How to Start Oil Painting

Oil Painting, also known as the medium of the masters. It is the process of painting with pigments that have been combined with oil. Pigments have ranged from crushed lapis lazuli, to mummified remains, don't worry that ingredient is no longer used! 
The appeal of oil painting comes from its slow drying time, which gives you more time to work with your paint.
With that being said, It's important for artists who come from an acrylic or watercolour background to understand that oil painting takes a long time, there are mediums you can use to speed up this process however, we recommend if you're painting with oils you should lean into that slow drying aspect. 

Some concerns and myths you may have heard about oil painting is that it's toxic. This is a common misconception, while SOME pigments can be toxic this is when it's consumed or breathed in as a powder. This does not mean there no precautions you should take when oil painting. For example artists should paint in a ventilated space since the fumes from the solvent, thinner and mediums can be toxic. You should also be aware that the oils are flammable. 

Before we begin lets go over some must need materials. 



  • stretched canvas - a pre-stretched canvas is the industry standard, it's prepped and ready for painting and mounting. One note to keep in mind is that this can get a bit expensive depending on the size.
  • canvas board - these are very cost effective, easy to pack and transport, but mounting them can tricky for yourself and clients. 
  • canvas paper - this kind of canvas comes in a drawing pad style, it's easy to carry with you and very cost effective. While you can get common sizes for frames you are stuck with a preset size. 
  • canvas roll - rolls can save you money in the long run, however you will need the space, and time to build and stretch your canvases. This requires a lot more set up on the artist's end but it gives far more customizability. 


Obviously we can't paint with out well, paint! As a beginner we recommend getting a set of student grade paint, these will be your stepping stones into oil painting. 

Something to consider is if you want traditional oil paintings which require a medium to paint with. Or a water-soluble oil paint which, as the name suggests, requires water instead of medium. Both achieve similar results and overall depend on your personal preference. The main deciding factor is if you're feeling nervous about the toxicity of mediums/solvents if this is the case you can start with water-soluble oils. 

Long time oil painters will tell you less is more when oil painting, you'll find that they will restrict themselves to filberts, rounds, and flats. 

For a more natural looking stroke you can use a bristle brush such as hog hair. For a smoother stroke you can use brushes with synthetic hair.

Mediums & Thinners/solvent/paint thinner
The difference between solvent and medium. Solvent refers to anything that weakens the oil. For example mineral spirits and turpentine.
You may have heard the term "fat over lean" this refers to applying the lean, the weakened oil paint BEFORE the fat, the regular oil paints. Applying the thinnest layers of paint first then gradually thickening as you build up. Simply put, applying the fattier paint OVER the leaner paint. 

wood - wood is a classic, and has a natural well-weighted feel to it. The wood can stain over time as the oils will seep into it. 
plastic - a plastic palette is lightweight and very easy to clean. 
paper - these come in pads or packs and are popular for their convenience and easy clean up. It's a simple tear and throw away, however it's a far more frequent reoccurring expense.


Colour Theory

Colour theory the most important tool to any artist. No matter what we create, painting, drawings, sculpture etc. understanding colour and how to use it is crucial. 

If you already understand colour theory from acrylic and watercolour those skills transfer over to oil as well. However, for those who are still learning or looking to learn colour theory, we'll go over some basics. 

First let's go over some terms. 

Hue - refers to the colour itself, red, blue, yellow etc. 
Saturation - this is intensity and vibrancy of the colour.
Value - tells us the lightness or darkness of our colour.
Shade - made by adding black to a colour.
Tint - made by adding white to a colour.
Tone - made by adding grey colour.

If you'd like a more in depth look into colour theory click here.

When you're first starting out with oil painting keep your palette simple. Have your primaries, white and a burnt umber to start. With primaries you can create any colour on the wheel, white will give you your tints and burnt umber will give your shades. Why not use black? You may be asking, this is because it's easy to fall back to black for all shading and tones. Very rarely is a grey simply grey, you need to ask yourself. What colours are in this grey? The same goes for shades.

Something else that helps significantly is picking out a colour scheme before you paint. Seeing what you're able to work with helps your brain plan out how to apply it as you go. Something else to keep in mind is how to build your own colour schemes. 

Another tool you can use is creating a colour picker. Some artists do this by printing out the material they're painting, then laminating it so they can test their blended colours against the source material. 

Shop Colour Wheels

Planning & Execution

Before you begin getting into the nitty gritty of painting it's important to plan out your painting.

Start with applying a grid to your picture it can be a simple two line grid that separates the picture into quadrants.
Here are my two reference images, as you can see we have the original image then a pixelated one. The pixel one is so we can better see the colours and placement of the highlights, lowlights and shades.

Next apply a THIN layer of paint remember you're working with oils so you won't be waiting for the layers to dry just yet. Remember "Fat over Lean".
Next, you're going to paint in the grid with the same colour you used to apply that previous layer, the paint you use to make your grid lines should be a SLIGHTLY thicker.  

Now that we're set up use the same slightly thicker paint to block out the basic shapes and shadows of your source materials. Think of this step as a sketch, it doesn't need to be perfect it just needs to establish to you what the important landmarks of your piece is. 

Next paint the background around your objects and the shadows on the surface that your objects cast, as applicable. 
Since the source material I'm using is fairly bright I've focused more on the shape of the pomegranate and the placement of it's crown. 

Here we've laid down our shapes and some base colours and shades. 

I block out a bit more of the shades and lighting. I'm not focusing on details at this point, just the placement.

At this point I put a lot of focus on the crown of the pomegranate. The shade of brown I used reminded me of the colour of cinnamon sticks.

Now I'm fleshing out the colours of the fruit, using smaller brush strokes for shading and dabbing the shines in. The dabbing gives it the porous texture that more fruit skins have.

something important with oil painting, is knowing when your should blend. For the most part I'm not blending the colours in the same way you would acrylic. Instead I am looking at two colours that meet then blending those two colours on my paint palette to make a medium between those two colours. Once I have a happy medium between those two colours I apply it in those small brush strokes, remembering not blending them together but creating another layer that connects the two. 

I decided I didn't like the plate, so I'm redoing it. It's important not to give up when you don't like how something is turning out. Take a break and come back and try again!

Here we are with a new plate, the sizing is more accurate to the source material. Here I also took some time to adjust the background colours.

With some final adjustments to the shadows and some little details to the pomegranate I'm happy with how this turned out.

 With oil painting and anything else, it's important to paint anything and everything. Keep practicing and do not be afraid of failure. Learning art is a process so be patient with yourself and remember you're learning with every painting and drawing.


Varnishing your oil paintings is the final step to completing your painting. When you varnish your work it will not only protect your piece but give it a uniform appearance. 

Make sure you wait six to twelve months before varnishing your work. Once it is time to varnish you MUST work in a well ventilated space. You can read more in detail about varnishing here

Creative tutorials are a chance to explore your creativity and try techniques that you've never explored or want to hone your skills at.

Follow along with turotials on acrylic pouring to image transer and beyond. Endless possibilities and infinite creativity!

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