There’s nothing better than the feeling of sitting down with your brushes before your canvas and starting to paint. The time sort of flies away, as you become absorbed in the palette of colours, the slow development of the composition, the gradually appearing image.

That’s the dream of many who paint for fun: to get lost in the details of the landscape, the movement of the brush strokes, the meditative process of painting on canvas.

However, not everyone enters that zone. Particularly those who are just starting to learn to paint. You might not know how to mix colours effectively, or you might be too overwhelmed by your comparison of yourself with the Old Masters (we all do this silly thing). Otherwise, faced with a blank canvas, it is often the uncertainty – the sort of lack of conviction in what they are doing – that obstructs the inexperienced oil painter.

Unfortunately, this is just part of the game of learning. But, in learning how to paint with oil effectively – in learning the principles, techniques, and history of this wonderful art – you can overcome this uncertainty in no time.

Let’s have a look at how you can do it. Here’s our beginner’s guide to oil painting.

You can find a general introduction to oil painting too!

What is Oil Painting?

So, firstly, what is oil painting – and how is it different from other types of painting? That’s the first question we’re going to be looking at here.

Because oil painting has its own history – along with its own techniques, materials, and style

Simply put, oil painting is a type of painting that uses pigments suspended in drying oil. Obviously, the oil here is important: whilst it takes really quite a long time to dry, it dries incredibly hard. In fact, it keeps on drying – and getting harder – for years after it is applied. This means that painters can create layers in their paintings and make corrections or changes if required.

The other important aspect of oil painting is that the colours can be mixed very easily, creating an infinite number of different shades. And, obviously, this can be quite handy for painters.

man looks at oil painting
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Tempera, Acrylic Painting, and Watercolour

But, for greater clarity on what oil paintings are, let’s compare them to other painting techniques.

By the Renaissance period, oil had pretty much taken over as the medium for painters in Europe. Yet, before this, the medium of choice was tempera.

Tempera

Tempera was the most popular of painting media for an awful long time, with paintings found in tempera in all sorts of places – from Egyptian sarcophagi to Byzantine manuscripts, and medieval church paintings.

It was made usually of egg yolk, milk, or oil, and it dried exceptionally quickly (unlike oil paints). However, oil paint provides much more vibrant colour, as the oil can hold much more pigment.

Watercolour

Whilst oil painting started gaining use in the Renaissance, watercolour has been around for millennia.

This is because it is much more easily produced: it only requires pigments and water to function. However, unlike oil painting, watercolour is translucent; it doesn’t have the full opacity and richness of colour that oil paintings have.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is a more recent invention – made, as it is, out of plastic. The cool thing with this is that it can be made to look like a watercolour, tempera, or oil paint – depending on how much you dilute it.

However, where oil painting takes a long time to dry, acrylic paint is super-quick. This means that it isn’t really the best option for beginners – because if you paint slowly, your composition will be dry by the time you have finished it!

It also doesn’t have the same vibrancy of colours as oil painting.

What is Oil Paint Made Of?

We’ve had egg yolk, acrylic, and water. But what is oil paint made of?

Usually, it is made of the oil from seeds – such as linseed oil and poppy seed oil. Walnut oil is also used – and it can be boiled be a resin to give the dried paint a glossier finish.

oil paint in a tube
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Find Your Inspiration: Some Famous Oil Painters and Paintings

One of the best bits of advice a student of painting and art can receive is to look for inspiration everywhere. Quite predictably, the best, most inspiring places to find it are in the works of other artists who have come before us.

Yes, we’re talking about the Old Masters – from Rembrandt to Vermeer. We’re talking about Impressionism and post-impression. And we’re talking about all sorts of different painters right up to the present.

As a painter, you should be interested in the works of other artists. You should be interested in art history and techniques. And you should be looking at how other painters have used oil paint in the past.

Let’s take just a couple here.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci may well be one of the most famous painters in art history. And he was working at a time at which oil painting was finally booming.

The majority of his most famous paintings – including the Mona Lisa, the Salvator Mundi, and Saint John the Baptist – are all works with oil paint. This gave the paintings the incredibly lifelike effect for which they are famous.

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky is famous for his theories of colour – and for his abstract paintings that make use of deeply saturated, contrasting colours.

This was all made possible by his use of oil on canvases.

Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh, the virtuosic post-impressionist painter, was highly prolific in his creation of oil paintings – painting almost nine hundred compositions in oil over the space of nine years.

His particular style of painting uses bold colours and the prominent brushstrokes for which he is easily recognised. Without oil such effects would not really have been possible.

Check out some handy oil painting resources!

Oil Painting Techniques You Need to Know

Now you are inspired, it’s time to start attempting your own composition. However, if you are serious about your art, you aren’t just going to go at the canvas with nothing planned in your mind.

The techniques that you will need to nail your oil painting are not just about painting per se. Rather, you’ll need to practise all of the following stages of the compositional process.

1.       Drawing / Composing

Start to paint with a pencil. Visualise the shapes that you will want to render in paint later on.

If it is a landscape, consider the dimensions of the sky, the shape of a tree, etc. If, rather, you are working on a portrait, sketch out the ways in which all of the features will fit together.

The same applies for any other image you are aiming for.

2.       Considering Tones

If you have the shapes down, great. But before you go for the paint, get the tonal scheme down. With a pencil or charcoal, arrange the contrasts between dark and light before any colour is added.

These first two take more practice than you might expect. But beautiful images start from these two stages.

3.       Preparing Your Colours

You still haven’t applied paint to canvas. Good. Hold back still more.

Before starting to paint, you need to prepare your colours. On your palette, you’ll be mixing different shades to produce the exact tone and contrast that you want.

Get all of the colour ready before you begin applying them.

4.       Begin to Paint

Of course, there are plenty more techniques that you will need to get down when you are oil painting. And you can read all about these in our article on oil painting techniques.

Find out more about important oil painting techniques!

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Things You’ll Need to Start Oil Painting

Finally, here are some of the essential things you will need before you can start painting at all. Yeah, a paint brush and a canvas. But really, there’s a lot more than that too.

Oil Paints

Firstly, there are your oil paints.

Whilst you’ll only need the basic colours to begin with, it is important to feel comfortable with the texture – and the cost too.

Some of the best brands out there are Winsor and Newton, or Van Gogh.

Brushes

If you are serious about your oil painting, you’ll need a range of different brushes.

Flat brushes are good for moments in which you want a whole layer of a colour. Meanwhile, round brushes are good for the details.

Remember size matters, so pick wisely.

Palette

Oil painting is all about mixing things up. And so, you’re going to need a palette on which to mix your colours.

Without that, there’s not really any point in using oils at all.

Canvas

Try painting without something to paint onto.

A canvas is generally what painters go for. It is durable, it holds the paint well, and it’s generally pretty iconic too.

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Krishna