Busting the Myths of Oil Painting: Starting Out

Many people ask me how to get started in oil paints. I have written on this topic before as I was, like many, a bit scared of oil paints and its complexities at first. Turns out, oil painting is not as hard as it seems and it all comes down to just diving in.  So what do you need? ​

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8. Kitchen Towelling

Oh, I forgot Kitchen Towelling!  Don’t you always forget something when you go shopping?

I use kitchen roll (kitchen towelling) to wipe my brushes on. I don’t clean my brushes during a painting session with brush cleaner, but wipe them on kitchen roll. I go through quite a lot of kitchen roll!

You can buy brush cleaner (toxic ones, low odour but still toxic ones, or non-toxic ones like Zest-it) if you really want a clean brush but you run the risk of using it like water in watercolour painting; you keep on swishing in toxic liquids and applying a lot of cleaner onto your painting. I prefer to just wipe my brush clean and since I don’t often need perfectly straight and clean colours (I am no cartoonist) I don’t mind a bit of colour contamination. You can also use a different brush for darks and lights to avoid seriously muddy colours.

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Don’t just choose colours that take your fancy but think about what you want to paint. I love the sight of jewel-like rich colours in the art shop but I paint fairly monochrome and calm paintings so I have no use for azure blue really, no matter how yummy it looks.

With the primary colours you can mix pretty much anything you like and it gives you excellent practice in mixing.

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Don’t buy too many brushes, but buy a couple of different types and sizes. That way you can find out what you like before spending too much money.

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There is so much choice in supports! Buy a ready-made, ready primed (universally or acrylic primed) canvas that is ready for painting.

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You don’t really need linseed oil. But it is handy to make your paint a bit thinner if you find it too stiff to move around.  Only use a TINY amount in your paint. Tiny! You don’t want to be painting with oil but with paint.

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You can almost use anything for a palette but think about whether you fancy cleaning it when you are done or whether you prefer to just throw it away.  If your painting session is fairly short, anything will do but don’t use cardboard for longer sessions as it will soak up the oil in the paint, leaving you with very stiff paint. Wooden palettes will need cleaning, disposable palettes can be thrown away.

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You need to figure out what you want to paint! Portraits, still lives, landscapes – go for it.

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Shopping List:
Kitchen Roll
Paint
Brushes
Canvas
Linseed Oil
Palette
Brush Cleaner

(aff. links)

If you have any questions, do let me know in the comments below.  This is a really basic list for absolute beginners in oil painting. Once you get the hang of it you can extend your materials with more brushes, try out different supports and colours, perhaps even dip into a medium.  But what you only really need is the stuff mentioned above and then just the guts to put brush to canvas!

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10 thoughts on “Busting the Myths of Oil Painting: Starting Out

  1. Thanks Sophie. This is very useful. I started painting in oils last year. Some of the mistakes I made include: 1/ buying too many colours at the start, as you say, it’s better to start with the primaries plus white, and it’s cheaper too; 2/ buying too many brushes – more below; 3/ struggling with the array of surfaces – more below; 4/ struggling with sometimes conflicting advice on mediums – more below. Looking back, one of the things that I had to learn was the very wide range of ways of painting with oils. You can paint thick (thick paint, little or no medium) or thin (lots of medium), and anywhere in between. How you want to paint will determine the materials that you need. But how do you know how you want to paint? You can look at the set ups used by artists you admire. But doing that can lead to spending lots of money. I think the best way is to get a minimal set up and then experiment, and add materials as you go. On mediums: start with just solvent. On brushes: start with a no 3 bristle filbert such as Rosemary & co Ultimate. By the way, one thing that I learnt the hard way was that the thickness of the paint determines which brush can be used: soft hair is no go for thick paint. On colours: buy Artists quality and not student quality. They are more expensive but if you just buy the 3 primaries plus white then it’s not too bad. But the most troublesome thing, for me, was the surface. I tried loads of different types. As a beginner you want to play, to experiment, you don’t want to be too precious about it but also you don’t want to paint on cheap surfaces that give no pleasure and lots of pain. I think it’s a very personal choice. I’m almost reluctant to share my own favourite for that reason. But I now use Claessens universal primed linen (no 112) which is simply taped onto a 5mm MDF board with masking tape. It isn’t cheap – it’s about £60 per metre. But the benefit is that, having done a painting, I can wash it off with solvent and re use the piece of linen again and again. If I do something I want to keep then great, But most of the time I’m happy to play and experiment and then wash it off. I learn really quickly this way. I bought 2m but it will last me for months, maybe more. Sometimes decisions about materials turn out to be a false economy, so your blog is very helpful to avoid unnecessary cost. it’s better to save money where you can (e.g fewer colours & brushes) and use the money saved to avoid false economies elsewhere (surfaces).

    1. Hi Chris, you are very welcome! I love your comment. You went through exactly what we all went through. The searching for the right materials, making mistakes, learning and finally getting what you like best. I totally hear what you say: start simple and do not buy too many options, colours or brushes as the choice is baffling. Rosemary’s brushes are excellent and very affordable too.
      I wrote a blog post about paint brands and there also recommended to go for artists quality paint. It is just so much better than student quality!
      Surfaces can be confusing indeed. There is so much choice! But some artist are more picky than others. I am absolutely impossible: I am very particular about which linen I like and hate to paint on anything else. Your choice of Claessens is great of course. It is a famous brand of top quality linen so you’ve got a winner there. The great thing is that many art shops will actually send you canvas samples to try – in case anyone is wondering what Claessens is all about. Just ask and they can usually provide some samples for free or at low cost.
      I am really happy you find my blog posts useful. Do check out the other posts in the series (there’s one on toxicity, brands, supports and more) .
      Hope to see you around on my blog again some time. Thanks again for popping in!
      Sophie

      1. Hi Sophie. I asked Bird and Davis if they would be kind enough to send me some samples and they did. I sent them a self addressed envelope and a book of stamps and they returned the unused stamps. That was a great help. Good quality linen canvas is expensive so you don’t want to make mistakes. I don’t want to paint too fine so the extra fine grade was not the one for me. At the same time I didn’t want the weave to be too prominent and distract from the painting. So the medium fine 112 was right for me. I tried making my own panels with muslin and MDF primed with acrylic gesso and while it is very satisfying it is also very time consuming. For a long time I simply primed 3mm MDF (without muslin). That’s probably my favourite after the Claessens. I live in a small flat so storage is an issue. I don’t have space to store bulky canvases. So taping sheets of linen to a board is perfect.
        Even as I was placing my order for 12 or so colours last year I knew I was probably going about it all wrong! To learn quickly, it’s super important to use a minimal palette. It took me a while to realise that of course. But now I mostly used just cadmium red, cadmium lemon and ultramarine blue, and titanium white. Probably all beginners are excited by colours. But the true skill is in learning about values. And that’s a skill you can’t just buy like a tube of paint. I spend most of my time now learning to mix to achieve the right value – not the right colour per se.
        I often read your blog posts. They’re very interesting and I appreciate the effort you put into them. It’s nice to read about another artist’s personal experience and preferences and recommendations.

      2. All sounds great Chris. I am sure others will take heart from your experiences. Yes, Bird&Davis are very helpful. I wish they would stock more brands of canvas though! My favourite linen is Artfix.

        Very pleased you enjoy my blog! Thanks so much. 🙂

  2. Can you oil paint just on wood? Tile? I like to use natural materials sometimes other than canvas. I’ve never used oils… only acrylics and water colors. Can I use wall primer? To prime the surface… I do abstract pieces… nothing to perfect. And what can I seal my painting with? Do I need to?

    1. Hi, so sorry for responding late! It depends how long you want your painting to last… If this is just for fun and games – then do what you want. But if you want it to last a bit longer, or perhaps even exhibit or sell…than longevity does come into play.
      Oil paint will rot an organic material unless a primer is used to separate the two. So, I would imagine that it is not a great idea to paint directly onto wood, without a primer. Any chemicals in the wood can directly get into contact with the paint and the oil in the paint will soak into the wood – none of this sounds promising if you want your painting to stay the same. The same applies for most other materials. You can use natural materials but to play it safe I would recommend using an acrylic primer first. These primers you can often apply to any solid surface including wood, metal, ceramic etc etc. I would not use wall primer as this is not intended for art and will give a long-lasting and solid base to paint on. So go get an acrylic primer (like Jackson’s or Golden etc) and apply it to a clean solid surface. Then paint your oil painting on it. You don’t have to ‘seal’ it as oil paint will dry slowly but surely. You can varnish it, if you like added protection though. Hope this helps!! Happy Painting!

  3. Hello Sophie –
    I found your helpful blog while searching for help on creating my desired support – Cotton or linen canvas stretched over wood and stapled on the back. My quandary is that I cannot find details about the correct order of placing the PVA size/glue, either first on the wood, then on the canvas, etc. (For the sake of space I won’t go into all of the details here.)
    I will be completing an online course in oil painting for beginners with UDEMY. In this course, the instructor has prescribed six colors that he will be using, and recommends us purchasing: 6 colors, as well as Payne’s gray for black, and white.
    My main purpose in placing this comment here today was to thank you for all the helpful information and advice that you place on your blog. Although it is not imperative that I know exactly how to prepare my stretched canvas over board, as I will be starting off with premade panels, it is still just a little bit frustrating for me to not know exactly something that I’m trying to figure out.
    By the way, have you read the book, Living Craft, A Painters Process? It Is over 400 Pages long, but really gets into the nitty-gritty of oil painting, if that is of any interest to you.
    Best wishes, and take good care,
    ~Antonio Dominion
    P.S. I really got something out of the previous poster, Chris, when he says that he washes his linen canvases with solvent and then simply re-uses them! 🙂 I would NEVER have thought of this! What a great world where we can share perspectives and get new ideas from other people around the world. Best regards!

    1. Hi Antonio, thank you for your great comment and thank you for liking my blog. Great to hear my posts are helpful!
      As for your question on the glue: I’d apply the glue on the wood and brush it out thoroughly. Then put the canvas on it and push out any bubbles with your hands or a piece of board. When all bubbles have gone, put some heavy weight books (or something) on top (maybe turn it around first with the canvas facing the table if its clean and dry) and let dry.
      Hope you have lots of fun with your online course! Interesting to choice to use Payne’s Grey as black but why not. For real good darks you can also mix Prussian blue and Burnt Umber.
      Can’t say I know of the book but will have to look it up! Thanks for the suggestion!
      Thanks again, happy painting, Sophie

  4. Great article! Nice tips regarding oil paintings, Oil is painting is bit difficult than other form of arts but it look more attractive and original.

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