The Basics of Oil Painting

What I learnt from my first ever experience with oil painting!

Table of Contents

Introduction

Earlier this year I was very fortunate to be in receipt of a micro-bursary provided by the Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme. This scheme is led by the North Pennines AONB Partnership and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It is a major project to conserve, enhance, and celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of a special part of the North West of England, which stretches from the Cumbrian fellside of the North Pennines AONB and UNESCO Global Geopark to the River Eden, and runs north from Melmerby to Hallbankgate. As part of these efforts, the Fellfoot Forward scheme provided funding opportunities for local artists including commission work and micro-bursaries.

When applying for the micro-bursary, I explained that I would dedicate this money to expanding my skills and knowledge of art and drawing. In secondary school I dropped art as an academic subject during my first year of A-levels (I had chosen four subjects initially and, since I was getting a D grade in art, I decided to drop this one in favour of three subjects plus General Studies) and I hadn’t received any formal training or education in art since. So I planned to attend some classes, whether in-person or virtually, and after some research found some great introductory classes with a local artist at the Rheged Discovery Centre.

My first experience was very much out of my comfort zone: a 6-hour oil painting class with Catherine MacDiarmid. It was my first time ever trying oil paints, and the first time I had picked up a paintbrush for many years! It was a fascinating experience which I wanted to share here; and you can also watch it in a vlog on my YouTube channel here.

What is oil painting?

Oil painting uses paints that consist of colour pigments mixed with oil. As oil does not mix with water, in order to dilute your paint you must mix it with either more oil, such as linseed, or a spirit/solvent. 

The key feature of oil paint is that it takes a very long time to dry. If applied thickly, you can leave a painting and return to it over several days or even weeks, reworking it and adding to it as you go. This makes oil painting a very malleable medium, but also tricky to work with as the layering techniques are very different to what you might use with acrylics, pastels or coloured pencils.

Van Gogh's starry night and an image of oil paints, brushes and palette
Oil painting has been used as a traditional medium for hundreds of years

Traditional oil paintings used with oil such as linseed can become discoloured over time owing to the slight pigmentation of the oil itself. You also need a well-primed surface to work from so the paint isn’t absorbed into the paper making it harder to work with and less vibrant.

When working with oils, you can’t escape the fact that the solvents you need to clean your brushes and dilute your paint contain strong chemicals. You can source specialist diluents that attempt to mask the chemical smell with other scents, as you will see later when I talk about the equipment you need. Ultimately, though, it means you need to work in a well ventilated space separate from communal rooms of the house, such as a conservatory or, if you are fortunate enough, a purpose-built studio.

What do I need to start oil painting?

There is quite a lot of equipment you need when you first begin oil painting, but once you have some supplies they will last a good while (depending on how quickly you use them up of course!). I relied on the list that our class instructor provided and I have listed below the items I used, as well as anything I missed but would recommend to anyone starting out.

I purchased all the supplies I didn’t already have from Cass Art. I will provide links to these but note that they are for information only and not affiliated with Cass Art or any brand (i.e. I do not make any money if you click on the link and then buy something).

Paints

I wanted a fairly basic set of oil colours that would provide enough variety to give painting with them a proper go, but without spending too much I was unlikely to switch to oil painting full-time. The Van Gogh Oil Colour Basic Set of 10 was ideal for this. The quality is very good and when I used them I felt the consistency and pigmentation were perfectly suited for someone starting out. Catherine, our instructor, pointed out that, even if you’re just giving oil painting a try, you should still buy good quality paint otherwise your experience of it may be tarnished by a low quality paint that doesn’t do the job.

Van Gogh Oil colour basic set of 10

Paintbrushes

Pro Arte Master Brush set of 5

It was recommended by our instructor to bring hog bristle brushes, or their synthetic equivalent, and I happened to have a very old set of hog bristle-type brushes I’d bought when I was much younger and painted more regularly (with acrylic paint). These brushes came in a range of sizes and the coarser hair of the bristles were easier to clean and could withstand the strong chemicals.

I did, however, also want to buy some finer, smaller brushes that would be better for detailed work and purchased the Pro Arte Masterstroke Brush Cass Exclusive Set of 5. I didn’t use all the brushes as there wasn’t a lot of time for fine detail work but of the ones I did use I felt the flat head shape was the best for oil painting; they lay down the paint in wide, definitive strokes whereas, with something like watercolour, the round head brushes are better for retaining the watery paint in the bristles and creating subtler brush strokes.

I would recommend this brush set for anyone wanting a basic beginner-friendly range of brushes, but for starting out with oil painting I would focus on flat head brushes in a broader range of sizes.

Paper or Canvas

For the oil painting class I chose to take an A4 pad of specifically prepared oil paper: the Winsor & Newton oil pad 230gsm in A4. It worked well although the texture of the paper could be seen through the thinner areas of paint. One way to avoid this is to prime the paper with gesso (see the next item). Our instructor advised strongly that we prepare all paper this way as you want to prevent the surface from absorbing too much of the paint. This particular paper didn’t over-absorb the paint, though, so I would say it is good for starting out with.

Winsor & Newton Oil Pad 230gsm A4

Gesso

A tub of Gesso primer paint

This white primer is an acrylic-based paint making it quick drying, though of course you should ideally leave plenty of time for it to dry before painting over it.

I used some gesso that Catherine had brought and applied it quite loosely, not really knowing what I was doing and not wanting to waste time waiting for a thick layer to dry. To use it properly I would ensure I applied it more evenly as, where there were thin patches, the texture of the paper came through and affected the look of the oil paint.

Mixing Medium/Cleaning Fluid

The Zest It oil paint dilutant works as a mixing medium and a brush cleaner. As a solvent, it thins out the oil paint where water would do the same for acrylics. It includes a citrus scent designed to ease the chemical smell and is also safer to use than the traditional turpentine and white spirit.

I found this an easier way of diluting the oil paints than linseed oil, which I had also purchased. Given the quality of the paints I was using, and the fact I was a beginner with oils, I didn’t feel the need to thin the paint as I applied it as much as I anticipated. In the end, it was used mainly to clean brushes between colours, which it did perfectly well.

Zest-it dilutant and brush cleaner

Palette and Palette Knives

I wasn’t too sure of what kind of palette to get for this class and in the end chose a plastic one with multiple trays of different sizes and this tear-off paper palette from Winsor & Newton. On that day, this paper palette worked the best and I would recommend it as an alternative to a palette that you have to clean, as each sheet can instead be thrown away meaning less oil and solvent going down your drain. 

Similarly, with the palette knives I looked at buying more expensive metal ones with wooden handles, but settled on this set of 5 plastic ones by Liquitex. Given I don’t intend to take up oil painting regularly, I probably could have simply bought one metal knife, but there is no harm in having some variety! I’ll explain more about what these knives were used for, and I’ll just say that the one I used on the day worked perfectly well for me as a beginner.

Rags, Jars and plenty of Ventilation!

Finally, the last few pieces I would recommend, and are still very important, are jars and rags. Using a container with a lid for your mixing medium will mean you can keep it sealed after your painting session for another time. Solvents and oils should ideally not go down the sink but you will be able to get a lot of mileage out of a single ‘portion’ as, once the paint sediment has settled, the clean spirit can be poured into a new vessel for second use.

Rags are also very useful for wiping and cleaning your brushes as you go. You want to use material that you don’t mind keeping for the purpose of painting as you won’t be able to wash them in the laundry afterwards! I also made the mistake of resting the rag I was using on my knee while I painted and, despite also having an apron on (another piece of equipment I’d recommend) the oil and solvent seeped through to my jeans!

As I mentioned previously, having a spacious, well-ventilated studio is ideal for oil painting. I personally work from a small desk in my bedroom so I wouldn’t want to get out my paints and things there and then later try to go sleep in a toxic smelling room!

How do I start oil painting?

You’ve got your materials, a great space to paint in, your table or easel is all set up and ready to go…but how to begin?

Well I would recommend starting out with an exercise we did in Catherine’s class. Start by picking out a couple of everyday objects with simple shapes to be the subjects of your work. I chose a plain white jug and a coconut (OK the coconut isn’t exactly every day but any other rounded fruit would do!). Set them up together in a well-lit space close to where you are drawing. A great tip Catherine imparted on us is to always try to incorporate a background into your composition; just a plain piece of cloth or card that creates an immediate backdrop behind the items, and a clear delineation between that and the table surface that the objects are resting on. This will always help to create a complete look to any composition, particularly when you add in the shadow details.

Then, choose one colour from your paints, preferably something at the darker end of the spectrum like Burnt Umber (which I used). Apply this paint in a moderate layer – not too thick and not too thin – all over your paper or canvas. then, put down your brush and get ready to paint…

Yes you read correctly! Instead of a brush you’re going to use a rag or cloth and begin to take paint away from the canvas. If you’ve ever drawn with charcoal and putty rubber, you will know exactly what this is about. This is value drawing, (which is my bread and butter!). You don’t have to worry about any colour matching, you simply focus on the light, middle and dark tones (values) of the objects you’re looking at. You rub paint away to carve out your image and create highlights, then you can add paint back in with the brush to create shading. Et Voila, you have a painting!

This way of working with oil paint immediately takes the pressure off achieving any kind of fine detail or finesse, and instead allows you to get a feel for the paint. I could learn how the paint moved with pressure from my fingertip, and how I could manipulate areas to build up into darker shades. I was truly amazed to see that continued wetness in the paint and how that made it so malleable and manoeuvrable. It did mean I was in danger of over-doing it, though, if I didn’t tell myself to leave it alone at a satisfactory point!

value painting with oils of a jug and coconut
Value painting with oils

This painting probably took no more than 30 to 40 minutes to complete and was a great exercise for a beginner learning to use oils. It would also be useful for an experienced painter wishing to warm-up prior to more detailed work.

Colour mixing with oils

After our warm-up of painting in values, the next and final part of our 6-hour class was to paint a composition in colour. I chose a blue mug, a glass paperweight and a small mammal skull (we think it was a badger!). The colours of these objects were fairly muted, the stand out being the mug which was dark blue with a gradient that went into yellow at the rim. The background I set up was also neutral with cool brown and grey colours.

Firstly I’ll say that, in hindsight, I probably should have been a little more confident with my choices and picked out objects with more vibrancy and a background that was much darker. The number one rule when painting with oils is to keep the background dark. As Catherine explained to me when she saw my background choice, you will have a much harder time trying to apply dark colours on top of a light background – the paint on top will try to mix with the layer beneath and this will lighten it. Unless you have the luxury of walking away from the painting for days to allow a background to dry, you will be working with a wet base layer so you have to be mindful of this when thinking of what colours will be applied on top. I will say here, though, that it was testimony to the quality of the oil paints that meant Catherine was ultimately impressed by just how dark I managed to get my dark blues in the end!

But we have got a little ahead of ourselves here and I must step back for a moment as the next big rule of oil painting is to have as many of your colours pre-mixed and ready before applying anything to the canvas. This means we get out our palette knives and palettes and scrutinise the hues and saturation of our objects. Look closely at the colours of your still life and begin to put down paint onto the palette being sure to keep the original colours far enough apart and creating your blended colour separately. The knife comes in handy here to a) not get your brushes all clogged up with paint before you’ve even painted anything and b) to take from each little pile of colour precisely what you need and not waste paint being too heavy-handed in your apportioning. The knife also neatly folds the paint over and over so you don’t get a surprise streak of unblended colour when you take a section with your brush and apply it to the paper!

Once I had my colours mixed I set about painting my final composition. There were perhaps two or three hours left, but that went by in a flash! I felt very out of my element and a little like I was back in school and unable to even get basic shapes right. I persevered and tried to get into that zone of focus where I don’t overthink it and just let myself make marks. And that’s the key with painting: don’t worry about hyper-realistic details, just make marks. Make marks with your brush and keep making marks that reflect the thing you are looking at. And when looking at your still life, don’t over-engineer all the various parts; recognise simple shapes and shades with your eyes, and apply those marks to the canvas. Eventually, those marks will form together to make a complete picture!

oil painting of mug, glass paperweight and badger skull
Final composition of oil painting

So the rest of the class time flew by and before I knew it it was time to get packed up. We looked at each other’s work and I felt mine stood out in its simplicity and understatedness. There were lots of more colourful, bigger pieces that were very impressive. However, for my first ever go at oil painting, and my first time painting for many many years, I was quietly pleased with what I managed to produce.

My thoughts on oil painting

So, what did I think about oil painting in the end? Will it ever take over from my dry media? Will my brushes be put away in the cupboard never to see the light of day again?

Well, it certainly won’t become my medium of choice unfortunately. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge is simply not having the right space or set up to accommodate painting with oils. As well as having a very small desk in my bedroom, I have two little kids running around, and I wouldn’t feel safe setting up paints in a communal area like the kitchen where they could knock things over. Not to mention leaving the lingering smell of chemicals where we eat or sleep!

I did, though, thoroughly enjoy my experience and have a newfound appreciation for all painters and artists who work with oils. I can totally understand the attraction and why it is still the medium of choice for traditional artists wishing to continue the art of master painters like Van Gogh and Turner. It is a fascinating medium to work with and I hope to be able to dabble in it again one day, and perhaps create my own masterpiece in oil paint.

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