Painting & Drawing blog


Painting in oils is little messier and more time-consuming than painting with acrylics or watercolours, largely because you cannot clean or thin oil paint with water. What’s more both the paints and the mediums you use to clean and dilute them are on the expensive side and it’s easy to waste both if you aren’t careful. But oil painting is well worth the effort so here are my favourite tricks to make the experience easier, cleaner and more economical

1. Arrange paints on your palette according to their hue

It may sound a little obsessive-compulsive but putting out my paint colours this way has saved me so much time wasted searching for the colour I want to use next! I arrange similar colours together according to the colour spectrum: reds together, greens, blues and so on. Sometimes I will put them around the edges of the palette with cooler colours (blues, greens) on one side and warmer ones (reds, yellows, browns etc) on the other. In them middle I’ll put white because I so frequently use a little of it in each colour I mix.

Paint on palette

2. Don’t squeeze too much paint out onto your palette before starting your painting

This one may seem obvious, but I still find that it’s incredibly easy to squeeze out too much paint and end up not using it all in my painting. Remember that strong colours like reds and blues tend to go an awful long way when used within a mixture – I’ve noticed that these are the colours I seem to waste the most. Put out a small blob of paint at first, and add more as and when you need to.

Oil paint on palette

3. Buy ‘hues’ if you need to economise on paint

Oil paints vary wildly in price between different ranges, and then again between different colours depending on the pigments they contain. If you like a particular colour but find that it’s a ‘Series 3’ or ‘Series 4’ pigment and therefore much more expensive, look for a tube that appears to be a similar colour but contains the word ‘hue’ in the name, such as this Cadmium Red Hue, below.

Hues (in this context) are paints whose colours are obtained by mixing up combinations of cheaper pigments to closely match a more expensive colour. Real Cadmium Red paint is very expensive as it’s made of a pure pigment derived from a heavy metal. Cadmium Red Hue is a hugely cheaper alternative, made up of a combination of other paints to match true Cadmium. You will usually find a ‘hue’ version available for all the most expensive colours.

Whilst some artists feel that a hue won’t quite have the quality of the pure pigment paint and won’t mix as nicely, it will likely be perfectly adequate for a beginner or non-professional painter and the cost difference will be very considerable.

Cadmium hue

4. Before you wash your brushes, remember to wipe them

You’ll find that using Artists’ White Spirit or Turpentine to dilute your paint and to clean your brushes in between colours can get expensive. The spirits you wash your brushes in or add to your paint mixes will quickly get muddy and eventually will be too saturated with paint and no longer usable. It’s tempting to economise by using regular White Spirit from a DIY store but this will contain impurities that will damage your paint.

However there are ways to make your jar of Artists’ Spirit go further. Before immersing your brushes remember first to use a palette knife to scrape off as much paint as you can. Then wipe each brush on an old rag or piece of kitchen paper before you put it in the spirits, to get off the worst excess of paint. There is a non-spirit based cleaning fluid on the market (in the UK you have to buy it online) which mixes with water to make a solution that you can clean your brushes with. It works well and is probably more economical than using spirits.

Brush cleaner

5. Use coffee filter paper to strain and re-use your Turps or other spirits

This is a way to make your spirits last much longer and avoid environmentally unfriendly wastage. When you finish your painting for the day keep your jar of spirits instead of throwing it away. When you return you’ll see that the paint sediment has sunk to the bottom, leaving clear liquid on top. It may be a little yellowy, but it will be perfectly good for diluting any colour that isn’t very pale, or for cleaning brushes with.

Letting the sediment stay on the bottom, gently tip the clear liquid into a jug, straining it through a coffee filter or piece of kitchen paper rolled into a funnel shape to refine it further. Clean off the paint sediment left on the bottom of your empty jar using kitchen paper, and then pour your reserved spirits back in.

Coffee filter

6. Use detergent (washing up liquid) or specialist soap to clean oil paint off your hands

It took me a while to realize that you don’t need to use harsh White Spirit to clean your hands after you’ve been oil painting. It isn’t good for your skin and leaves you smelling unpleasantly of spirits for the rest of the day! A little bit of detergent will work just as well, or even better yoou could also buy these specially formulated non-toxic wipes or soap to do the job with less of a drying effect.

Detergent bottle
Artist's soap
Painting wipes

7. Use a tear-off paper palette to avoid having to scrape and clean off old, dried paint

This one won’t save you money, but it will make for a lot less cleaning. It’s rather a lot of work to thoroughly clean a wooden palette as inevitably some oil paint will have dried and stuck fast to it, so a paper tear-off palette made from waxed paper is much more convenient.

To make a piece last longer, use a palette knife to scrape off any patches of paint you don’t need any more, and then give the palette a wipe with a piece of kitchen paper dipped in White Spirit. Paint will wipe off a tear-off palette much more easily than a wooden one because its surface is more slippery than wood grain.

Tear-off palette

8. Clingfilm (plastic wrap) any colours you want to keep on your palette in between painting sessions

Oil paint dries when the oil binder it contains starts to oxidize, so if you cover your paint to stop any more exposure to the air you can keep most of your paint workable until the next day. Once you’ve scraped off any mixed up colours that you don’t need any more, lay a piece of Clingfilm (plastic wrap) over your palette and gently press out any air bubbles. If you want to be more environmentally friendly you could use baking parchment, although this won’t seal around the paint quite so effectively.

Paint that you’ve mixed together won’t last as long as paint that’s straight out of the tube because more air has already been introduced, and very small amounts of paint won’t last long before drying out even with film over them. But larger amounts of paint will stay useable for several days.

Plastic wrap

9. When you’ve mixed up a large amount of a paint colour and want to keep the leftovers overnight or longer, store the mixture in a miniature jam jar with water on top

You may have mixed up a reasonably large batch of one particular colour: for a background perhaps. If you haven’t finished with it by the end of the day you will want to keep the mixed-up paint instead of trying to create a new mixture that matches.

There is a way of keeping squeezed-out and mixed-up paint viable for weeks by storing it in a miniature jar – the kind of thing you get given in a hotel or on a plane. Scrape your leftover paint into the jar and then put a thin layer of water over the top. As oil paint is not soluble in water at all the water won’t mix with the paint but it will form a total barrier that stops it from coming into any more contact with the air and oxidizing (drying) any more. When you are ready to use the paint again,  just open the lid and tip the water off.

Miniature jam jar

10. Keep dust off your painting using pizza boxes

One annoying problem I’ve  experienced with painting in oils is that dust tends to settle on a painting that’s left out to dry overnight and sticks to the paint. Even a painting that’s almost vertical on an easel will usually attract a bit of dust.

The best way to keep your painting dust free whilst it dries is to put it in a sturdy flat box. Ask your local pizza takeaway if they’ll see you some (unused) boxes. A deep-pan box should be okay for even a chunky canvas!

Pizza boxes

NEXT: Try these posts on oil painting techniques and oil painting materials









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