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Oil priming

If you’re going to paint with oils, the sim­plest approach is just to go to an art or craft store, buy some stretched primed can­vases, and paint on those. So far as I can tell, that’s what most peo­ple do, because it doesn’t involve any work or thought, and you can get a can­vas pretty cheaply.

That’s not what I nor­mally do. I don’t like paint­ing on acrylic primer. (Which is usu­ally, and mis­lead­ingly, labeled “gesso.” As I’ve said before, real gesso is made with hide glue and chalk or gyp­sum, not plas­tic.) Acrylic primer is rough on brushes because it has abra­sives in it to pro­vide tooth. With­out those abra­sives, it would be much too smooth, and the paint wouldn’t stick to it. It is also too “chat­tery” for my taste. By that I mean that the paint doesn’t flow as smoothly as I would like it to. Most acrylic-primed can­vas is primed too thinly; it would be bet­ter if they applied another layer or two of primer. Some artists add more acrylic primer them­selves, and that’s an improve­ment. But it’s still just acrylic primer. It is not fully clear whether oil paint on acrylic primer has good long-term archival prop­er­ties. It is bet­ter than oil paint­ing over acrylic paint, because the abra­sives in the primer allow bet­ter mechan­i­cal adhe­sion between paint lay­ers, but it has not yet proved itself over the long term.

A much bet­ter option, in my opin­ion, is an oil primer. That’s been the usual prim­ing mate­r­ial for oil paint­ing since about 1500 or so, and it’s still the best. Oil paint goes onto oil prim­ing much more smoothly than it goes onto an acrylic prim­ing. Unfor­tu­nately, it takes work and time to get an opti­mal oil priming.

You can buy oil primed can­vas from a num­ber of man­u­fac­tur­ers and stretch your own. I’m sure you can get stretched oil-primed can­vas, although it’s a bit hard to find. You can also stretch raw can­vas, size with hide glue, and apply an oil prim­ing on top of that. Per­son­ally, I pre­fer to paint on pan­els, so I make my own.

Although you could just use white oil paint, I’d sug­gest you check out prod­ucts that are specif­i­cally intended as oil prim­ings. Williams­burg makes both tita­nium and lead white oil primer. Stu­dio Prod­ucts makes a lead primer ground in black oil. Either way, you’ll pay about $50 US for a pint (0.47 liters) of primer. That much primer goes a very long way. My pref­er­ence is to use a lead white oil primer, because it is the tra­di­tional mate­r­ial, because it has shown its abil­ity to last for cen­turies, and because it is flex­i­ble and there­fore highly resis­tant to crack­ing. If you don’t like to use lead-based paints, then tita­nium is cer­tainly adequate.

I per­son­ally avoid alkyd-based primers. They dry quickly, but I just don’t trust alkyds as a base coat for oil paint. If you use alkyd paint, then an aklyd primer is prob­a­bly optimal.

I usu­ally paint on hard­board pan­els. I cut them to size with a table saw, then even and round the edges with a rasp. I clean the panel with dena­tured alco­hol to remove any grease. Usu­ally, I coat all sides of the panel with a cou­ple of lay­ers of hide glue to pro­tect it, although that’s prob­a­bly not nec­es­sary. Oil primer tends to be pretty thick, so I thin it slightly with spir­its of tur­pen­tine. I apply it with a spat­ula, smooth­ing it down as much as pos­si­ble. It helps to work in a clean room so that dirt and dust is unlikely to get into the primer. I then smooth it out even more using a soft fan brush dipped in turps. I let it dry for a few days, then apply another layer of primer. Since I am using lead paint, which is toxic, I am very care­ful to wear paint­ing clothes and wash very thor­oughly afterwards.

While you can paint on it within a cou­ple of weeks, oil primer is best when it has cured for about six months. “What the %*@$#?!?,” you might say. “I don’t want to wait six months to paint!” My reply is this: are you going to be paint­ing in six months? Then you can prep a bunch of pan­els or can­vases right now. That won’t stop you from con­tin­u­ing to paint on what­ever you have been paint­ing on. If you like, you can see what it’s like to paint on lead prim­ing that’s only a month or two old—it’s still bet­ter than acrylic prim­ing. Oil prim­ing that’s less than fully cured is a pleas­ant sur­face to paint on, but the paint goes on a lit­tle streaky. It’s hard to get a smooth coat­ing on the first pass. I have occa­sion­ally used this char­ac­ter­is­tic to cre­ate spe­cific tex­tural effects, but over­all it’s bet­ter to paint on cured primer.

I usu­ally apply a thin impri­matura to tone the panel. Some­times I paint into that wet; some­times I let it dry first. Usu­ally, I use a mix­ture of burnt umber, Mars black, and lead white, thinned down some­what (not too much) with turps.

It takes awhile to get used to paint­ing on lead primer. The sur­face is not absorbent, and it requires a lighter touch than acrylic primer. But, after some prac­tice, I find it a much more pleas­ant sur­face to paint on.

Update

31 March 2007: Many oil primers come in cans. After you open the can and put the lid back on, the primer is exposed to oxy­gen. It will then develop a film of dried paint on top. If you like, you can peel the film off and put it back after you’re done to pre­vent fur­ther dry­ing. My pref­er­ence is to cut a piece of plas­tic from a trash bag and press it down against the sur­face of the primer. This seals out oxy­gen and pre­vents drying.

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21 Responses

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  1. Jon says

    hi this doesn’t really fit into this entry, but I’m not sure if you would notice it if I replied elsewhere.

    I am look­ing to order some paint from Robert Doak for the first time. I’ve spo­ken to him before and had a few fun phonecalls, the mans pretty crazy.

    Two things: 1. I am look­ing for a good, warm, earthy red. I’ve been using a very tonal palette and have been switch­ing back and forth from indian red (which I think is a bit too pur­ple) and venet­ian red (which doak makes some trans­par­ent ver­sion of). Is there any good such red that doak makes?

    1. What does he usu­ally do for ship­ping? Some friends of mine receive their paint by 2 day mail (I live in Mary­land so its a few hours dis­tance from NYC). How much does he usu­ally charge for that sort of thing?

    Thank you, –Jon

  2. Louis R. Velasquez says

    blockx venet­ian red just like titians.
    =louis

  3. Louis R. Velasquez says

    store the can on its lid top. the dry film will remain on the bot­tom of the can.
    when you open the can, it will be fresh.
    =louis

  4. David says

    Jon,

    I don’t have many of Doak’s earth reds (just the burnt sienna, actu­ally). You could give him a call and talk it over with him. He’s def­i­nitely an inter­est­ing guy to talk to. You may also want to con­sider Williams­burg, which has an excel­lent selec­tion of earth reds. Check out the Ital­ian earths especially.

    His ship­ping charges have seemed pretty rea­son­able to me, but I don’t remem­ber exactly how it works. Again, you could call and ask.

  5. David says

    Louis,

    I haven’t tried Blockx, because I’m not a fan of poppy oil. I’ve heard that their earth col­ors are very clean and clear.

    For earth reds, I’d sug­gest Williams­burg. Some peo­ple think they are slightly gritty because they grind for opti­mal color rather than con­sis­tent tex­ture, but I have not found that to be a prob­lem for me.

    Good sug­ges­tion on work­ing with canned primer. I had not thought of that.

  6. Jon says

    I ended up get­ting a trans­par­ent red oxide deep (by Doak’s rec­om­men­da­tion) and am very happy with it (all all my other Doak paints as well).

    I’ve had some friends tell me that mix­ing tita­nium white pig­ment in with oil primer will have it dry in 23 days. Any expe­ri­ence with that?

  7. David says

    Jon,

    The trans­par­ent blue oxide is also excel­lent (kind of oily, but worth the trou­ble of man­ag­ing that).

  8. Frank Lally says

    David,

    Thanks for your com­ments regard­ing oil prim­ing. I started paint­ing five years ago and always used an acrylic based primer. I agree it can be pretty rough on your brushes. Recently bought Stu­dio Prod­ucts primer and will have sev­eral dozen pan­els ready for the sum­mer. I for­got to thin it a lit­tle with turps so I didn’t get the cov­er­age antic­pated with a pint. Will know bet­ter next time. You and oth­ers have said it is much bet­ter so I can’t wait to see the difference.

    Also, con­grats to you and your wife on the birth of your first child…from a mostly self taught RI guy also.

  9. David says

    Frank,

    Thanks very much.

    Not every­one likes to paint on oil primer. It is very slip­pery and com­pletely non­ab­sorbent. I’ve known a few artists who hon­estly hate it. Please feel free to come back and post your expe­ri­ences with it.

  10. gloria wilson says

    David,

    I paint on wood birch ply­wood pan­els with oil paint. At some point a few years ago I liked to put plas­ter
    on top of the panel to give it the feel of paint­ing on a
    slice of wall. It seemed totally not “appro­pri­ate” in the sense
    that it would prob­a­bly crack or just fall apart even­tu­ally.
    I was won­der­ing if you had a sug­ges­tion as to another way to achieve
    this chalky uneven feel? Thought you might have a sug­ges­tion.
    I am self taught and usu­ally start projects in the most “untrained” way,
    how­ever in the end I would like what I am paint­ing to last.
    Thanks so much! I love your site!!!
    Gloria

  11. David says

    Glo­ria,

    Check out this arti­cle on mak­ing tra­di­tional gesso. It’s much like plas­ter in tex­ture, but much more per­ma­nent when applied cor­rectly to a birch ply­wood panel. Gesso pan­els have sur­vived for hun­dreds of years. If you apply it roughly and don’t sand it down after­ward, it should do the trick.

  12. cementgirl says

    Williams­burg makes extra­or­di­nary earth reds. Try the red ochre or Poz­zuoli earth for flesh. Also mix with green ochre to gray it back some. Here is the web­site: http://​www​.williams​bur​goil​paint​.biz​land​.com/​c​o​l​o​r​c​h​a​r​t​.​htm

  13. David says

    Cement­girl,

    I agree. Williamsburg’s earths rock!

  14. Meera says

    I leave my paint­ing look­ing good, but when I get back a while later to con­tinue work­ing on it, I have found the paint to have spread — even though I use hardly any oil and no tur­pen­tine while paint­ing!! Why did the paint still spread, kindly explain. I’d really appre­ci­ate any input on this. Thanks.

  15. David says

    Meera,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “spread.” Does that mean that edges become blurry? Or does the paint sag as it dries? How thick is the paint? How much later do you wait before com­ing back to it? How much oil is “hardly any?”

  16. Meera says

    Thank you for the reply, David. By “spread” I mean kinda like a drop of ink would dif­fuse on fab­ric. Yes, the edges get blurry and I tend to lose the finely defined shape I had ear­lier estab­lished. Also of course the spread­ing color alters the tone of sur­round­ing areas which is frus­trat­ing par­tic­u­larly as I was paint­ing a por­trait and did not want to have to redo the face!! I used the paint with­out adding oil or tur­pen­tine or any­thing else so as to make sure it was not going to be thin since I was paint­ing the facial fea­tures and deal­ing with half the face being in the shadow. I returned to work on the paint­ing after two hours. This has not hap­pened to me before! I look for­ward to your advice. Thanks immensely.

  17. David says

    Meera,

    Hmm. That’s odd. These are the same kind of paint you’ve always used, on the same kind of sur­face? Noth­ing has changed about the process you are using?

  18. Meera says

    I apol­o­gize for the delay in reply­ing. Just got on the com­puter today. Yes David, the paint­ing sur­face is the same kind (I won­der if it was not ade­quately pre­pared by the man­u­fac­tur­ers?) The paints I used are ones I’ve always used. When noth­ing seemed to improve the sit­u­a­tion, I even mixed in a tad of Tita­nium White, in an effort to fur­ther thicken the paint. It’s been very humid here in Texas, with all the rain. Do you think that could be a fac­tor? Think­ing so, I’ve let things rest for a week or more. Thank you so much.

  19. Michael says

    David,

    I have been com­ing back to your blog for the past two years since I first began paint­ing and have always found it very infor­ma­tive. Every time I have a ques­tion regard­ing oil paint­ing this is where I turn because you always seem to sug­gest the best way of doing things (i.e. not cut­ting cor­ners even if it is time con­sum­ing not to do so, using the best mate­ri­als). Your arti­cle on “archival per­ma­nence” has to be one of my favorites. I do have one ques­tion. I was get­ting ready to prime some linen pan­els with the Williams­burg primer that you sug­gest in this post. I was curi­ous if you could point me toward a brand of hide glue, and what your thoughts were on hide glue vs. pva size. Thanks for your blog!

    • David Rourke says

      Michael,

      I’ve used hide glue from Robert Doak, Stu­dio Prod­ucts, and Gam­blin. They’ve all worked just fine. The stuff from Doak seemed to be of slightly higher qual­ity to me.

      I have not used PVA size. There are good argu­ments for and against it’s use; I tend to be very con­ser­v­a­tive and choose older mate­ri­als when I’m not cer­tain that newer stuff works bet­ter. I expect that on linen stretched over panel, either will do just fine.

      Please let me know how you like the Williams­burg primer, as I have not tried it. I just bought some lead white primer from Nat­ural Pig­ments and will be try­ing that out in the next few days.

  20. Janet Darlington says

    Well said! Thanks as I will be try­ing this.



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