Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting: Article 1 of 3

Updated on October 22, 2016
carolynkaye profile image

I've been an artist since childhood and work mainly in oils, acrylic and pencil.


Whether you're brand new to painting or have already painted in other mediums such as watercolors or acrylics, you'll find that working with oil paints is definitely fun, but it takes some practice.

Artists love oil paints for their rich colors, durability and how their slow drying-time allows plenty of time to work on a painting.

I’ve written this series of three articles with the beginning oil painter in mind. Even if you have no background in art, these simple, easy-to-follow steps can get you on your way to creating your first oil painting.


The following are the supplies you will need for your painting. You can purchase all of these items at your local arts & crafts store, art specialty store or an online art store such as or

You don’t need to purchase the exact brands as shown in the photos. They’re just to give you an idea of what you’ll be looking for. You may want to print this article to bring with you to the store as a reference.


For your first painting, it's easiest to choose a fairly small canvas with wrapped edges (staple-free) that you won’t need to frame.

The small square canvas shown below is 5.5” x 5.5” and about 1.25” thick. It’s from the Squangles line at I like these little canvases for a few reasons: they don’t need to be framed, they stand up on their own so they make a pretty decoration for a dresser or table, and because you can paint the sides too, the painting has a unique 3-D effect.

If you can’t find this exact size, a similar size canvas with staple-free edges works just as well.

Canvas | Source
Canvas Side
Canvas Side | Source


Gesso is an acrylic-based primer that you will need to prime your canvas. It helps the paint “stick” to the canvas much better. You only need a small bottle of gesso when you’re just starting out. A little goes far and you won’t need much to prime a small canvas. I will post step-by-step instructions on priming your canvas in the second article of the series.

Liquitex Gesso
Liquitex Gesso | Source
Prepared Canvas
Prepared Canvas | Source

Paint Brushes

I usually use a ¾” to 1” nylon bristle brush for applying gesso because it makes smooth brush strokes that become invisible when dry.

For a small painting, you’ll only need about 4 to 6 brushes of various sizes. Be sure to choose ones that say they’re suitable for oil painting so the bristles can handle the paint and solvents.

Choose a selection of small to medium size brushes as shown in the photo below. You will need a few with rounded edges for smooth strokes and shading, a couple with square edges for crisp lines and at least one slim pointed brush for tiny details.

Either natural or synthetic bristles are fine. Brushes can either be purchased individually or in sets. Brushes can get pricey, so use student-quality ones if needed.

Paint Brushes
Paint Brushes | Source

Basic Paint Colors to Buy

  • Cadmium-Barium Red Medium
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Cadmium-Barium Orange
  • Cadmium-Barium Yellow Medium
  • Lemon Yellow
  • Thalo Yellow-Green
  • Sap Green
  • Cobalt Blue
  • French Ultramarine Blue
  • Violet
  • Burnt Umber
  • Raw Sienna
  • Black
  • White

Oil Paints

It’s up to you whether you want to buy a set of oil paints with a pre-selected assortment of colors or purchase the larger (1.25 fl. oz.) tubes individually.

Oil paints vary greatly in price and quality. When you’re just starting out in oil painting, student quality paints such as Winsor & Newton “Winton Oil”, Grumbacher Academy Oil, or Sennelier Etude Student Oil Colors work great.

If you decide to go with better quality oil paints, try Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colors, Gamblin Artists’ Oil Colors, Rembrandt Artists’ Oil Colors or Grumbacher Pre-Tested Artists’ Oil Colors.

Since I tend to go through a lot of white paint for mixing colors, I also suggest purchasing a tube of white Permalba in addition to a tube of white oil paint. Optionally, just buy an extra tube of white paint.

Selection of Oil Paints
Selection of Oil Paints | Source
Permalba | Source
Masterson Artist Palette Seal
Masterson Artist Palette Seal

I use this palette to keep my paints from drying out in between sessions. It helps me avoid wasting paint and saves time mixing colors because I can pick up where I left off.


Covered Palette

A palette with a lid, such as the one pictured below by Masterson, can be tightly sealed to keep air out and prevent your paints from hardening or drying out between painting sessions. Your tubes of oil paint will go much farther and you won't be throwing out the excess each time you paint.

This particular palette comes with a few liners. Additional packs of liners can be purchased separately.

Masterson Covered Palette
Masterson Covered Palette | Source
Liners for the Palette
Liners for the Palette | Source


Unlike acrylic paints or watercolors that can be thinned with water, oil paints must be mixed with a medium to help the paint flow on the canvas. There are many types of mediums available depending on the type of effect you want.

To keep things simple for your first painting, I recommend trying either Winsor & Newton’s Refined Linseed Oil or Liquin Original. Refined Linseed Oil tends to give the painting a nice gloss to the finish, but is slower-drying than Liquin Original.

Purchase the smallest size bottle of either of these you can find since you won’t need much for now.

Bottle of Refined Linseed Oil
Bottle of Refined Linseed Oil | Source
Liquin Original
Liquin Original | Source


When you’re done painting, you’ll need to clean your brushes thoroughly so they aren’t ruined by hardened paint. Water doesn’t dissolve oil paints, so purchase a small bottle of Turpenoid. It’s a turpentine substitute that will clean your brushes and remove paint from surfaces.

In the third article in the series, I will explain how to properly clean paint brushes so they last.

Turpenoid | Source

Small Easel

An easel is optional since you’ll be working with a small canvas for your first painting, but I found this really nice small wooden easel at an art store for under $15. It’s adjustable in height and angle, so it will accommodate a painting up to 24”.

Small Wooden Tabletop Easel
Small Wooden Tabletop Easel | Source

Sketch Pad

A sketch pad is very helpful to plan out your painting before you begin. In the second article in the series, I will show you how to transfer a sketch onto a canvas. Either an 8”x10” or 9”x12” will work for this.

I also recommend a pad of tracing paper, either 8”x10” or 9”x12”.

Sketch Pad
Sketch Pad | Source

Other Supplies for Oil Painting

Here are some other supplies that will help you get started with your painting:

  • A pencil
  • A ballpoint pen
  • A soft gum eraser
  • Scotch Tape
  • A small glass container with a lid to store Turpenoid and soak brushes in until clean-up
  • A roll of paper towels
  • A small plastic dish or cup for gesso
  • A small plastic dish or cup for Liquin or Linseed Oil
  • Some gentle dishwashing soap (like Dawn) or liquid hand soap
  • Something to cover your work area, such as an old pillowcase or sheet
  • An old apron or painting smock

What's Next?

Once you have your supplies ready, please continue on to the second article in this series, "Beginners's Guide to Oil Painting: Article 2 of 3", where I will show you how to prepare a canvas, choose a subject, and transfer a sketch onto your canvas.

© 2012 carolynkaye


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    • profile image

      Beth Notman 3 months ago

      I'm a complete beginner, someone bought me a small easel and basic equipment for Christmas so am looking for some ideas on how to get started.



    • TSLOPEZ profile image

      Tania S Lopez 19 months ago from Fayettevile, NC

      I will have to give it another try! Thank you for replying! ;-)

    • carolynkaye profile image

      carolynkaye 19 months ago from USA

      Thanks, TSLOPEZ! Yes clean-up and drying time are longer, but it's still fun to try when you have time. Thanks for the comments :)

    • TSLOPEZ profile image

      Tania S Lopez 19 months ago from Fayettevile, NC

      Awesome!! I love painting but I am always scared of using oil because I have never been sure on how to use it. Also, because I feel it is so much more time consuming!! lol

    • carolynkaye profile image

      carolynkaye 2 years ago from USA

      Hello aesta1, I use gesso on all my canvases from art stores. Some say they're prepared but I still find the paint sticks to the canvas so much better with a light coat of gesso.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      These tips are what I need now that I plan to go back to my painting. Are the canvasses sold in art stores already prepared or so I need to use gesso?

    • carolynkaye profile image

      carolynkaye 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks, FlourishAnyway :-)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      Awesome hub! I like how you explain everything you need for true beginners, assuming we know nothing (because we truly do know nothing although we are interested in learning). Love the photos and all the tips. Voted up and more.