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Repost: So you’ve decided to try oil painting

Since this month is the site’s two year anniver­sary, I am re-posting some items from the past that I par­tic­u­larly like. This one was first posted on 28 August 2006.

If you are just start­ing out with oil paint, I have some advice.

First, be real­is­tic. Don’t think you’re going to make any mas­ter­pieces any time soon, and never think that there are any short­cuts. If you just want to play around and don’t care about devel­op­ing real skill, then just do that and have a good time. But if you are seri­ous about learn­ing to paint well, real­ize this: while it’s not that dif­fi­cult to learn how to make mediocre paint­ings that your mom will like (or tell you she likes), mak­ing good paint­ings is hard—really hard. It takes a lot of prac­tice, regard­less of tal­ent, to learn how to paint well. You will make many bad paint­ings before you make your first good one. If you are some­one who can’t stand to be bad at some­thing, over and over, before you get good, then oil paint­ing isn’t for you. Maybe you should try video games. You can find cheat codes for many of them that will make you invincible.

Sec­ond, keep it sim­ple. It’s counter-productive to plan com­pli­cated projects until you have the skill to pull them off. Your sub­jects, to start off, should be sim­ple. An egg, a mug, a tree. No peo­ple. No copy­ing pho­tos. Your goal, to start out, should be to do some bad paint­ings that no one will want to look at. If your goal is to make bad paint­ings, it won’t be too hard to get there. After ten of those, you can start to think about paint­ings that are…less bad. You’ll learn more, in the same amount of time, by mak­ing sev­eral sim­ple bad paint­ings than by mak­ing one com­pli­cated bad painting.

Third, there is no rea­son to start out by spend­ing a lot of money or get­ting fancy with mate­ri­als. Get a few tubes of decent, artist-grade paint. Don’t get stu­dent grade, don’t buy a beginner’s paint­ing set, and don’t buy water mis­ci­bles or other con­ve­nience oil paints. A good starter palette would be tita­nium white, ultra­ma­rine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, and ivory black (you can get these from Robert Doak for well under $40—but don’t let him sell you any­thing else). Those pig­ments are all inex­pen­sive and non-toxic (not that you should eat them). You won’t be able to make bright, high chroma paint­ings with this sim­ple palette, but that’s a good thing: until you learn to mix neu­tral col­ors, a high chroma pal­lete would only force you to make luridly nasty paint­ings. Get some small primed can­vases (no more than 8 × 10”) or some of those primed can­vas pads. Get some brushes—I’d sug­gest a cou­ple of bris­tle flats about as wide as your thumb and some syn­thetic sable (soft) flats about as wide as your pinkie (if you have par­tic­u­larly wide or nar­row fin­gers, adjust accord­ingly). Also get a pack of cheap plas­tic palette knives. Get a pad of dis­pos­able paper palettes and a big roll of paper tow­els. For clean­ing brushes, either go to the hard­ware store and buy some odor­less min­eral spir­its, or go to the art store and get some lin­seed oil. Get a basic easel—a cheap table easel will do. If you con­tinue to paint, you’ll be upgrad­ing all of this stuff. If you find that you hate paint­ing, find a niece or nephew to give the stuff to.

Fourth, learn to han­dle the paint. Set up your easel and a blank can­vas. Squirt a lit­tle of each paint onto the edges of your palette. Make an abstract paint­ing that doesn’t look like any­thing. Play around. Until you get used to oil paint, you may find that it’s sticky and hard to man­age. Don’t thin your paint down to make it man­age­able; never add more than a tiny bit of oil or sol­vent to the paint. Learn how to load paint onto the brush; not too much, not too lit­tle. Learn how to make a flat area of one color that isn’t streaky (hint: don’t be afraid to scrub the paint into the can­vas with a bris­tle brush). Learn to make def­i­nite strokes; never dab it on. Mix two col­ors together with a palette knife—try ultra­ma­rine and raw sienna. That makes a gray. Add some white. That makes a light gray. Try mix­ing every com­bi­na­tion of paints on your palette to see what col­ors they make. Learn how to make darks with­out using black (I’ve done many paint­ings in which the dark­est darks were a mix­ture of ultra­ma­rine and burnt sienna). Black is a good mix­ing color, but it’s of lim­ited util­ity for mak­ing other col­ors darker. When you make a mis­take, learn how to scrape the paint off with a palette knife, wipe off the remain­der with a rag soaked in a lit­tle bit of sol­vent, and start that sec­tion over. Learn to blend two col­ors, lay­ing down two adja­cent tones of paint, then using a soft dry brush (cleaned every few strokes) to feather between them, grad­u­ally devel­op­ing a gra­da­tion. Use mul­ti­ple brushes at a time—one for each color, or at least one for darks and another for lights. Learn how to apply light paint over dark paint (or dark over light, which is harder) with­out hav­ing them mix more than you want to and get­ting all muddy. This last skill takes a very light touch and plenty of practice.

Fifth, pick a sim­ple sub­ject and try to paint it. You may want to start with just a paint­ing in one color, using just shades of black and white, or burnt sienna and white. Try a paint­ing with just ultra­ma­rine, raw sienna, and white. You won’t be able to mix every color you see, but, in fact, you can’t do that no mat­ter how many col­ors you use. Don’t drive your­self nuts with arbi­trary lim­its, but try to make your first few paint­ings quickly, in an hour or two each. It doesn’t mat­ter if they are any good, and if you are try­ing hard to make good paint­ings you’ll be too frus­trated to con­tinue. Your goal is to make some bad paint­ings that no one but you will ever see, learn­ing from each one. Fin­ish a paint­ing, put it away with­out think­ing about qual­ity, and move on to the next one.

Sixth, after you’ve done ten or so small bad paint­ings, take a look at them. Are the last ones as bad as the first ones? What have you learned to do well? What is still embarass­ingly bad? What do you need to learn next? Under­stand that your own per­cep­tion of your work will tend toward either absolute enchant­ment or utter loathing (often with rapid swings from one to the other). Learn to appraise your own work real­is­ti­cally. Try look­ing at it in a mirror—that some­times helps. Find some­one you trust to give you hon­est but not exces­sively crit­i­cal feed­back (but decide for your­self whether they are right or wrong).

Sev­enth, save up some more money and get some more sup­plies. You prob­a­bly want some more col­ors. Add them to your palette one or two at a time after exper­i­ment­ing with how they mix with the other col­ors you already use. Try some zinc white, which is much less over­pow­er­ing in mix­tures than tita­nium. Try cad­mium red or cad­mium yel­low. Learn about pig­ments and choose paints that are made with only one pig­ment (you don’t need paint com­pa­nies to do your mix­ing for you). Get some more brushes. Think about a bet­ter easel. Think about bet­ter sur­faces than acrylic primer. Think about mak­ing some pan­els. Think about more com­pli­cated sub­jects (but not too com­pli­cated). Look at good paint­ings by artists you admire and think about how they might be made. Are there any paint­ing classes you could enroll in? Read the rest of this web log, other web sites, and books to learn more about what you can do with paint.

Good luck.

Posted in art materials, art technique, oil painting.

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2 Responses

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  1. RubyB says

    Thanks for this. i have just got­ten into oil paint­ing and made a huge paint­ing with lots of col­ors and was really dis­ap­pointed. I made one a lit­tle while ago with less col­ors and actu­ally kind of liked the out­come. I guess that I really need to sim­plify things for now and just focus on get­ting the tech­nique down. Which is really hard. I’ve always made art and its always been pas­sion­ately. The best work comes when I slow down though. The emo­tion that I wanted to bring through comes through the tech­nique. I will really take your advice to heart and make a bunch of paint­ings just for the sake of mak­ing them, no great expec­ta­tions. Thanks again!

    • David says


      Glad I could help. Good luck with your painting!

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