5 Essential Oil Painting Techniques Every Artist Should Know

Have you ever looked at the work of the greats - Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and Salvador Dali, to name a few? In each of their artwork, the beauty of oil painting shines. With their stunning and unique qualities, it's no wonder why this medium continues to be popular among artists like you today. However, embarking on a journey into the world of oil painting can be both exhilarating and challenging for a beginner.

An oil painting by Claude Monet

If you've ever wondered how to oil paint or what the three rules of oil painting are, you're in the right place! In this guide, we will explore five essential oil painting techniques that will serve as your solid foundation to create captivating works of art. From understanding the three golden rules of oil painting to glazing techniques, this article will give you everything you need to know to breathe life into your canvas!

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The Three Golden Rules of Oil Painting

Oil painting, with its rich history and versatile nature, has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. Yet, amid the vibrant pigments and the alluring textures, there exist three foundational principles that every oil painter must embrace. These principles, often referred to as the "Three Golden Rules of Oil Painting," serve as guiding lights, ensuring not only the technical aspects, color theory, and composition of your artwork but also its longevity.

An oil painting artwork of a sunset hung on a wall

Unlike the other paint mediums, oil painting is one of the hardest to master, and rightfully so. With its one-of-a-kind properties, this romantic medium will give you depth, detail, and nuanced colors that you can't achieve fully with other mediums. If you're willing to take on the challenge, then you need to know these three rules of oil painting by heart:

Rule # 1: Fat over Lean

This rule is about the consistency of the oil paint layers you apply. "Fat" refers to paint layers with higher oil content, making them more flexible and slower to dry. "Lean" indicates paint layers with lower oil content, causing them to dry faster and be less flexible. Following this rule prevents cracking over time. To make your paint more “lean,” you mix them with solvent while using more painting mediums makes your paint “fat.”

In practice, you should start with lean layers (with less oil) as the base and progressively move towards fat layers (with more oil) as you build up the painting. This gradual increase in oil content ensures that the upper layers remain more flexible, accommodating the drying and shrinking of the lower layers without cracking.

Rule # 2: Thick over Thin

This second rule refers to the thickness of paint layers. Applying thicker, impasto layers of paint on top of thinner ones creates a stable structure. Thicker layers dry more slowly and can potentially trap moisture from the underlying layers. Oil paint doesn't dry through evaporation like other paints - it oxidizes and solidifies, giving it its renowned texture. 

Applying thin layers beneath helps the painting to dry uniformly, reducing the risk of cracking. You should start with a thin underpainting or sketch layer and then build up thicker, textured layers as you refine your work.

Three of the most famous oil paintings by Van Gogh - The Starry Night, Wheatfield with Crows, and Starry Night Over The Rhone

Rule # 3: Slow-Drying over Fast-Drying

Last but not least, this rule pertains to the drying time of different pigments and mediums. Some colors dry faster than others. Colors that contain earth pigments or inorganic pigments tend to dry relatively faster compared to organic or synthetic pigments. For example, colors like raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, and burnt umber often dry more quickly due to their composition. Look for your oil paint brand online, and check if they have a guide for their colors' drying time.

This rule applies the same principles as the ones above. If you layer faster-drying layers over slower-drying layers beneath, it will lead to potential cracking. Applying slower-drying layers over faster-drying ones promotes even drying and reduces the risk of cracks forming due to differential drying rates.

Is Oil Paint Too Soon For You? Try Watercolor!

Oil Painting Techniques to Learn as a Beginner

There are many oil painting techniques you can learn. However, as a beginner in oil painting, learning foundational techniques can significantly enhance your artistic journey. In this guide, we will tackle five oil painting methods that will lay the groundwork for creating captivating and expressive artworks. Here are some essential oil painting techniques to get you started:

Brush Handling and Brush Types

Brush handling is a fundamental aspect of oil painting that directly influences the texture, style, and overall outcome of your artwork. Understanding different brush types and how to handle them can greatly enhance your ability to express your creative vision. It's not really a specific oil painting technique, but it is a general painting technique that will make you better geared to take on oil painting as a beginner. 

To start learning this, familiarize yourself with various brush types, shapes, and sizes. Each brush creates specific effects and textures, from fine details to broad strokes. Experiment with different brushes to understand their capabilities and how they interact with the paint.

A landscape oil painting hung on a museum's white wall

Color Mixing and Color Theory

Understanding color theory is crucial. It is a fundamental skill in oil painting that involves combining different colors to create new hues, shades, and tones. Oil painters typically work with a limited range of premixed colors on their palettes. By mastering color mixing, you can create an almost infinite variety of colors using just a few basic pigments. 

To do this, learn how to mix primary colors (red, blue, yellow) to create secondary colors (orange, green, purple) and how to create tints (by adding white) and shades (by adding black) to alter color intensity.

Different scenes, subjects, and lighting conditions require specific colors to depict them accurately. With color mixing skills, you can precisely match the colors you see in real life or in your imagination. This ability is crucial when aiming for realistic or representational artworks.

Underpainting Technique

Underpainting is a fundamental technique in oil painting that involves creating an initial layer of paint on the canvas before adding subsequent layers. This initial layer serves as the foundation for the rest of the painting, establishing the overall composition, values, and color scheme of your artwork. Think of it as the blueprint of your masterpiece, guiding you as you put in every brushstroke.

A picture showing the texture of oil paint

Having a guiding layer breaks down your process into manageable stages, fostering confidence and easing the intimidation that can come with starting a blank canvas.

Blending Technique

Don't you just love the extremely realistic skin tones you can achieve with oil painting? That's thanks to blending techniques. Blending is a fundamental technique in oil painting that involves seamlessly merging two or more colors together to create smooth transitions and gradations. It plays a crucial role in achieving realism, depth, and a sense of visual harmony in oil paintings. 

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By smoothly transitioning from highlights to shadows, you can create the illusion of three-dimensional forms, making objects in your painting appear more lifelike and vibrant. Soft blending can be achieved using brushes, while a palette knife can create more distinct and textured blends.

Layering Technique

If you haven't guessed already - layering is the most important technique to learn in oil painting! Layering involves multiple layers of paint on top of each other to create depth, texture, and luminosity. Each layer adds complexity to the colors, values, and details, allowing you to refine and build the composition gradually. 

This is where oil painting shines because layering with this medium is an experience unlike any other. It can take weeks or even months to finish an oil painting in between drying times. This is also the reason why an oil painting can appear to have so many layers underneath it all - giving it that realistic and dreamy look! 

The trick is to start with thin, transparent underpainting layers and progressively add thicker, more opaque layers as your painting develops. As you build layers, you can experiment with different brushstrokes and textures, adding tactile interest to your painting's surface. You can create thick impasto layers for added texture and depth - use a palette knife

Make Your Own Oil Painting Masterpiece Today!

Now that you know the fundamentals of oil painting, we hope you remember that oil painting is a journey of discovery and growth. As a beginner, embrace the learning process and allow yourself the space to experiment, make mistakes, and refine your skills. With enough practice and patience, you'll find that oil painting enriches your creative expression and grants you a profound connection to the art world's rich history!

So, pick up your brushes, mix your pigments, and venture into the wonderful world of oil painting! Whether you're seeking to capture the light dancing on a landscape, the emotions of a portrait, or the abstract musings of your imagination, these techniques are your stepping stones toward becoming a confident and capable oil painter. If you want to learn more about oil painting and its history, check out our comprehensive guide on oil painting!

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