Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"I want to try oils, but I don't know where to begin..."

Detail from a quick oil study, 2/26/2012

This post is in response to a handful of students that expressed interest in learning to oil paint, but don't know where to begin. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the paradox of choice; with so many paints, mediums, and brushes on the market, it's easy to get frightened away from even trying to gather the "right" supplies. So I'm writing this supply list and advice from my own formative experiences, hoping that it will be a good slimmed-down guide for beginners who want to delve into painting with oils for the first time:

There are a couple approaches to this. If you just want to try out the paint, you only need two tubes:

  • 1 Titanium White
  • 1 Dark Hue (Any Black, Raw or Burnt Umber, et al.)

Your practice paintings will be monochromatic, of course, but you'll get to experience the way the opaque white mixes with more transparent darker colors, and the way it moves across your work surface. It's the 100% economy/experiential list, and the good news is if you start here and like it, you can build on these starter colors.

If you're really looking to delve into color mixing, the basics are: 1 white, 1 black*, the 3 primary colors, and a couple of neutrals.
But wait... HOLY CRAP! There are multiple kinds of whites, and blacks, and all the primaries. To cut through the confusion here's the exact list of tubes I started learning with many years ago:

  • Titanium White
  • Ivory Black
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Cadmium Red
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Phthalo Blue
  • Yellow Ochre(Yellow Oxide)
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Raw Umber

The point of buying this particular array of colors is that you can mix them to create almost any other hue. Those three primaries, for example, are very close to "true" red, yellow, and blue on the color wheel. Learning to mix colors properly is one of the first hurdles you'll encounter when learning to oil paint, so having a full range of pigments available to you is valuable.

There's nothing wrong with buying a pre-packaged set like this one to get a bit of a discount, but understand that you're not necessarily getting just the essentials.

A couple of additional things I should mention here:
1. If you see a paint that says "Hue" on the tube, such as "Cadmium Red Hue," that's OK. The word Hue in this context just means that the pigment itself is not necessarily Cadmium, but comparable. However if a tube says "Shade," as in "Phthalo Blue Green Shade," that means it is a different pigment, and you should probably not buy it yet. As a beginner, you're looking for basic colors, not variations on the basics.

And 2. If you're taking a class, buy specifically what the instructor recommends. *Some instructors, for example, will have you avoid black altogether, or mix your own darks using blue and brown pigments. Others might require you to buy additional pigments, or slight variations to the ones I listed. I assert that my list is a good list, but it's not gospel.

The brand I started out with was Winton, which is Windsor & Newton's student-grade brand. That said, if you can afford to go for a higher quality, do. Oil paints are one of those products where you really do see an improvement commensurate with the cost; more expensive tubes will have richer, denser pigments, for example.

Some recommended brands I've tried are:
-Windsor & Newton
-Holbein Artists' Oil Colors
-Rembrandt Artists' Oil Colors
-Gamblin Artist Oils

Don't get too hung up on brand names right now- any mid-to-awesome grade paint will be fine for practice. From personal experience, I do NOT recommend ultra-cheap brands like Daler-Rowney's student brand Georgian. It might be tempting to get them because they're so inexpensive, but they will make your first experiences unnecessarily frustrating because of the poor texture and wimpy pigments.

How much can you afford to buy? There's not really such a thing as too much oil paint. The stuff will keep for decades when stored properly, and it's OK to put a lot of it out on your palette before you start mixing.

Oil medium is a separate liquid (or combination of liquids) that makes oil paint more fluid, or otherwise changes its textural properties to make it easier to paint with. You CAN paint with oil paint straight out of the tube, but it's very thick and doesn't flow that well from brush to canvas on its own. Paint thinner, by contrast, is exactly what it sounds like: it thins paint. The most common thinners are Mineral Spirits and Turpentine. You can also paint using thinner by itself as a medium.

My favorite medium, and a good one for beginners (I think), is a mix of 1 pt. turpentine subsitute* to 1 pt. Refined Linseed Oil. Linseed oil and turpentine have been used together for a long time. *Turpenoid is the turpentine substitute that I've used personally, though some of my cohorts prefer Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits.

There are a ton of different off-the-shelf mediums on the market, too. My first instinct is to say, "buy and try all of them," but yes, that's expensive. My cohorts usually recommend either Galkyd or Windsor & Newton's Liquin.
Updates: I adore Liquin, and it's what I use 95% of the time now. A student also recommended walnut oil as a less toxic medium.

You should have 1 jar for your medium and 1 separate jar for paint thinner handy at all times during painting. In addition to thinning paint, the thinner is also what you'll use to clean your brushes before switching to another color, and after use. When your thinner becomes muddy, it's time to replace it. Check with your local laws about disposal of solvents: do not dump paint thinner down the drain.

For oil paint, use synthetic blends or real hair brushes (as opposed to totally synthetic) if possible. Art stores usually designate which of their brushes are made for oils vs. other kinds of paint. Sable hair and pig bristle are particularly good for starting out, and relatively inexpensive. Again, the cost is normally commensurate with quality: don't buy cheap student-grade brushes!! Bad brushes make bad paintings, without exception. For a first-timer, I recommend purchasing (at minimum) the following types of brushes to get a diverse range of mark-making:

-1 large (size 20 or so) Filbert or Bright
-1 medium Filbert or Bright
-1 medium Flat
-1 medium Round (ex. a Windsor & Newton Series 7 Sable)
-1 small Flat
-1 small Round
-1 Palette Knife (for mixing colors on your palette)

Note: In terms of brush size, the higher the number the larger the brush.

Brush care is important if you don't want to have to buy new brushes every time you start a painting. After use, rinse each brush in your paint thinner jar and dry thoroughly on a paper towel (Always keep paper towels handy). You don't need any fancy brush cleaning soap, just regular bar soap and warm water. Gently drag your brushes across the soap under running water in the same direction you'd use them to paint - don't mash them in. Oil paint dries slowly, but try to thoroughly clean your brushes within an hour of when you finish working.

If you're used to acrylic painting, you're probably accustomed to using a white plastic palette or plate of some kind. With oils you want to avoid plastic, since scraping off old dried paint will probably scratch it. I personally started with a disposable paper palette (and yes, my artist friends made fun of me for not using a "proper" palette), which is cheap and ok to start with. You can also use a wooden palette, or a sheet of glass with a neutral-colored piece of paper beneath it. Update: I currently use a sheet of glass from an old picture frame.

Pro tip: To keep your colors from becoming tacky or drying out over multiple sessions, put your palette in the freezer.

When you're starting out, I recommend working on both canvas panels AND gessoed masonite panels. I recommend both so you can get used to the difference between moving paint on textured vs. smooth surfaces, then figure out which you prefer. Canvas panels are not the kind of surface you'll want to do professional work on, but they're a cheaper alternative to stretched canvas that simulates the texture well.

Like any paint, oils can get messy. If you want to protect your nice clothes, get a smock or wear an old t-shirt over your clothes. Wear latex or similar gloves to keep your hands clean of paint.

Set aside an area in your bedroom or studio that's just for painting. If you have limited space or money, you don't need a fancy easel: you can work fine with your panel propped against a wall or table. If you do want an affordable one, you can start out with a table easel.

Ventilation has been cited multiple times this week as a source of fear about learning to paint with oils. I might get yelled at by health officials for saying so, but I don't think this should stop you. Just take some extra precautions. If you're in small quarters or don't have windows, substituting odorous solvents (turpentine, mineral oil, varnish) with low-odor alternatives (like Turpenoid) is a good start, but you should also keep your thinner and medium jars capped when not in immediate use, to avoid breathing excess vapors. I personally work in a 10x10 foot room with a single window that stays closed 8 months out of the year, so I do this myself. If you have the money, you could also buy a household air purifier, but do check that the specific kind of filter works for paint fumes.

Good lighting is another essential thing that a lot of beginners overlook. If you have a workspace with a lot of windows or skylights, I envy you. If not, get yourself an adjustable lamp of some kind that can use full-spectrum light bulbs, or a combination of incandescent and fluorescent.

That is a good question, but one that you will find the answers to on your own, through practice. Your next step is to start putting paint on stuff. The way the paint moves from the brush will surprise you at first, and will take some getting used to. Unlike other types of paint, you can work wet-in-wet with oil, and this alone makes it unique and versatile, but also challenging. Putting a wet stroke on top of wet paint will blend differently than putting a stroke on dry paint, etc. If you're used to other types of paint, that will probably be the biggest learning curve.

Before you attempt your first full-color painting, try doing a study using just black and white. This will help your understanding of the paint's unique texture and blending habits before you're confronted with color mixing. It's also a good idea to keep a scrap of white board or something nearby to just test making marks.

student painting circa 2002
A student painting of mine c. 2002

Like anything, nothing helps get over the initial nerves like diving into it. Have fun!

I. In my search for pictures of the different brush types, I found this awesome guide to brushes, which you should read.

II. I will come back here and edit this list if new information becomes available, or if I've missed anything critical. **EDIT 2/26/14 Almost two years later I'm finally getting around to fixing some things- I've received some excellent criticism and suggestions and wanted to pass that along.


  1. Hooray! I'm getting ready to dive in after my wedding. So this post is perfectly timed!

  2. Any book recommendations about materials, technique etc. I'm not talking about how to draw books, I'm not a beginner in that aspect, but a book that will provide some answers when I have questions of the type "why isn't the paint flowing?" or "why is this color more opaque than the other and what do I do about it?"

    1. Hi Michael,
      I wish I knew of a good book off the top of my head. If I come across one or someone else has a suggestion I'll post it here. I've gotten the answers to those kinds of things from peers and teachers, or from experimenting. For those two specific problems, try altering the ratio of medium to thinner until your paint flows like you want. For a long time I was using too little thinner, and the paint felt sticky. And opacity is different in each pigment- this chart is a good guide to which colors are more transparent: http://www.learn-to-draw-and-paint.com/oil-painting-colors-qualities.html

    2. Richard Schmidt's Alla Prima best all around book on oil painting

  3. great suggestions!

    I'm still trying to get the lighting right in my current space... I'll have to look over those bulbs & lamps closer. :)

    thanks for the info!