What are oil paints

Oil paints are generally made from pigment and a drying oil such as linseed oil. Some paint makers use other oils such as safflower oil. Oil paint has been known since the Renaissance, after which oil paint became increasingly popular. It was the most popular painting medium in the 15th and 16th centuries. It has remained popular ever since. Oil paints started to be stored in tubes in the 19th century. Over the centuries new pigments have been discovered, discarded for toxicity and produced. New synthetic pigments are constantly adding to the huge colour variety oil painting can offer.

 
 

What types of oils are there

Although most oil paint is a mixture of oils and pigments, new types of oil paints have emerged on the market in the 20th century. Water mixable oils are increasingly popular. There are also fast drying Alkyd oils. Most oil painting brands have developed their own characteristic oil paint and so there is also a variety in quality, texture and general characteristics between brands.

 
 
 
 

Application

Oil paints can be applied to a painting support with brushes, palette knives, or any other creative tool you can think of. Do keep in mind that some pigments can be toxic and so it is sensible to keep paint off your skin.


 
 
 

Brushes

Popular oil painting brushes are bristle brushes, often made of hog's hair. These pale off-white brushes are sturdy and stiff and can take a bit of punishment. Scrubbing, scumbling, marking, dabbing; it's all fine with a bristle brush.

Synthetic brushes are very hard wearing and often create a softer brush mark. Great for a smoother application and/or detail work.

Brushes come in various shapes and sizes. Most popular shapes are filbert (rounded rectangular), flat, and round. These brush shapes offer an endless array of mark making possibilities.

 
 
 

Supports

Oil painting is traditionally done on canvas: stretched and primed cotton or linen. The canvas is tightly nailed around a wooden frame (wooden stretcher bars) creating a drum-like surface to paint on. Stretched canvas is lightweight. Canvas usually refers to either cotton or linen. Many professional artists prefer linen to paint on. Linen is not necessarily better than cotton, it just different and slightly more expensive. Cotton is easy to stretch as it is fairly elastic and provides a regular weave. All canvas must be sealed with a size and a primer to avoid the oil paint getting into contact with the fibres of the canvas (it could rot). Nowadays you can buy good quality primers ('gesso') in most art materials stores. You can also buy ready-primed canvas on the roll, or ready made stretched canvas.

Besides stretched canvas, other popular painting supports are primed panels (hardwood), copper, aluminium, and primed canvas glued onto panels or boards.


 
 

How to paint with oils: basic techniques

Oil painting techniques are as many as there are artists. There is a huge amount of freedom when painting with oils. To name just a few:

  • Palette knife
  • scumbling
  • glazing
  • wet-in-wet
  • Impasto
  • grisaille
  • blending

 
 

Thinning

Many artist find the oil paint from the tube too stiff and thick and prefer to thin their paints with a medium. This is by no means a must. You can use the paint straight from the tube. Some brands are more fluid than others so it might be worthwhile to experiment a little.

Most artists use some sort of mixture of solvent and linseed oil as their thinning medium.

 
 
 
 
 

Mediums

If you want your paint to do something that it doesn't naturally do, you can use a medium. There are a lot of mediums available. You can find a medium to thicken your paint and create impasto effects. There are mediums to make your paint more fluid, dry quicker, dry slower, add more gloss, spread smoothly, there are mediums for glazing, and so much more. Some artists love to explore all these possibilities but I recommend beginners to simply stay away from mediums and explore oil paint itself first.


 
 
 

Cleaning

There are many ways to clean brushes. You can clean your brushes with solvent, or if you prefer a non-toxic solution, with brush soap. You can also simply wipe most of the paint off onto a rag or some kitchen roll, then swish it into some linseed oil and wipe again to remove the last bits of paint, then wash out the oil with water and soap.

 
 
 

Quick note on toxicity

Oil paints are simply pigment+oil. They do not give off a toxic fume and they do not smell, other than the faint smell of linseed oil. Some pigments are toxic and it is important to always double check to know what you are working with. Solvents are toxic and do give off toxic fumes. Most mediums contain solvents. If you must use a solvent or a medium it is important to keep the container closed so as to avoid any fumes in the air and only use a minimal amount. Make sure you follow the safety instructions provided with the product and beware of other people in your environment.


 

Thinning

Many artist find the oil paint from the tube too stiff and thick and prefer to thin their paints with a medium. This is by no means a must. You can use the paint straight from the tube. Some brands are more fluid than others so it might be worthwhile to experiment a little.

Most artists use some sort of mixture of solvent and linseed oil as their thinning medium.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Beauty

Oil paint has mesmerised art lovers for centuries. There is a certain magic created when we work with pigment suspended in oil. The colours get a glow and depth that is not found in any other art material. To master the skills to create this magic is journey worth taking.





 
 
 
 
 
 

Beginners' Supplies List

If you are new to oils then this is all you need to get you started:

  • Paint
  • Canvas
  • Brushes
  • Kitchen roll
  • Palette
  • Brush cleaner
 

Drying

Oil paint dries much slower than acrylics and for many people this takes some getting used to. But it is actually a benefit. If your paint dries slowly, then you won’t have wasted paint on your palette. Also you will be able to ‘work’ your painting for much longer, sometimes even days, to try and get things right. You can easily wipe paint off and start again, you can move paint around for a long time. Another benefit is that you can mix your colours on the canvas. Add a bit of ochre to that area and it’s warmed up instantly!
Oil paints can have varying drying rates so some colours might dry quicker than others. It usually takes a couple of days for colours to be touch dry. It can take around 6 months for an oil painting to be completely dry and ‘cured’ and ready for varnish.

 
 
 
 
 

Further Reading

There are lots of blog posts on this website about oil painting. Here are just a few:

 

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