Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
How to Paint With Oils
To start an oil painting, you need to make sure you have these two things:
- Eight basic painting supplies (see below), and
- ideas for what to paint.
Of course, there are many other aspects that come into play when creating a piece of art. We will discuss some of those further on, including:
- best brands of paint
- painting fat over lean
- cleaning your brushes
- what to wear
Let's get started!
8 Supplies You'll Need for Oil Painting
Do you want to learn how to paint with oils? I've compiled a list of the ten things you'll need to get started with more detail further on:
- oil paint
- painting support (canvas or gesso boards)
- paint thinner
- cloth rags or paper towels
1. Oil Paint
The first thing you are going to need to start painting with oils are some tubes of oil paint.
There are different qualities of oil paints: you can find student grade or artist quality. The student quality paint is cheaper, but it contains less pigments and more fillers, making it not only less efficient but also more difficult to handle. The rule of thumb when buying paint is: get the best quality you can, even if it means affording to buy a limited amount of colors.
2. A Few Colors
Ask 10 painters about what colors they must have on their palette, and you’ll get 10 different answers. The choice is very personal and related to your subject.
As a beginner, you can get started by buying a limited palette, with only white and the primary colors: a blue, a red, and a yellow. From these colors, you can potentially mix all hues without having to buy a lot of paint.
Read More From Feltmagnet
You get a few benefits out of it: you save some money on paint and you are forced to get a lot of practice on how to mix colors. You can splurge on the white and buy a big tube of it, you’ll need it.
No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.
— Claude Monet
That sounds simple, but when you get to the store there are many blues, reds, and yellows; it can get quite overwhelming. If you paint landscapes or figures you may need different colors, but overall I’d recommend starting from primaries that are not too opaque. Look for paint colors that are more transparent, they will be a little easier to mix.
Many brands have the degree of opacity vs, transparency indicated on the tube. I give preference to the more transparent hues.
One good option for a limited palette to get started: Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Cadmium Yellow Light.
Always get a white, usually Titanium (opaque) or Titanium-Zinc (less opaque) White.
3. Brushes of Different Shapes and Sizes
Brushes come in many types, sizes, and price ranges. Synthetic brushes are usually cheaper, while natural ones are more expensive. Be aware that cheap brushes tend to lose their shape faster, while the more expensive ones are more durable (granted that you clean them right).
The best sizes and shapes depend on your painting style; however, you can start with a paint set as small as three brushes: a big one for applying big areas of color, a medium one, and a small one for the final phase, the details.
Long handle brushes are good for oil painting. Hold them far from the ferrule, and try to use your whole arm, plus the long brush at every stroke. It will make your style loser.
I like flats or filberts, for their versatility. They can be used to obtain different kinds of brushstrokes. I have a few rounds and a couple of liners for the smaller details. Fan brushes are good to blend colors, but I don’t use them much.
Keep your brushes in good shape by cleaning them thoroughly after each painting session, rinsing well, and laying them flat to dry.
Read Guide to Choosing the Best Paint Brushes for more information.
Keep the oil painting brushes separate from watermedia brushes.
The object isn't to make art, it's to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.
— Robert Henri
4. Painting Support
The most popular supports for oil paintings are canvases and boards.
Some artists paint on paper too, cheaper and less bulky to store than stretched canvas. When using paper, make sure you seal the surface, for example using shellac, or the paper will rot with time.
Acrylic gesso is a great primer for oil painting, and you can prime your own canvases and boards if you want.
It is OK to paint with oil over acrylic, but you cannot paint with acrylic over oil.
5. Mixing Palette
You’ll need a palette on which you mix your oil paint. This can be made of wood, glass, plastic, or paper. Non-porous surfaces are easier to clean afterward.
Many artists use a glass palette or a butcher plate with raised edges. They are very sleek and make cleanup easy. I like to use a Mijello airtight palette, and sometimes I use a convenient disposable paper palette.
The airtight palette keeps the paint wet for a few days and it makes easy to transport the paint even after that it has been squeezed out.
Use a palette knife to mix big amounts of paint. Mixing a lot of paint using a brush, fills the base of the bristles with paint and makes it very hard to clean. Paint residue in that area causes the brush to spread out and lose its shape.
I Love My Air-Tight Paint Palette
You could paint horizontally, with the support laying on a table, but I like to paint with the canvas propped up on an easel and parallel to my eyes.
There are some very inexpensive easels, some are very light and simple, others are sturdier and may have a space to store paints and brushes.
If you like to sit you can get a tabletop easel. I usually paint while standing, so I own a few studio easels.
7. Paint Thinner
If you have painted with acrylics or watercolors before, you are used to thin paint with water.
For classic oil painting you thin your paint with turpentine – get the odorless kind. I use Gamsol or Turpenoid. The thinner may also be used to clean the brushes.
There are also water soluble oil paints. In that case, your thinner is water.
8. Cloth Rags or Paper Towels
Always keep a paper towel or a fabric rag handy to quick-clean your brushes or to wipe off areas from the painting.
I like to use the paper towel often to squeeze paint off brushes in between colors,
Cut-up old t-shirts work well as rags, so do all those mismatched old socks.
Best Brands for Paint
There are several good oil paint brands on the market. I have tubes from different brands because even if they have the same color on the label, the actual hue of the paint can be quite different. I don’t feel like recommending any brand in specific, look for artist quality and choose the pigment that you need/want from each brand.
"Painting Fat Over Lean": What Does It Mean?
In oil painting you always have to follow the “Fat over lean” rule; it’s important, otherwise, paint tends to crack when it dries. Basically what it means is that you start painting with thin paint, thinned with turpentine or odorless Turpenoid, and the following layers of paint are less and less thinned.
On the last layers, you can even add fat, like linseed oil. Linseed oil is the most traditional medium for oil paint, in fact, it’s already mixed into the paint.
If you add more linseed oil into the paint it increases flow, transparency, and gloss. One drawback is that it slows down the drying time considerably; you’ll be waiting days before the paint is completely dry.
Time Lapse Portrait Painting With Oils
Cleaning Brushes After Oil Painting
The first thing to do to clean brushes from oil paint is wiping away all the excess paint from the bristles using a rag or paper towel. Squeeze the bristles well to get as much paint out as you can, dipping the brush lightly in the thinner to facilitate the cleaning.
I heard some people clean using the thinner (I would not recommend it), others use safflower oil. I like to use a soapy detergent to get all the paint out.
After you squeezed all the excess paint out using a paper towel, get your bristles soapy, make foam, rinse well, make foam, rinse well, until the water runs clear.
Squeeze all the water out, reshaping the bristles, and lay the brushes flat to dry.
Any kind of mild soap will do, or the more specific The Masters Brush Cleaner. I personally use a common household degreaser that comes in liquid form.
How Ready for Oil Painting Are You?
Cultivate an ever continuous power of observation. Wherever you are, be always ready to make slight notes of postures, groups, and incidents. Store up in the mind... a continuous stream of observations from which to make selections later. Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen.
— John Singer Sargent
Dressing for Oil Painting
Oil painting does not come off easily from clothes. Always wear old clothes. If you paint outdoors, en plein air, you are even more likely to get paint on your clothes, dress accordingly.
Also, most paint colors contain highly toxic minerals and chemicals. I recommend wearing rubber gloves. Gloves should be flexible and fit tightly, like exam gloves; they need to protect your skin but don’t limit your movement.
Get You Supplies Organized Before Start
To start with oil painting, you don’t need a fancy studio, you can simply set up in a corner of your home. To avoid any unneeded frustration, make sure you have everything you need handy before you start.
Once you have gathered your supplies, you are ready to start painting with oils.
Find a subject that you want to paint, set all fears aside, and jump in with one only goal: have fun and enjoy the process!
Embrace the Learning Experience
Chances are your first paintings will be bad, but don’t fall into the trap of hating them and giving up. That’s a phase that every artist goes through.
There is always a disconnection between what your mind thinks the painting should look like and the true result. Face the process of painting as a fun learning opportunity, anything that comes out of it will help you advance as an artist, whether you like how it looks or not. It’s all worth it!
I Wish Someone Told Me This
I painted with watermedia (acrylic and watercolors) for years but I always wanted to try oils. What was holding me back was the fact that I had no idea what supplies were needed and I was not sure how to handle the differences between oil paint and watercolors or acrylics.
I finally started painting with oils in 2013, and figured out, mostly on my own through trial and error, what to do.
I wish someone had told me these things a few years back, I would have started painting with oils earlier. So, I thought I would share, maybe I can help someone else taking the dive.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can I use mineral spirit instead of odorless turpentine to thin my paints?
Answer: Mineral spirits, or white spirits, are a petroleum distillate and can be used as an alternative to turpentine for thinning paint and cleaning paint brushes. To be honest, any thinner with a strong or mild odor bothers me, so I have only used the odorless kind. However, the fact that it is odorless does not mean that it is much healthier to use than mineral spirits or turpentine. In fact, because of the quick evaporation combined with the lack of odor, the artist is not aware of the huge amounts of vapors that he/she is breathing in. Prolonged exposure to even the weaker varieties can cause bouts of sneezing, headaches and general discomfort to the eyes, nose, and throat.
Question: What can I use to clean oil paint off of my brush? At first, I tried using water; then I realized that doesn't work.
Answer: Water alone does not help clean off oil paint, and you would not want to wet your brushes in between colors either. Water works well with acrylics, but water and oil don't like each other.
There are two main ways to clean a brush before loading it with another color.
Before I get into that, let me mention that one way to minimize brush cleaning is to keep different brushes for different colors. For example, you may keep one brush for all very light colors, one for the dark and grayish colors, one for the reds, and one for the greens.
1. When you switch to a different color, the first thing to do is to squeeze out all the paint from the brush using a paper towel or a rag. Squeeze the bristles in the rag, applying pressure with your fingers. You may also rub the brush on it to get most of the paint out.
There will be a little of the old color still in the brush, but if you use it for a similar color, the problem is minimal. Just be aware how you apply the paint. If you rub the brush on the canvas, the old color will come out as well.
2. The second way to clean your brushes is to use thinner. I use odorless turpentine to thin my paint and, on occasion, when I need a good brush cleaning during a painting session, I dip my brush in the thinner and then clean it well using a rag. Before doing this, you want to remove all the paint you can with a dry rag or paper towel. Use the mineral spirit as the last step of thorough cleaning. Some people try to avoid the thinner as it's full of pollutants, and instead do this with safflower oil. That works too; the procedure is the same as with the thinner.
To clean my brushes at the end of a painting session I use water and soap. I get the bristles all soapy and then rub them on the palm of my (gloved) hand, rinse a little, and repeat until I see no more paint coming out from the brush. Then I rinse well, squeeze the excess water out, and I lay that brushes flat to dry until the next day.
Question: Which kinds of photos/images should be chosen for my first painting?
Answer: When starting to paint for the first time, I think the best way to go is to pick a subject that you like. However, keep in mind that since you are new to painting; most likely, your final result will not be to your satisfaction.
There is a disconnection between what visually creative people like or envision in their head, and what comes out as the final product. There is nothing to be afraid of; it’s a natural thing that is bound to happen, and the only cure is to paint, paint, and paint until the hand figures out how to create what the mind wants.
That being said, as a beginner, I would recommend that you choose more straightforward images, without a ton of details, and with big shapes and simple volumes. Focus of a pleasant distribution of darks and lights, those can make any painting look awesome.
To be safe, use your own photos or images with a creative commons license. Don’t just Google an image or take one from Pinterest, those are most likely copyrighted. Go to sites like Pixabay, Morgue File, Wikimedia Commons, etc. You may also use other people’s photos, with permission. I hope this answers your question.
Question: After the oil painting is complete and dried out completely, do we have to apply a final layer of something to it to extend the life of the work or give it an extra sheen ?
Answer: After a painting is completely dry, and for oils it may take several weeks, I like to apply a varnish with UV protection. There are many on the market. I tend to gravitate towards a high quality spray varnish.
Question: Before I start painting on canvas, what should I apply on the canvas?
Answer: You can buy canvas that has already been primed with gesso, or you can apply acrylic gesso to any canvas or board that you want to paint on. In this case, follow the directions on the gesso container.
For best results, apply two or three layers; diluting the first coat with water, and lightly sanding between coats.
© 2014 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 20, 2020:
Hi Ankita, I keep two jars of turpentine. The one I use gets all cloudy with floating "mud". At the end of the painting session, I pour it onto another jar and let it sit on a shelf for several hours, the mud deposits on the bottom.
The next day, I slowly pour the clear turp onto the jar I use.
I never throw any away.
Linseed oil I don't use much, but when I have it has eventually dried off and I disposed of it that way. If it's too much, I would wipe it off with a paper towel and throw in a trash can where it will dry.
Ankita on July 20, 2020:
Very helpful information! Thankyou! I have a question.. how to dispose off turpentine as well as linseed oil which is mixed in with colour but too much to dry off on its own?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 08, 2020:
Hi Dee, I never had this problem, so I really don't know the answer to this... every time I used linseed oil I only poured out a small amount, and any remainder just dried up. You can also seal it with plastic and use it later, for another painting session.
Dee on January 08, 2020:
How do you dispose of linseed oil when you are done using it?
Sadat kabengele on May 19, 2019:
Thanks for the informations
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 19, 2019:
Thanks a lot Wendy, I'm so glad that my article helped you feeling more comfortable with starting painting with oils. That's exactly why I love to write informative pieces online. Thanks for the comment.