Starting Painting in Oil

There is a lot of off-putting stuff talked about painting in oil, but you rarely hear about the pleasures it can bring!

In complete contrast to all other media, such as watercolour, acrylic and pastels, oil is a sensuous medium with body and soul and a life of its own.

Let me explain by drawing a few comparisons.

Watercolour is immediate, direct and expressive if painted loosely. But if painted tightly it is demanding, stressful and prone to failure which cannot be redeemed without that watercolour turning into a multi-media extravaganza.

Acrylic is correctable, powerfully colourful and direct, and mistakes can be corrected almost infinitely. But if you put your brush down in a hurry and forget to come back you will need another one as they cannot be restored. I don’t know how many palettes and brushes I have ruined. Plus do you really want to wash liquid plastic down the drain?

Pastels are soft in colour, texture and use. But they readily crumble in your hands, dust off the paper unless fixed, and can disintegrate in the wrong level of humidity.

Oil is a completely different kettle of fish. It lets you play with it, it has texture, it stays where you put it, it makes lovely colours, it is a pleasure to squeeze on to a palette and mix.

It dries slowly, can be corrected, removed, painted over, scratched into, thinned or thickened, and even be sped up or slowed down in drying by adding mediums.

If you don’t like using turpentine, not even the odorless form, then you can buy water mixable oils, which are very close to the original oil mixable ones.

You can paint oil on any support, from paper, card, board, hardboard, wood, glass, ceramic and canvas. You just need to put a layer of gesso on first and away you go.

You don’t need dozens of brushes, and you don’t need to change your brush every time you change colour. You can wipe the brush mostly clean with a cloth and then pick up your next colour. Just use turps to clean your brush once in a while. You can manage with a couple of brights or flats or filberts and a couple of rounds in different sizes. Plus, oil brushes are much cheaper than watercolour ones.

Here in brief are the steps you need to know for doing an oil painting.

  1. Prepare your support with a coat of gesso if necessary. Shop bought canvases are ready to use.
  2. Sketch your subject on your support using a round brush and weak paint (I always use acrylic very dilute as it dries quickly) OR you can use charcoal but you must dust it off before you start painting.
  3. You work from dark to light, so first block in the main shapes of the painting in dark tones. In a landscape for example, block in the trees, sky, land and any buildings.
  4. Start to refine the painting using your lighter tones.
  5. You can work on your painting for as long as you like, taking weeks over completing it if you use a retardant to slow drying. But even if you don’t use that, you’ll have days to work on it before it starts to dry.
  6. Once finished, let it dry. You can still make changes or additions even when dry.
  7. Finally, spray with light coat of varnish and hang.

Have a go! It’s a very forgiving medium.

Claude Monet, Self Portrait In His Atelier, 1884

Here is a Winsor and Newton starter set and a less expensive Arteza set, both of which would be great for getting into oils.