had been class pieces. | Source
an assortment of my pots
an assortment of my pots | Source
you are never too old!
you are never too old! | Source


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    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire


      many thanks for your kind and appreciative comments. I filmed the sequence in 2008 long before hubpages, and I wish I had been able to get better photos, but oil painting don't seem to photo very well.

      I'm really grateful to Mr. Sutcliffe for his scenes, I've painted a number of them with my own twist, and they all sold almost instantly.

      The old studio was indeed a great place and I was always happy there, but it was so cold in winter.

      I think the choice of paints is personal, the pigments vary slightly and of course the quality varies with colours ground from minerals as opposed to chemical colours.

      I will try and make a hub of the new studio, it will have to go in the queue behind your popovers, the grandkids loved them.

      There's a Yorkshireism for 'chin wagging'; chowin t'fat.

      Always a pleasure to hear from you I will visit your site again soon, but I am away from the computer a lot at the moment.



    • profile image

      stessily 5 years ago

      Tony, It's understandable that your sample painting was bought off-the-easel. Assuredly that painting occupies a place of honor in some "lucky duck's" home!

      The sequence of dry to finished canvas is helpful, interesting, and enjoyable. Your transformation of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe's photograph into your own painting does justice to Mr. Sutcliffe's talents as well as to your own.

      Your old studio looks to have been a wonderful meeting place for artists. The collection of pots displays attractive diversity of color and form. Likewise for the displayed paintings.

      Also appreciated is your "name dropping" of suppliers which you prefer --- very helpful!

      May we hope for a hub about your private studio?

      ta ta, with a hello from Scottie, who's been "chin wagging" a lot lately,


    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire


      many thanks for your visit and comments.

      The painting is almost complete, I usually add a coat of oil to seal and glaze it for protection from the elements so it was probably more finished looking.

      The big studio was near by, but I've just my garden studio now which I really like. It was a great studio, and as you observed the light was very good most of the year, but in winter the sunbarely lifted over the distant Pennines and shone straight into ones eyes, which sadly meant blinds. It had a lovely high roof giving it an airy feel, but was a devil to warm in winter, on a morning when I went in it was about 4 degrees.

      I painted the picture in circa 2007, I just hope it went to a good home. Like a twit I've sold so many pictures with out photoing them at all.

      ttfn... oh great Celtic Queen of flutterbies.

    • profile image

      Derdriu 5 years ago

      Tony, How close to the finished look is this last shot of your Frank Sutcliffe-inspired Whitby bait girls?

      Is your studio on your present property or elsewhere? The light from the big windows looks inspiringly great.

      Respectfully, and with many thanks oh Proper Champion Yorkshireman, Derdriu

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire

      Hi Phil

      good to see you again, thank you for calling by.

      I think you might find oils easier then acrylics as you have more time to adjust your colours and play with the paint.

      If I ever see them on offer anywhere canvas that is I have an impulse to buy them.




    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire

      Hi there my friend kash.

      thank you for calling by and being kind enough to comment. Thanks for the votes, I wish I knew what they did.

      Have a great weekend



    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 5 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      I'm not ready yet for oil, I use acrylic (water based) on canvas and am just starting out.

      If ever I was to start with oil, I know where to come now to know how to do it. Your supply stash is quite expansive; I wish I had the room, time, energy and money to have same.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend, this is such a great and well written and explained hub. I watched Bob Ross here in the U.S.A. some years ago, he was a great painter and guy. Although i never did oil paints i really enjoyed what you have done,Bravo !

      Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

      Have a great weekend my friend !

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire


      thank you for your visit and comment.

      If you need an further help do not hesitate to ask, because you know when you really know something it is easy to forget the basics and assume that everyone will know.



    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      For me this is a special hub. Besides doing a great job ...I keep looking at my new oil paints. I have done acrylics and watercolor. I have been writing so much I have ignored something I love to do. Thanks for the inspiration. I am bookmarking this hub...and voting up.