Oil Painting Tools and Materials for Beginners
What Do You Need to Start Oil Painting?
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 though trial and error, what to do.
Here is a list of the 10 things you need to start oil painting for the absolute beginner.
I wish someone had told me these things 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.
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1. What Kind of Oil Paint Should I Get?
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 oil paint. 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: buy less colors, but get the best quality you can.
There are several good oil paint brands on the market. I have colors from different brands, because even if they have the same name 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.
2. What Oil Paint Colors Should I Buy?
Ask 10 painters about what colors they must have on their palette, and you’ll get 10 different answers. It’s very personal and related to your subject of choice.
As a beginner you can start out with buying a limited palette, with only white and the primary colors: blue, red, and yellow. From these colors you can potentially mix all hues without having to buy a lot of paint. 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.
The object isn't to make art, it's to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.— Robert Henri
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 choice of limited palette to start: Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light. Like almost any oil painting palette, these are used along with white, usually Titanium or Titanium-Zinc.
3. Which Brushes Do I Need for Oil Painting?
Brushes come in many types, sizes, and prices 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 of painting: the details. Fan brushes are good to blend colors, but I don’t use them much.
As most artists, I prefer filbert brushes, which are flat with rounded edges. They can be used to obtain different kinds of brushstrokes. Long handle brushes are good for oil painting.
To keep your brushes in good shape make sure you clean them thoroughly after each painting session, rinsing well, and laying them flat to dry.
Tip: Keep the oil painting brushes separate from watermedia brushes.
4. On What Can I Paint with Oils?
The main painting supports for oil painting are canvas and boards. For beginners canvas paper is a good option, cheaper and less bulky to store than stretched canvas.
When you buy professional quality canvases make sure they are primed for oils or acrylic. 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.
I Love My Air-Tight Paint Palette
5. On What Support Should I Mix Oil Paint?
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 afterwards, or you can opt for the convenience of disposable paper palettes.
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.
It keeps the paint wet for a few days and it’s easy to transport the paint even after that it has been squeezed out.
Tip: Use a palette knife to mix colors.
6. Do I Need an Easel to Paint with Oils?
To start with oil painting you need to have a good setup where you can paint. You don’t need a fancy studio, you can simply setup in a corner of your home, but make sure you have everything you need handy before you start.
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. If you like to sit you can get a table top easel. There are some very inexpensive easels that you can attain; some are very light and simple, others have a space to store paints and brushes.
Time Lapse Portrait Painting with Oils
7. What Kind of Paint Thinner Do I Need for Oil Painting?
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. The thinner is also used to clean the brushes.
There are also water soluble oil paints. In that case your thinner is water.
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
8. 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.
9. How Do I Clean My Brushes after Oil Painting?
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.
After I do that I like to use a detergent to get all the paint out. Some kind of mild soap, or the more specific The Masters Brush Cleaner. Make foam, rinse well, make foam, rinse well, until the water runs clear.
Squeeze all the water out, reshape the bristles, and lay them flat to dry.
How Ready For Oil Painting Are You?
How many of the 10 items listed do you already have?
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
10. How Should I Dress For Oil Painting?
Oil painting does not come off easily from clothes. Always wear old cloths. 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 and Begin Painting
Once you have all you need, 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!
Chances are your first paintings will be bad, but don’t fall into the trap of hating them an 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!
By Robie Benve
© 2014 Robie Benve