Everything You Need to Know to Get Started on Oil Painting

Welcome to the captivating world of oil painting, where creativity knows no bounds and vibrant masterpieces come to life on canvas! You've come to the right place if you're eager to unleash your artistic spirit and embark on a mesmerizing journey of colors and textures. This guide will equip you with everything you need to know to start your oil painting adventure. 

The Starry Night, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh

 The Starry Night, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh

From essential materials and techniques to invaluable tips and tricks, we'll walk you through the fundamentals and inspire you to express your imagination with the rich and versatile medium of oil paints.
I. What Is Oil Paint?
II. What Is Oil Painting?
III. A Glimpse of Oil Painting History
IV. Discover: All-Time Famous Oil Paintings
V. Essential Oil Paint Insights for Artists
VI. Mastering Oil Painting: The Tips and Tricks
VII. Exploring Oil Painting Ideas

So, let your creativity flow, and let's dive into the fascinating realm of oil painting!

What is Oil Paint?

Oil paint is called so because it combines pigments with a drying oil as a binder. The binder holds the pigment particles together and adheres them to the painting surface, allowing the paint to remain stable and durable over time. The use of oil as a binder gives oil paint its distinctive characteristics and sets it apart from other types of paint.

The most commonly used drying oil in traditional oil painting is linseed oil, extracted from the seeds of the flax plant. However, other drying oils, such as walnut, poppy seed, and safflower, are also used as binders. Each type of oil has slightly different properties, affecting the drying time and characteristics of the final paint film.

Here's how oil paint is made:

  1. Pigments: The first step involves selecting high-quality pigments. Pigments are finely ground particles that provide color to the paint. They can be organic or inorganic and are available in various colors and levels of lightfastness.
  1. Grinding: The selected pigments are mixed with the chosen drying oil and other additives, if necessary, to create the paint. Traditionally, artists would grind the pigments and the binder together using a muller on a flat surface like a glass slab or stone. This process ensured the pigments were thoroughly mixed and dispersed in the oil, creating a smooth and consistent paint.
  1. Tubes: In modern times, oil paints are typically sold in tubes, where the paint is already pre-made and ready for use. This convenience has made oil painting more accessible to artists who no longer need to mix their pigments from scratch.
  1. Drying Process: As the oil paint is applied to the painting surface, it begins to dry. The drying process involves a chemical reaction where the oil reacts with oxygen in the air to form a solid film. This curing process can take a considerable amount of time, depending on the thickness of the paint layers, humidity, and temperature.

What Is Oil Painting?

Oil painting, a cherished and ageless art form, has held artists spellbound for centuries, standing the test of time as a remarkably versatile and captivating medium. Its allure lies in the lavish array of colors, seamless blending capabilities, and enduring, everlasting finish that imbues every stroke with an essence of brilliance. 

Throughout the ages, artists of all levels have been drawn to the enchanting realm of oil painting, and its timeless appeal continues to enrapture the hearts and minds of creative souls today.

Learn More About a Famous Oil Painter—Vincent Van Gogh!

Whether you find yourself an experienced painter yearning to unfurl fresh horizons by exploring innovative techniques or a budding enthusiast eager to commence a voyage of artistic discovery, this comprehensive guide is your unwavering companion. It promises to illuminate your path, equipping you with all the essential knowledge you seek to embark upon your enthralling and rewarding oil painting adventure.

A Glimpse of Oil Painting History

The history of oil painting can be traced back to ancient times, but it reached its pinnacle during the Renaissance period in Europe. The use of oil as a medium for painting dates back to ancient times, with early examples found in Afghanistan and India. Artists used oils to create religious art and decorative objects.

During the Middle Ages, egg tempera was the dominant painting medium in Europe. It involved mixing pigments with egg yolk as a binder. While durable, egg tempera had limitations, such as rapid drying times and a lack of the rich, luminous effects that would later become associated with oil painting.

The breakthrough in oil painting is often credited to Northern European painters, particularly those from the Netherlands. The Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, are often cited as technique pioneers. Jan Van Eyck, in particular, is known for his exceptional skill in developing and refining oil paint.

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

During the Renaissance in Italy, oil painting gained significant popularity and was adopted by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and Tintoretto. The technique spread throughout Europe, becoming the dominant medium for creating fine art. In the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age saw a surge in oil painting, with artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals making notable contributions to the art form.

Oil painting continued to flourish during the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming a staple in the academic training of artists. The techniques and methods were taught in art academies, developing various schools and styles.

With the advent of photography in the 19th century, the role of oil painting started to shift. Artists like the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and subsequent art movements explored new approaches to representation and expression, leading to modern and contemporary art development.

Today, oil painting remains a popular and widely used medium among artists worldwide, with contemporary artists often combining traditional techniques with innovative approaches to create unique works of art.

Discover: All-Time Famous Oil Paintings

There are numerous famous oil paintings throughout history. These are just a few examples of famous oil paintings that have impacted art and culture. Each painting holds its significance and continues to inspire and captivate audiences worldwide.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

  • "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci: This portrait of a woman with an enigmatic smile is one of the world's most famous and widely recognized paintings. 
  • "The Starry Night" by Vincent van Gogh: This vibrant and swirling masterpiece depicts the night sky over a village and is one of van Gogh's most celebrated works.
  • "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci: This iconic religious painting depicts the moment Jesus reveals that one of his disciples will betray Him during the last supper.
  • "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer: This enigmatic portrait of a young woman with a pearl earring has captivated viewers for centuries.
  • "The Scream" by Edvard Munch: This haunting and expressive painting is one of the most famous representations of existential anguish and anxiety.
  • "Guernica" by Pablo Picasso: This powerful anti-war painting depicts the horrors of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

  • "The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli: This classical masterpiece depicts the goddess Venus emerging from the sea on a seashell.
  • "American Gothic" by Grant Wood: This iconic painting portrays a stern-looking farmer and his daughter in front of their farmhouse.
  • "The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dalí: This surreal and dreamlike painting features melting clocks in a barren landscape.
  • "The Creation of Adam" by Michelangelo: This famous fresco is part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and depicts the biblical creation of Adam.

Essential Oil Paint Insights for Artists

Oil paint is a versatile and widely used medium in visual arts. It has been a favorite of artists for centuries due to its unique characteristics and the expressive possibilities it offers. What are these unique characteristics? We listed them below:

Slow Drying Time

One of the most distinctive features of oil paint is its slow drying time. Unlike watercolors or acrylics, which dry relatively quickly, oil paint can take days, weeks, or even months to fully dry, depending on factors such as the thickness of the paint, humidity, and temperature. This slow drying time allows artists to blend and rework the colors on the canvas over an extended period, providing more flexibility in their creative process.

Rich and Vibrant Colors

Oil paints produce vibrant and intense colors, creating a lustrous and luminous effect on the canvas. The pigments in oil paint are suspended in a binder of drying oil (traditionally linseed oil), enhancing the color saturation and depth.

Blendability and Layering

Oil paint is highly blendable due to the slow drying time and smooth texture. Artists can easily create gradients and transitions between colors, giving their paintings a sense of depth and realism. Additionally, artists can layer paint on top of previously dried layers, enabling them to build up textures and details gradually.

Is Oil Paint Too Soon For You? Try Watercolor!

Textural Versatility

Oil paint allows artists to experiment with various textures, from thin, transparent glazes to thick impasto applications. Impasto is a technique where the paint is applied in thick, visible brushstrokes, adding a three-dimensional quality to the artwork.

Longevity and Durability

Oil paintings are known for their longevity and resistance to fading. Oil paintings can retain their brilliance and integrity for centuries when correctly cared for. The slow drying time also contributes to the stability of the artwork, as it allows for a more even and controlled curing process.

Blending and Correction

Because of its slow drying time, oil paint permits artists to make corrections and adjustments even after the paint has partially dried. This quality benefits artists who prefer to work more deliberately and methodically.

Work methodically with oil painting

Mixed Media Palette Knife Set

Versatile Surfaces

Oil paint can be used on various surfaces, including canvas, wood, metal, and even certain paper types. This versatility allows artists to explore different textures and visual effects depending on their chosen surface.

Mastering Oil Painting: The Tips and Tricks

If you're a beginner oil painter, it's best to know that there are three fundamental rules of oil painting—even the best artists adhere to them!

  • Fat Over Lean: This rule refers to the principle of layering oil paints in a way that the upper layers (fatter, more oily) have a higher oil content than the lower layers (leaner, less oily). This is important because it helps ensure the painting remains stable over time, preventing cracking or adhesion issues. As each subsequent layer dries, it becomes less flexible, and if a more flexible layer is applied over a rigid one, it can lead to cracking.
  • Thick Over Thin: Similar to the "fat over lean" rule, "thick over thin" advises artists to apply thick paint layers over thinner ones. Using thin paint or solvents as an underlayer and applying thick paint on top ensures proper adhesion and drying. Thin layers are more flexible and allow the paint to adhere well to the canvas or previous layers, while thick layers can create texture and visual interest.
  • Slow Drying Over Fast Drying: This rule emphasizes using mediums and techniques that slow down the drying time of oil paints, especially when working on complex or large-scale compositions. Using fast-drying layers over slow-drying ones can lead to adhesion problems and uneven drying, affecting the overall quality and longevity of the painting.

These rules are essential guidelines for artists working with oil paints, as they help achieve successful and long-lasting artwork. They not only affect the aesthetic qualities of the painting but also impact its structural integrity over time.

Once you're familiar with the three guiding principles, exploring oil painting techniques will help you master the craft:

1. Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is an Italian term meaning "light-dark." It's a technique that emphasizes strong contrasts between light and shadow to create a sense of volume and depth in a painting. Artists use this technique to create dramatic and three-dimensional effects.

2. Scumbling

Scumbling involves applying a thin, translucent layer of paint over a dry base layer. The goal is to create a soft, hazy, or textured effect on the painting's surface. Scumbling often adds a sense of atmosphere or subtly blends colors.

3. Alla Prima

Also known as "direct painting" or "wet-on-wet," alla prima is a technique where an artist completes the entire painting in one session while the paint is still wet. This approach requires quick and confident brushwork and is often used for capturing the immediacy and freshness of a subject.

Be bold with your brushwork

Artists' Watercolor Brushes - Round

4. Glazing

Glazing is a method of layering thin, transparent oil paint over dry layers. Each glaze adds depth and richness to the painting by altering the color and tone of the underlying layers. This technique is handy for achieving vibrant colors and subtle shifts in hue.

5. Underpainting

Underpainting is the initial layer of paint applied to a canvas before adding more detailed layers. It serves as a foundation and can be monochromatic or a basic composition outline. Artists use underpainting to establish their work's tonal values and overall structure.

6. Impasto

Impasto involves applying thick, textured paint to the canvas, creating a three-dimensional effect. The visible brushstrokes and texture can add depth, movement, and tactile quality to the artwork.

Shop High-Quality Art Supplies!

7. Grisaille

Grisaille is a painting technique that uses only shades of gray (or sometimes one color) to create a monochromatic image. It is often used as an underpainting for works that will be later glazed with color or as a finished technique for creating dramatic and sculptural effects.

These oil painting techniques offer various approaches to manipulating color, light, texture, and form, allowing artists to express their creativity and achieve different visual effects in their paintings.

Exploring Oil Painting Ideas

The possibilities with oil painting are endless. Whether you want to paint landscapes, portraits, still life, or abstract art, oil paint allows you to bring your vision to life.

  • Painting Landscapes with Oil: Capture the beauty of nature and the changing seasons in your oil landscape paintings. Experiment with different techniques to depict skies, water, mountains, and foliage.
  • Oil Painting Portraits: Explore the art of portraiture and capture the emotions and personalities of your subjects using oil paint's smooth blending capabilities.
  • Abstract Oil Painting: Let your imagination run wild with abstract art. Use bold colors, textures, and shapes to express emotions and ideas uniquely.
  • Oil Painting Flowers: Delve into the world of floral painting. Oil paints can beautifully render the delicate details and vibrant colors of flowers.

Unleash Your Oil Painting Prowess With This Guide!

Oil painting is a rewarding and expressive art form that offers endless possibilities for creative expression. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced artist, this guide has provided a solid foundation to start your oil painting journey. Remember to experiment, practice, and be patient with yourself as you explore the beautiful world of oil painting. Embrace the journey and let your creativity flow onto the canvas. Happy painting!

Everything You Need to Know About Art

Click on each topic and subtopic to read more!