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How to paint in oils

Updated on February 23, 2014

Your journey starts here...

'Study for field', 2014. Oil on board.
'Study for field', 2014. Oil on board. | Source

Want to learn how to paint in oils?

Then what you need to do first is learn how to draw. That comes before everything else, in the same way that learning to walk comes before learning how to dance.

Drawing teaches you how to see like a painter, and to classify and order your perceptions so that you can take what your painting needs from all you see.

Please note that I'm talking about painting in a convincing realist style, working from life. If you paint abstractions, or work in one of the more abstruse 20th century styles, bail out now. There's nothing here for you.

What do you paint on?

First choice: oil primed linen.

Pros: painting on linen canvas is like stroking a cat.
Cons: linen is expensive.

Second choice: MDF.

Pros: MDF is cheap, stable, easy to cut to size*, and doesn't bow when primed.
Cons: It needs sealing with PVA before you prime it with an oil based primer.

There are other painting surfaces and supports, all with various pros and cons. Cotton duck makes an acceptable canvas, but it isn't as good as linen. Hardboard has a good smooth surface, but it has to be battened on the back before you prime it, or it bows. This means it gets pretty heavy if your painting is over a certain size.

* Use a dustmask when you cut or sand MDF. You don't want the dust in your lungs.

Still life painting

'Still life', oil on canvas.
'Still life', oil on canvas. | Source

Loaded question time...

Is painting dead?

See results

What paint do you need?

Artist's quality oils in these colours:

Titanium White (A big tube, because you'll use a lot.)

Cadmium Lemon Yellow

Quinacridone Magenta

Winsor Blue (Green shade)

These four colours will mix just about any other colour you may need. The yellow, magenta and blue lie on the outside of the colour wheel, being bright and unsullied. This means you can mix a wide range of colours using them.

As time goes on you can expand on this list, buying paints that will save you the time and trouble of mixing particular colours. Mixing a dull yellow from expensive Cadmium Lemon, for example, makes little sense when you could just squeeze some economical Yellow Ochre onto your palette.

Here are some recommended additional colours:

Cadmium Orange

Cadmium Red

French Ultramarine

Oxide of Chromium

Yellow Ochre

Burnt Sienna

Burnt Umber

Titanium Buff

Mars Black

Some of these, like the cadmiums, will be expensive, but some, like the ochres, siennas, and umbers and ultramarine, will be cheap. This is because of the cost of their respective pigments, which is why all paint manufacturers have different price points for their various colours, usually putting them in four bands.

Why do they have to be artist's quality oil paints? Won't student grade do?

Well, you get what you pay for. Student grade paints are fine for some things, but they contain less pigment and more fillers than artist's quality oils, and often substitute cheaper pigments that simply aren't as good as their artist's quality counterparts in terms of coverage and brilliance of colour.

Why do they have to be oil paints? There are alternatives.

There certainly are, but none of them can match the depth and range of tone and colour that comes in addition to the ease of blending which oil paint's protracted drying time brings. Acrylics can match the colour, but dry too quickly for careful blending of tones and colours working wet in wet. Tempera doesn't have the same tonal range, and is perhaps best suited to painting on small panels. Watercolour used to be pushed until it resembled works in oils, but that's going against the nature of the medium.

Any paint is just a colour delivery system, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. Oil paint has more advantages when it comes to working in an academic, realist style.

Landscape painting

'Field edge', oil on board.
'Field edge', oil on board. | Source

What do you paint with?

Hogshair, sable, and synthetic fibre brushes. Buy small and large versions in these shapes: flat, filbert, and round. You can do most things with these brushes.

Flats, as the name suggests, are made in a simple, rectangular flat shape. Filberts are a longer, more oval shaped type of flat. Rounds are set in a round ferrule and come to a point.

Later, try the various specialized shapes - fan blenders, riggers, etc - to see if they can add to your repertoire of brushwork.

What else do I need?

Somewhere to stand your painting while you work on it. An easel is good if you have room enough, and if the size of your painting warrants it.

Turpentine substitute to clean your brushes and thin your paint. Why not use real turpentine? Well, it's kind of toxic. You need good ventilation if you use it, and some people can't get along with the smell.

Oil painting medium to add to your paint. This extends the colour, makes it flow more easily, and dries with a uniform sheen. You can make your own by mixing one third linseed oil and two thirds turpentine substitute, or buy a proprietary medium like Liquin, which will also make the paint dry more quickly.

A palette, on which to mix your paint. This could be a sheet of smooth plywood, sealed with linseed oil rubbed in with a rag. Or you could use a sheet of glass laid on a sheet of white paper.

A palette knife, to mix your paint. (Don't mix paint with a brush. It makes for dirty mixtures and wears down the bristles.)

Knowledge of oil painting techniques. Remember, the skill isn't in the paint, or the brushes. It's in your head. How do you put it there? Through good tuition, which you can get from books, courses, DVDs, and online videos.

Still life #2

'Kitchen still life', oil on canvas.
'Kitchen still life', oil on canvas. | Source

How to paint? Be careful who you ask.

But be very selective when it comes to choosing who you allow to teach you. Judge them first by the quality of their work. You have the whole of art history online to compare it to - a simple image search in Google will show you more good paintings than you have time to look at.

YouTube has thousands of free painting tuition videos, but the quality is patchy. Your best bet is to find a painter whose work you admire, and see if they have a DVD or book for sale. Don't worry about originality, or fret about being true to your 'vision', or compromising your native genius. Every great painter of the past learned how to paint by first copying from painters who had gone before.

You wouldn't pick up a violin for the first time and expect to play like a virtuoso - you have to learn the notes, and scales, and music theory. Painting is no different. Don't reject the past and all it can teach you - learn from it.

You need to have a working knowledge of these things:

Drawing. In order to paint well, you must learn how to draw. Drawing is really just a special way of seeing. You learn how to look at the world in a calm, objective way, reducing all you can see to shapes and tones that you can reproduce on paper.

Tone. You need to know how to squeeze the full range of light and dark you can see in the real world, into the limited tonal range that lies between black and white.

Colour. You need to have a conceptual model of colour space in your head, so that you understand how to mix paint to get any colour you want.

Composition. You must be able to arrange the parts of your painting into a harmonious whole.

Perspective is a must, if you paint buildings or landscape.

Anatomy will help you paint convincing portraits and figures.

Oil painting techniques, the ways in which paint can be applied to get the result you're after, from solid body colour to glazes and scumbling.

Any one of these subjects is a lifetime's study. Taken all together, they can seem overwhelming, but it's as well to remember that you learn as you go along, and you learn just what you need to know for the kind of painting you do. Most painters are specialists of one kind or another, and there are very few who can 'do it all'.

Plein air painting

'On the way to Rowthorne', oil on board.
'On the way to Rowthorne', oil on board. | Source

In conclusion...

Painting is hard - but then, so are many things that are worth doing well. Success depends so much on getting good tuition, and finding the time and the will to apply the skills you learn. The good news is that the knowledge is still out there, and the tradition of figurative painting is alive and well and in good shape.

Scott Christensen teaches.

© 2014 geoffco23

Got something to say?

Submit a Comment

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 

    4 years ago from New Delhi, India

    This is very informative and useful hub about Oil Painting!

    I have been doing Oil Painting since childhood and I still enjoy it.

    You have given some very useful suggestions here. Thanks for sharing.

    Voted up and pinned!


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