How to Use Oil Paints on Canvas


Do you think painting with oil paints on canvas sounds like something only for professional artists? Beginners need not shy away from this classic medium. Anyone can accomplish using oil paints on canvas with the help of a few simple techniques. Oil paints provide a superior workability as they dry slowly and mix a rich palette of colors.

Things You'll Need

  • Gesso
  • Wood or paper palette
  • Oil paint selection (see tips)
  • Turpentine
  • Oil paint varnish
  • Small, glass jars with lids
  • Brush selection (see tips)
  • Cotton rag
  • Prime your canvas with two to four coats of gesso before you paint with oils. If you purchase unstretched canvas, it will need to be mounted and stretched on a wood frame then primed with gesso before use. Alternatively, purchase ready to use canvas in sheets on a pad, board backed panels or pre-stretched on frames that already have gesso applied.

  • Prepare your oil paint palette on wood or a disposable paper palette pad. If possible, use professional artist paints as they contain more pigment and richer colors. Limit the palette that you use to the basics of reds, yellows, blues, browns, a black and a large tube of white. Mix secondary colors from these primary and neutral colors for a richer palette of hues.

  • Use turpentine to clean your brushes between colors then wipe on a clean, cotton rag. Use a medium for thinning the paint. Create medium using half turpentine and half varnish if you do not wish to buy premixed oil paint medium. Keep both in lidded glass jars such as small mason jars or baby food jars.

  • Sketch out your composition. Use a small, round sable brush, size from 2 to 5, normally used for detail work. Sketch out basic shapes to use as guides when painting using brown with a great deal of thinner to make it transparent.

  • Paint entire canvas in large areas of basic colors using oil paint thinned with enough medium to create a transparent look. Study your subject carefully to determine the predominant background blocks of color to use. Keep oils very thin, or transparent, in this step because a thick first layer of oil paints often causes later cracking.

  • Paint the next layer of colors on your canvas using slightly less thinner to oil paint than in the previous step. Begin to add details to the large shapes in your composition. Pay attention to shadows, shades and light areas and begin to paint these in as well.

  • Create the finest details with small rounded brushes and oil paint alone or with very little medium in the final layer of oil paint on your canvas. In this step, you may wish to use a palette knife to add texture details to objects such as plants, sky or water. In addition, be sure to finish detailing lightest areas of color and darkest areas of shade and shadow.

  • Apply a final finish varnish two weeks or more after the oil painting canvas dries to the touch. Mix your own varnish of half varnish and half turpentine if you wish. Otherwise, purchase already mixed oil painting varnish. Be sure the oil painting dries completely before applying final varnish to avoid cracking.

Tips & Warnings

  • Suggested primary colors with which to start a palette and mix other colors from include: yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna, cadmium red, viridian, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, Payne's grey, mars black and a large tube of titanium white. Grey often makes a better shade creating color than black when darkening colors. Find paintbrush size by looking for small numbers on the wood handle. A good brush selection includes a few flat bristle brushes sized from 2 to 10, a couple of small, round, sable brushes from size 2 to 5 for detail work, and a large size flat bristle brush for background sections and large areas in size 15 or greater. Fix mistakes using a rag dipped in turpentine.
  • Always use thin, transparent layers of oil paint to which a great deal of turpentine medium has been added under thicker layers of oil paint containing little medium to avoid cracking as the painting dries.

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