Oil Painting For Beginners – How to Get Started

So are you a total beginner to painting or do you have some experience in painting with other mediums? Well either way there are some key facts that you will need to start you off on the right track. To a certain extent you can do whatever you like with acrylics, just keep piling the paint on until you get what you are looking for but with oils it is slightly different.

So, to start with you will need some materials. The art shops have a huge selection of materials to choose from and this can be quite daunting if you don’t really know what you are looking for. In addition to all the numerous paint colours you can chose from there are a wide variety of mediums, brushes, painting surfaces etc.


Let’s look at paint to start with. There are 2 main types of oil paint in terms of quality – student colours and artist’s colours. Student oils paints are often cheaper than artists as they don’t use the expensive pigments and are produced in larger quantities. The colour strength might be slightly lower than artists’ quality oils but really these are good enough if you are starting out and are often used by professional artists in conjunction with the higher pigment colours of artists’ oils or as base colours before using artists’ oils for the top layer. So to start off with you need only have a basic selection of 10 or 12 tubes of paint. You can often buy the starter boxes which contain a lot of the colours that you might need.

Painting Mediums

In addition to the paint you will need to get some thinners and also a bottle of painting medium. There are so many options with regard to painting medium but to start off with you can just chose to use linseed oil and as you go on and experiment more try different types of medium and how they affect the paint and help or hinder with your style of painting.


So, then you will need some brushes. These also come in so many different types and sizes. It may well depend on what style of painting you are planning to do as to what brushes you need. For example if you are going to paint realistically in fine detail you may want smaller round brushes but if you are going to paint big abstract blended paintings then go for big softer flat brushes. I may be contentious in advising this but when you are just starting out, especially if you are just going to be testing out various techniques I would advise getting some cheap brushes to see what kind of shape and size you prefer to use. The main problems with cheaper brushes in my opinion are that firstly, some of the hairs may come out whilst you are painting and secondly, the brushes may not retain their shape as well. Advantages are that you don’t buy expensive brushes that you subsequently decide are not the right type for you. Once you have decided your painting style and which brushes are suitable for that you can then buy the more expensive ones. For me, as an abstract artist, I also prefer the much softer (and for some reason cheaper) big brushes that blend the paint really nicely and don’t leave so many brush strokes. I will use the brush firstly on a test painting and that will generally get rid of any of the lose hairs so hardly any will come off on my actual painting.


Then of course you need something to paint on! The main choice in art shops is between stretched canvas and canvas board. There are obviously a lot of alternatives but to start with choose either a board or a canvas that is primed and suitable for oils (just read the label or chose one of the more common makes like Daley-Rowney or Winsor & Newton). Maybe choose a small one to start with just to get to grips with the medium.

Once you have your paint and your surface or support (canvas) you can start! You will also need a palette of some kind but you can use anything from disposable plates, to a piece of wood, a proper palette from the art shop or a book of disposable palettes (saves on messy palettes hanging around as you can just throw them away!). Plastic palettes are useful as they usually have little sections that you can pour your medium into and use whilst you are painting.

What to Paint

So, now you can start. But what do you paint? If you are really just starting out then you may want to get a book that gives you a step-by-step guide as to how to paint a particular scene or painting, then you can learn the methods used to bring the painting to life. Otherwise you may have a favourite photo or a picture from the internet or even an old master that you want to recreate. I really think that trying to copy something that someone has already done is a good way to learn about techniques as it pushes you to try and think about how to do something and in doing so you learn these new techniques that you might not have learnt otherwise.


Whatever you are trying to paint, you should use a number of layers to build up the painting and not try to complete it all in one go! When I say this I mean the following: For the first layer, use the paint ‘watered’ down with thinners. This is starting the painting using the ‘fat over lean’ method. In basic terms when you apply paint, the most oily layer (fat) should be on top of the layer with least oil (lean i.e. containing thinners) underneath. If you don’t use this method then your painting might subsequent have cracks in it where the different layers of paint dry at different speeds.

There are many different schools of thought as to how to actually paint and what colours to use and this article is not going to be encompassing enough to go through those. Basically on the first layer apply it with thinners in a loose manner (i.e. the painting does not have to be precise at this stage). The main aim is to cover all of the canvas with some paint to provide a foundation. As you apply more and more layers – the number of layers is up to you – the paint should have more oil in it as you go on. So for example in the next layer you could use half linseed oil and half thinners as a medium and then the layer after linseed oil with no thinners.

Cleaning Brushes

The common school of thought is to clean brushes with turps or a specific brush cleaner. However, I find it better (I think on the environment as well as the smell and keeping the brushes for longer) to use soap and warm water. Soap can be just a simple soap or you can use washing up liquid. Make the brush wet then build up a lather with the soap. Rinse out the paint with warm water and repeat until the brush is clean.

Oil paints do take a reasonable time to dry – particularly if you compare them to acrylics. Paint with more thinners in will dry quicker however and you can also buy mediums that will make the paint dry quicker (e.g. liquin). The first layer with thinners should dry reasonably quickly, particularly if you are using earthy colours. It is up to you if you wait for the layers to dry, quite often this depends on the type of painting you are doing, or if you add subsequent layers on top of the wet paint. If you do this then just be careful to work in definite strokes and to clean your brush often so that the paint does not ‘muddy’ and mix layers together more than you would like.


So in summary, for the complete beginner in oils I would say this. Get yourself a box of student oil paints, some thinners, some linseed oil, a palette, 2 or 3 brushes in different sizes, and a canvas. Choose a subject or get a book that gives you step by step instructions. Paint in layers ‘fat over lean’. Keep practising!

There have been lots of books written on the subject and I would advise you if you are really serious about painting with oils to get hold of one that gives you all the detailed information but this article is just to give you a few hints and tips to start you off.

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