How to get started with oil painting

Painting with oils is an exciting way to create art. However, many people can be intimidated by the medium of oil paints, when in fact it provides the ideal way to learn – which, of course, includes making mistakes. In fact, you can never really ruin an oil painting, as it can always be corrected and painted over.

The main thing with oils is to have fun with it and enjoy its rich, generous and glossy texture.

When I paint, I always try to see the painting as a whole, working across the entire canvas. I aim for the painting to look good at every stage, instead of only thinking of the end result. You can view the process more like sculpture rather than drawing, using the paint to add movement, texture and depth.

Here, I will run through some of the basic equipment and techniques you can expect to use with oils.

01. Choose brushes and boards for oil painting

Figure out which brushes work best for you

There are many brushes available so, if you can, try them out to discover what works for you in terms of hair, shape and handle length. 

I prefer using brushes with shorter handles because my paintings are small (use long handles for larger work as you will need some distance). I keep a small selection of different sizes (two of each – one for light colours and one for darks). 

If you're new to oils, one tip is to use a larger brush with a small canvas. This will stop you getting bogged down in details and allow you to focus on the main shapes instead.

As for surfaces, I prefer boards rather than canvases, because they're easy to transport, ship and store. 

02. Find the right oil paints

You don't need a huge palette to create great work

Cheaper student-quality oil paints are perfect to start with, and are ideal for backgrounds. But for better results, I prefer using 'artist' ranges – especially if I want vibrant blues, greens and reds. These higher quality paints have a better concentration and quality of pigments. 

A limited palette makes life easier. If you have leftover paint, use it to tint your blank canvases.

03. Paint in layers or 'alla prima'

Working 'alla prima' allows you to work in a more spontaneous way

Broadly speaking, oil painting can be approached in two ways – first is the traditional way, building depth with layers. Here, you can avoid cracks by having thinner, fast-drying layers under fatter (with more oil), thicker, slow-drying layers. 

The other method – and the one I prefer – is to work in one application, wet-on-wet or  'alla prima'. I tend to work in one session, usually plein air, and aim to apply the paint in a fresh and spontaneous way. I block in the main shapes with thinner paint, and end with thicker brushstrokes.

04. Paint with the dry brush technique

The dry brush technique is ideal for adding texture

One of my favourite oil painting techniques is 'dry brushing'. Here, you load your brush with pure paint, and gently leave a trace over a fairly dry area in the painting. The result is a chalky, powdery stroke that embraces the texture of what's underneath, and can be seen in some areas. 

This technique can be used in 'alla prima' on areas that have dried. I often use it to depict sparkly reflections in water, or to suggest smoke or mist. You can also use it to add subtle final details, such as bridges or flowers.

05. Paint impasto strokes

Thick impasto strokes add depth and energy to a painting

The impasto technique is where paint is applied thickly to the surface. The thick, glossy, shiny marks are an attractive feature, and the thickness and slow drying time of oils makes it the perfect medium for this technique. Load the brush with paint to build texture and movement into the painting. 

The strokes bring energy to the painting, but also give it an added dimension, as the marks stand out from the surface and affect how the light is reflected on the canvas. 

I usually save my impasto marks for the last stage of the painting, using them for the light areas and focal points.

This article originally appeared in Paint & Draw issue 5; buy it here!

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