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A Beginners Guide to Oil Painting

Updated on September 1, 2017
Azure11 profile image

Marian (aka Azure11) has been working as a professional artist since 2006 and has sold over 600 paintings in that time.


About Oil Paints

Oil paints have been used for centuries by the great painters to create all styles of painting. In the early days artists would create their own oil paints by mixing up the pigments with the oil but for artists these days it is much easier to go and pick whichever shade of colour of paint you want from the massive selection of manufactured paints available.

I started painting in oils about 15 years ago and it continues to be my favourite medium. However, I mostly use acrylic paint these days because, as I work as a professional artist, I just don't have the luxury of the time needed to let the paint dry before either putting the work up for sale or finishing a commissioned job.

The Basics of Painting with Oils

If you are just starting out in oil painting then I want to share with you a few basic principles of how to use oil paints.

Firstly, like all painting, I would say that one key factor of a good painting is layers. Don't just decide on a picture, draw it out and then paint it. You need to build up the layers of paint to make a good painting.

With this in mind the first rule of oil painting is the well known phrase 'fat over lean'. This basically means that each layer of paint that you put over the previous one should be 'fatter' i.e. it should contain more oil, than the last one.

So, if you are starting your painting then the first layer should contain some turpentine (or turpentine substitute/sansodor/thinners type medium) which is the 'lean'. I usually put on a base layer that is quite heavily mixed with sansodor as a very rough sketch of what the painting is going to look like. Don't mix it too freely or the paint will run and separate.

As you continue with your layers, reduce the amount of turpentine and add more oil (there are various oils available - the most common is linseed oil but there are others like poppy oil. Start with linseed and you can always experiment more later). So, for example if I think I am going to use 3 layers in my painting I would have one with turpentine, one with a mixture of turpentine and linseed oil and one with only linseed oil.


There are really two types of paint you can get - student quality and artist quality. I would say when starting out just to get some student quality paints. These are fine for using just for your own work, where you don't intend to sell it and you are just really practising techniques.

Again, you can pay a lot of money for quality brushes and these are good for some aspects of painting, for example when you want really fine detail. But really when you are starting out don't go spending huge amounts on brushes or it will quickly become an expensive hobby. It may also depend on the style of work as to what kind of brushes you need - as an abstract artist I prefer to use big soft brushes that will blend the paint well and I can get these kinds of brushes quite cheaply in craft stores. Yes, I have to be careful when I first use them of hairs coming out, but after the initial use this is much less frequent and I find them great for creating big abstract works.

Painting Mediums
As mentioned before you will need turpentine (or thinners/sansodor etc) and also some oil (linseed oil is fine). There are many other mediums available and I would recommend you try them out and see what suits you. I often use liquin as a medium when I need to complete a picture quickly as this makes the paint dry at a much faster rate. There are also other quick drying mediums, glazing mediums etc.

The support is what you paint on and in addition to the traditional stretched canvas or canvas board you can paint on pretty much any surface you like as long as it is primed. When you are a beginner though it is easier to just start with shop bought supports and venture into other things later. A good thing to practice techniques on is paper specially designed for oil painting. Be careful with canvas boards as they are liable to warping.

Royal and Langnickel Oil Color Painting Artist Set for Beginners
Royal and Langnickel Oil Color Painting Artist Set for Beginners

This is a great beginners oil painting set that includes pretty much everything you will need to start off painting with oils, and it comes at a really good price.


What to Paint

My advice here when starting out would be to get yourself a book with a step by step guide in how to paint a particular picture. It doesn't matter what the subject matter is but this will give you a description of how to paint each layer and how to build up the painting.

Once you have done a number of these then you can venture to perhaps painting something that you have photographed yourself. In this way you are creating your own original painting rather than a copy of someone else's.


I love painting in oils because they blend so well together and have such a rich array of colours. The long drying times can be a bit of a pain at times (I have had one painting take 3 weeks to be totally touch dry) but it is the long drying time that really gives it the flexibility. If you don't like something you can just wipe it off and start again!

© 2011 Marian L


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    • profile image

      Sudhakaran 6 months ago

      It is great and helpful

    • Azure11 profile image

      Marian L 5 years ago from UK

      Hi Kylie, great that you got paints for Christmas! Just keep practicing various techniques, there are plenty of tutorials on the internet or I found it useful at the beginning to have a book that gives you a step by step guide to create a particular picture. Trying to emulate other artists (or even copy famous old paintings) can really help in learning techniques along the way.

    • profile image

      Kylie 5 years ago

      I just got paints 4 Christmas I love them but I want to be good

    • Azure11 profile image

      Marian L 6 years ago from UK

      Thanks NiaG and good luck in your attempts to paint in oils!

    • NiaG profile image

      NiaG 6 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Such a great hub! I have always been intimidated by oils. I bought a set but failed in my attempt. I will try it again with your tips in mind.

    • shafiqahmed profile image

      shafiqahmed 6 years ago

      Your this HUB is very nice and useful for the beginners. The style of writing is so simple that everyone can understand the instructions and create a good painting in a week or less. Great article for students, beginners and DIY people.

    • markomitic profile image

      markomitic 6 years ago from Toronto

      Amazing hub! I should know, have been painting with oil paint for the past 20 years. Nice to read it again. Great work.

    • Azure11 profile image

      Marian L 6 years ago from UK

      Thanks Loren's Gem, I love oil painting but have to use acrylics a lot of the time because of the drying time but you can't beat the properties of oil as far as I am concerned!

    • Loren's Gem profile image

      Loren's Gem 6 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Great hub! Oil painting just happens to be one of our (my family's) favorite hobbies which made this hub to bring up some memories at home when we used to paint our own wall decors and hang them at almost every suitable empty walls. And especially, one of my sisters makes really beautiful oils on canvass.

      This is a great hub that's serves as a very useful guide for those who are just beginning to paint. Rated it up and useful! :-)

    • Azure11 profile image

      Marian L 6 years ago from UK

      Sometimes it can take a long time to dry and it does depend on the atmospheric conditions amongst other things. Generally for oils to dry fully it takes 6 to 12 months though!

    • Puzzlemaker profile image

      Puzzlemaker 6 years ago from Florida, USA

      I used oils only once when I was a teenager (long time ago) and the paint never really dried. Maybe I did something wrong? I need to try oil again one day.