Oil paints are one of the oldest, most beautiful paint types in the world, but they can be tricky to master. While renowned artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci all make using oil paints look like a dream, oil paints do require a bit of skill. They make gorgeous artwork and make layering paints easy, but there are some tricks to make them look even better.
When you first start using oil paints, you’ll likely feel a bit intimidated by them. After all, they’re much different than acrylics and require a whole different set of skills and knowledge.
To help you adjust to this new paint medium, here are some trusted tips and tricks from an art gallery for using oil paints when you’re just starting.
8 Beginner Tips for Oil Painting
1. Start Small
When you’ve been painting a while, it can be hard to remind yourself to step back and start small when you have a big idea in your head. While you may be able to handle large paintings when using familiar mediums, you should take a moment and start small when you first work with oil paints.
With small paintings, you can get used to the feeling of using oil paints and the way it goes onto your canvas. You won’t be investing as much time and materials either, making it an affordable little practice session that can help you gain confidence in your new paint medium. If you want to save money on materials, consider using oil paints on paper.
2. Stay Organized
Using a new medium can be overwhelming and quickly get out of control if you allow yourself to get dragged into it. By keeping your space organized, you’ll keep your head clearer and won’t feel as overwhelmed by what you’re doing.
When you organize your painting station, make sure all your paints are laid out so you can see what colors you have available to you. Keep the floors clear and have your brushes all within easy reach. The simple act of keeping your space clean will ensure that your mind stays clear and you can focus on the work in front of you, making it more enjoyable.
3. Thicken Your Brush Stroke as You Go
The thicker you apply the paint, the slower it will dry. As oil paints are often used to layer colors, it’s important to remember this as you’re painting. Your first layers should generally be pretty thin so that it dries quickly and doesn’t hinder the rest of your painting. As you begin to layer the paint, make sure it’s thicker so that it contrasts and looks full.
4. Paint Fat Over Lean
“Fat paint” refers to the amount of oil in the paint. The fatter, more oily a paint is, the slower it will dry. When using oil paints, this is a vital concept to keep in mind.
Oil paints are layered, but they may not dry very quickly. Even thinner layers will need a longer dry time, so many artists choose to follow a wet-on-wet technique. For this, it’s even more important to paint thinner layers first and slowly thicken your layers as you go.
The reason you want your top layers to be thicker is so that they dry slower than the bottom layers. This will prevent the paint from cracking and give your painting a much nicer look. To make sure that your oil paints are thinner to start, though, you’ll need to use a solvent.
When painting, mix your first few layers of colors with solvent to make them thin. As you work on your next layers, add the paint and solvent mixture to more paint so that these layers are thicker than the ones below them but still thinner than pure oil paint. With each following layer, add more oil to the mixture and less solvent so that you are guaranteed to have fatter paints on top.
5. Prime Your Surface
Oil paints can be used on any surface, but the surface needs to be primed beforehand by gesso. By doing this first, you’ll make sure that the paint doesn’t seep through your chosen surface, protect the surface from the paint acid, and give the paint something to adhere to easily.
Some stores sell pre-primed canvases for oil painting. These canvases don’t need another layer of gesso, but adding one can smooth out the board and make for a smoother painting.
6. Limit Your Color Palette
With acrylics and watercolors, it’s fun to use bright and varied color palettes. With oil paints, however, your artwork will look better if you have a very limited color palette. When you’re first starting, this will help you get used to the way oils blend as well as help you recognize cool and warm undertones for each color.
As you practice, add in more colors with earthy tones and more primary colors, both warm and cool. Start slow and build your way up so that you feel more confident in your color choices and aren’t as overwhelmed.
7. Clean Your Brush
Oils mix very easily, so be sure to clean your brush between colors to limit the amount of unwanted mixing. Have several rags and paper towels nearby so you can quickly and easily clean off your brush. Be sure to keep your cleaning container separate from your mixing container, though.
8. Sketch Your Idea First
All the best artists sketched out their idea before painting them. Some famous paintings have multiple different sketches underneath the paint as artists changed their minds along the way.
To sketch out your idea, use a thin mixture of color and turpentine so that it dries quickly. Any color will do, but most artists choose neutral colors such as gray or burnt Siena.
Now that you have a few tips in mind, you’re ready to start your first oil painting. Remember, it probably won’t look exactly how you imagined it in your head, but that’s because you’re just getting started. As you adjust to the paints and learn how the use them more efficiently, your artwork will look better and better.