5 oil painting tips for beginners will cover:
- Oil paint toxicity and studio safety
- Choosing paintbrushes
- What oil paints and how many colors to have on your palette
- Which basic drawing skills are important?
- Alla prima (all in one session) painting from life vs painting from photos
An important thing to remember when you first start painting is to be patient You don’t have to understand all the oil painting lingo to start painting – like ‘high key painting’, ‘warm and cool color harmonies’, or ‘dry brush techniques vs blending’. You can have a great time even when you’re still figuring out what the color red mixed with blue makes.
You may be a watercolor or acrylic painter thinking of trying oil painting – this will give you some insight into why you might want to oil paint.
1. Oil Painting & Studio Safety – Breathe Easy
If you’re just beginning to oil paint you’ve probably heard about artists who choose watercolor or acrylics because they worry about ‘toxic’ oil paints. Well, worry no more! Oil painting can easily be a toxic-free solution whether you paint Plein air or in your studio.
The oil paints themselves as they come out of the tube (if you get professional-grade) are composed of oil (usually linseed, walnut, poppyseed, or safflower) and pigment (inorganic pigments like iron oxides and Ultramarine Blue, or synthetic organic pigments like Phthalo and Quinacridone hues). Inorganic pigments tend to be dependably lightfast – you can trust that they will not fade in our lifetime – while some of the organic colors are under scrutiny – and being retested for lightfastness.
So, if you want to be on the lightfast safe side the best information I’ve read is on handprint.com. There is way too much to cover for a blog post like this.
You may have read that oil paints contain chemicals that can be absorbed through your skin. That is NOT true! At least not any more than gum arabic or acrylic polymer emulsion – the binders for watercolor and acrylic paint. Of course, you don’t want to eat any of the paints whether oil paint, watercolor, or acrylic, but getting them on your skin is not going to harm you or get into your bloodstream. If you see me wearing gloves in my videos that’s so I can avoid washing the paint off my hands – it’s a lot quicker to remove gloves.
The only exception to the bloodstream issue is if you use Turpentine. Turpentine can be absorbed through your skin and it will carry the pigments with it into your body. Stay away from Turpentine or any medium that contains solvents and you will be safe!
Keep in mind that solvents are not necessary for oil painting. Most of my paintings have been finished without the use of harmful solvents. I did use Gamsol mineral spirits for many years, but it will not absorb through your skin like Turpentine. The fumes are harmful, especially to solvent-sensitive artists, so I now stay away from mineral spirits as well. Gamblin states that it is the safest solvent available to artists. I used it for the initial washes on my paintings for more than a decade without noticing any negative effects – both in my studio and while painting outdoors. They’ve removed more than 99% of the really harmful aromatics, but the fumes are still flammable and there is an inhalation warning on the container.
If you want to add a little fluidity to your oil paints I suggest a small amount of oil like linseed or walnut, or an oil painting medium like Oleogel or Walnut Oil Gel – both made by Natural Pigments. They do not contain solvents. Make sure you use them sparingly. Too many artists overdo it by mixing a paint soup. Adding just a touch of medium like Oleogel with your brush to a good size mixture of paint on your palette will be plenty to make it fluid without risking weakening the paint film.
Many artists use alkyd mediums. Alkyds like Liquin speed up the drying of oil paints and also add a sheen finish rather than a gloss finish. One of the problems I have with them is that alkyd mediums contain solvents (usually mineral spirits or something stronger). Some exceptions may be Solvent-Free Gel by Gamblin or M Graham’s Walnut Alkyd Medium which say they are both non-toxic. From what I’ve heard they manufacture the alkyd with mineral spirits, but the mineral spirits are not added to the final product. It’s likely there are small remnants of solvent left in the alkyd portion, but I don’t know that for sure. So, if you are sensitive to solvents at all I would stick with a completely solvent-free medium like Oleogel.
To clean my brushes, I use Turpenoid Natural which is non-toxic. It will completely remove the color from my paintbrushes without the need for soap and water. A solvent like Turpenoid Natural is entirely safe to use in your studio and it conditions your paintbrushes to help them keep their shape and last much longer than using soap and water. Another option that I just heard about is Bristle Magic Brush Cleaner which cleans and conditions like Turpenoid Natural – the drawback is you have to wash out the cleaner with soap and water before painting which is not necessary with Turpenoid Natural. They are both non-toxic. So, if you can’t find Turpenoid Natural and you need to dissolve paint that has hardened like a rock onto your brushes, Bristle Magic sounds handy.
Some artists have turned to water-mixable oils to speed up cleaning. My recommendation – stick with traditional oils. Traditional oils cure with a harder paint film than water-mixable, they are more buttery to paint with, they dry just as fast or faster in some cases, and cleanup with Turpenoid Natural means never needing to use soap and water. It’s actually better for the environment since we’re not washing those fish-toxic pigments down the sink and it’s better for our brushes.
2. Choosing Paintbrushes for Beginning Oil Painters
Paintbrushes do not need to be expensive. Just because your favorite artist uses a particular brand or type of paintbrush doesn’t mean that’s the best choice for you or someone else. Figuring out what will be useful for you or what will get the particular look you want takes a lot of experimenting.
My suggestion is to start with one or two brushes from a particular brand to see if you like them. I love Rosemary and Co. Ultimate, Egbert, and Masters series oil paintbrushes, but there are a lot of great paintbrush makers like Utrecht, Raphael, Princeton, Da Vinci, Grumbacher, and Robert Simmons. A lot of artists like Princeton’s synthetic Catalyst Polytip – they are about the same price (maybe a bit more) than Rosemary’s synthetic brushes like the Ivory or Evergreen series. The Catalyst is super stiff & springy for a synthetic which works better for me than the Rosemary synthetics. Synthetics don’t usually hold up to my push/pull brush motion technique – it tends to quickly splay the bristles. The Catalyst seems to hold up better to my rigorous brush techniques. If you want a durable brush that keeps its shape, the Catalyst looks like a good one.
I even use hardware store brushes. The 1” or larger nylon paintbrushes can come in handy for getting large areas of our paintings covered quickly. The one important thing to watch for with less expensive brushes is they tend to lose bristles. Stay away from brushes that fall apart quickly. Repeatedly removing bristles from your painting will get in the way of learning and the fun of spontaneous bravura (broad, loose, vigorous) brushwork.
Another problem you may find with cheap brushes is that they don’t hold their razor-sharp edges or shapes. The bristles flare out wildly after one or more uses. That isn’t too bad when you don’t need exacting detail like wild, unpredictable foliage, but it’s terrible when you want a crisp edge on the wall of a building or the highlight on a twisting, delicate flower petal.
When you first look at paintbrushes you will probably see a lot of choices like filberts, brights, rounds, or flats. I use each of them, but mostly the Long Flats and Egberts (especially hog bristle brushes).
Flats and Brights have a squared-off edge. Flats are longer than Brights and have more spring which is great for layering impasto paint. Bright paintbrush bristles are short and stiffer (less spring) than Flats which is useful when you want to cut through those thick impasto layers of paint.
Filberts are like used Flats – the corners of the square edge have been worn down and are now rounded. Egberts are extra-long filberts and are fun to use for bravura tree foliage. The long bristles dance to their own beat and can create wonderful unpredictable marks.
Rounds are pointed like many watercolor brushes and are often used for smaller detail work like adding the twinkle in an eye.
You can also use a lot of tools that are not traditional – like cut-up credit cards for scraping the oil paint or rubber scrapers (or the end of your paintbrush) to cut small branches through thick impasto paint. T Allen Lawson uses charcoal pencils to draw branches through oil paint. Charlie Hunter is famous for using 6” brass window washer squeegees for line and shape making in his oil paintings.
3. What Oil Paint Colors and How Many to Have on Your Palette
Oil painting can seem daunting for beginners with so many color choices available. Don’t stress about it. There are no required colors, brands, or ideal oil painting palette scenarios. I’ve looked at the palettes of dozens of top professional artists and they are all different from one another.
Start with a simple palette of the primaries and slowly experiment with and add new colors as your budget allows. A good palette of hues to begin learning with is lemon yellow (or cadmium yellow light), quinacridone magenta, and phthalo blue. With those 3 colors plus white you will get an amazing variety of all the major colors. It really is a perfect palette for beginning oil painters.
Right now, there are 20 different oil paint pigments (I would have said colors, but white is not a color) on my palette. That is definitely not a necessity. In fact, some of those colors are simply to experiment with and probably won’t stay on my palette. Typically, I keep a warm and cool version of each of the primaries (red, yellow, and blue), some form of ochres (transparent oxide yellow, orange, and red and I’m experimenting with the more opaque yellow ochre and raw sienna), and a couple greens like Phthalo Emerald from Gamblin. Since my palette colors change occasionally you can find the colors I use and a list of all my art supplies here: https://www.masteroilpainting.com/art-supply-list/
Other artists like John Pototschnik and Kevin Macpherson use a limited palette of three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) plus white because they say it simplifies mixing specific colors and creating color harmony in your paintings. It also speeds up the paint buying process.
Again, experiment and see what works for you. Over time you will find that certain colors work well to help you express your vision of the world. I love the wide range of saturated colors I can mix with my palette, but a limited palette may work beautifully for you, especially when you are first learning to mix colors.
To really get to know your colors I would suggest the tried-and-true art school color charts like Richard Schmid encourages in his book Alla Prima.
Using taped-off one-inch squares, mix each of your colors with another color on your palette and then with white to increasingly lighten the values. You will come away with a profound understanding of the color possibilities with your paint.
I’m not typically a fan of black on my palette, preferring to mix my own dark shadow colors. Recently though, I tried out Chromatic Black by Gamblin and love it. It is not a carbon-based pigment – it is a mixture of two colors I often use for dark values. It is also completely neutral in color temperature – it does not lean to red (warm) or blue (cool) or any other color family. It speeds up mixing shadow colors while allowing me to quickly warm or cool the temperature by adding any other color from my palette. It’s also less expensive than most other colors.
As far as an oil paint brand I would recommend there are several excellent oil paint manufacturers. Gamblin makes wonderful paint at a great price. I also love M Graham & Co oil paints, Michael Harding, Rublev by Natural Pigments, Rembrandt oil colors, and Vasari. Vasari is one of the more expensive lines of oil paint but well worth the cost.
One last thing, stay away from white-containing zinc. It unquestionably makes oil paints more brittle and can cause the paint to peel off the canvas. Titanium is great – lead white is even better (and much more expensive). I now mix titanium and lead together 50/50 or so to make a stronger white for my oil paintings (it doesn’t need to be exact). Lead as a pigment is not toxic as long as you don’t eat it or sand down your painting and inhale the dust. That goes for all oil paint pigments. I purchased Lead White #2 from Natural Pigments – Michael Harding also makes a fantastic walnut oil binder lead white called Cremnitz White No. 2. The alkyd lead white is toxic because it contains mineral spirits and the fumes are not healthy – regular lead white does not contain solvents.
4. Which basic drawing skills are important?
You don’t have to be a master draftsman to paint with oils. The stronger your drawing skills the easier it will be to create realism with oil paint, but you can have a lot of fun even when you struggle with realistic drawing.
If you can I would recommend joining a life-drawing group that meets on a regular basis (once a month or every week). Drawing from life is the best way to hone both your drawing and your oil painting skills. If a group like that doesn’t exist where you live, then set up a simple still-life in your studio or sit on the lawn outside and draw anything you want. Having a single direct light source on the subject helps so you will have shadows and distinct planes and shapes to work with. Focus on capturing the value transitions between light and shadow. Eventually, your understanding of how values affect every subject will strengthen your drawings and oil paintings.
If you are a landscape painter then paint the figure (clothed if you prefer). If you love to paint people, practice drawing landscapes. Doing this will increase your skills in the other area and help you create more dramatic and engaging paintings because you will begin to see your subject in new ways.
Something extremely helpful for all oil painters is a basic understanding of perspective. If you don’t understand basic 1- and 2-point perspective I highly recommend purchasing a book like Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting which discusses Aerial and Linear perspectives (or look on YouTube for guidance). I will soon have a video teaching perspective for our Members in the Master Oil Painting Membership.
5. Painting from Life or Painting from Photos; Alla prima (all in one session) or Layering
The age-old discussion – why should we paint from life instead of photos? I am not against using photos especially to remember details that might escape our memories. The reason we encourage artists of every skill level to paint regularly from life is that you will notice nuances of atmosphere, light, shadow, and color that a photo simply doesn’t capture. Painting Plein air (outdoors) or direct painting (painting from life) is the quickest way to strengthen your skills as an oil painter.
If you worried about painting the same thing over and over – don’t be. Each time you paint a subject you will gain new ideas and awareness that will make each new painting an adventure. Kevin MacPherson painted his pond more than 200 times and said that he “was less concerned with the subject of the pond itself than with the effects of light at different times of the day and year”. Monet painted the same waterlilies over and over, yet each one is a unique interpretation of nature’s beauty.
So, use photos if you want, but paint from life as often as possible.
Alla Prima painting is finishing a painting in one session while the paint is still wet. I prefer Alla prima oil painting as often as I can because working wet-into-wet (layering wet paint on top of wet paint) allows me to blend and manipulate edges more easily.
Many artists struggle with thick opaque paint. The main way to learn is to practice. To help your practice, a key is to push your long bristled Flat brush forward into a pile of paint so that you load plenty of paint on the edge of your brush. Then hold the brush parallel to the painting and with a light touch pull the brush so that the pile of paint lays on top of the previous layer without disturbing (mixing or blending together) that previous layer of paint. If it doesn’t work on the first pass, don’t mess with the first pass. Reload your brush and try it all over again until the stroke works. Sometimes it can take me 4 or 5 tries to get one brushstroke to look the way I want it to. Be patient and in no time using thick impasto paint and gorgeous oil paint texture will become a regular part of your painting routine.
I hope these 5 oil painting tips for beginners gave you some ideas to jumpstart your oil painting journey.
Oil paint is extremely versatile. You can play with thick opaque paint or with thin transparent glazes. Virtually every painting technique artists have invented is possible using oil paint. It is fully non-toxic as long as you don’t eat it. It can be glossy and vibrant or more matte and subdued. You can create mirror-like finishes or scraggly, bumpy textures that look like rock or fur or tree bark. You can paint in full sun or in the pouring rain (Stanley Meltzoff even oil painted while scuba diving in the ocean). Any subject or style is fair game with oil painting.
An oil painting can last for hundreds of years without losing its beauty and vitality. Even if we never end up in an art museum, our family and friends will love knowing they can pass down their favorite paintings for generations.
Go forward with confidence by playing and experimenting every day as you master the wonderful world of oil painting.