How to Oil Paint for Beginners

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Oil paint is a traditional artistic medium which has been used for centuries. The enduring popularity of oil paint comes from the medium's durability, vibrant colors and ability to be applied in a variety of painting approaches, from detailed realism to expressive abstraction. However, beginning artists can be confused about oil painting materials, solvents, drying times and techniques. Learn the basic steps in creating an oil painting from start to finish with minimal complications and supplies.

Things You'll Need

  • Easel
  • Canvas, primed for oil painting
  • Palette
  • Oil paints, assortment of colors
  • Palette cup
  • Odorless mineral spirits
  • Palette knife
  • Bristle brushes, assortment of sizes
  • Painting rags or paper towels
  • Plastic wrap
  • Linseed oil
  • Sable brushes, assortment of sizes
  • Place the primed canvas on your easel and secure it with the easel's top clamp. Adjust the easel's height and angle so that you can comfortably work on the canvas either standing or sitting, depending on your preference and subject matter.

  • Arrange your oil colors by placing a small amount of each paint along two sides of your palette. Leave room in the center of the palette for mixing colors. Secure the palette cup to the top edge of the palette and fill it with odorless mineral spirits.

  • Mix odorless mineral spirits into one of your paint colors with a palette knife to begin sketching the painting subject. Choose a neutral or dark color such as burnt umber or ultramarine blue. Pick up the diluted paint with a round-tipped bristle brush and keep the paint thin and workable by adding more odorless mineral spirits from the palette cup as necessary. Wipe away any errors in the sketch using painting rags or paper towels. Complete the sketch to your desired level of completeness, using a flat-tipped bristle brush and very thin paint to indicate shadows and darker value forms.

  • Refill the palette cup with an equal amount of linseed oil and odorless mineral spirits. This combination will be your medium for the next stage of the painting process. Mix colors on your palette using the palette knife, adding a small amount of medium to them as you mix. Apply the mixed paint to the canvas in broad strokes, concentrating on major values and tones until the entire canvas surface is covered with color.

  • Cover any remaining paint on the palette with plastic wrap to keep paints from drying out. Allow the canvas surface to dry before continuing to the next painting session. Depending on the paints and colors used, drying time can vary from one day to several weeks.

  • Mix fresh painting medium, now adding more linseed oil and less odorless mineral spirits. Return to your painting to refine the colors, shadows and values. You may use softer sable brushes to apply thin glazes of color or paint very fine details.

  • Continue painting sessions, allowing each layer of paint to completely dry to the touch before returning to work on the canvas. For every session, use increasingly more linseed oil and less odorless mineral spirits in your mixed painting medium. Each layer in an oil painting should contain more oil and less paint to ensure that the top layers dry more slowly and to prevent cracking.

  • Allow your painting to completely dry before framing or otherwise mounting. An oil painting can take up to six months to completely dry, depending on the number of painting layers and thickness of paint application.

Tips & Warnings

  • Store-bought, primed canvases are ideal for beginning oil paint students. More advanced artists may wish to prime their own canvases for more specific surface effects or try painting on board and wood panels.
  • A beginner's assortment of oil paint colors should include basic pigments such as burnt umber, ivory black, titanium white, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, viridian, cadmium red and cadmium yellow. Other colors may be added as desired.
  • Varnishing a finished oil painting is often recommended to protect the painting surface from dirt and atmospheric pollutants.
  • Painting rags should be dried outside of the house or placed in a fire-safe can due to the risk of flammability.
  • An oil painting studio should be well ventilated due to health and fire risks from the solvents and mediums used.

References

  • "The Complete Oil Painting Course"; Jean Wetherburn; 1986
  • "The Oil Painting Book: Materials and Techniques for Today's Artist"; Bill Creevy; 1999
  • "Traditional Oil Painting"; Virgil Elliott; 2007
  • "An Introduction to Oil Painting"; Ray Smith; 1993
  • The Painting Guide: Oil Painting
  • "The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques"; Ralph Mayer; 1991
  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images
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