Painting & Drawing guides
OIL PAINTING TIPS: Choosing materials
People tend to be a bit afraid of learning oil painting, but painting in oils is a different (and I think much nicer) experience than painting in acrylic. Here is a beginner’s guide to choosing paint, canvas, and everything else you will need.
TYPES OF CANVASES
There are three options for oil painting surfaces: traditional stretched canvases, canvas board (or ‘canvas panel’) or canvas paper. You can also paint directly onto wooden board, and for many years painters in countries such as the Netherlands used timber boards to paint on. However you can’t buy these ready-primed and would have to prime it yourself with a gesso base. For a beginner who wants a particularly smooth base to paint on I would recommend a pre-primed linen (not cotton) canvas as the easiest option….read more about linen and cotton canvas options below.
Stretched canvasses which are at least half an inch thick and often much thicker, are the most traditional option. Here the canvas is pulled tight around a timber frame and stapled to the sides or to the back. Stretched canvases can either be framed or can be placed straight on the wall for a more modern look. They can also be framed with ‘box frames’ where the canvas is set loosely into a plain wooden sided frame.
Canvas board is made of canvas fabric stuck down to a thick piece of cardboard, and is a bit less expensive than a stretched canvas. It is a bit more rigid than stretched canvas and being thin and portable is well suited to taking outside if you want to paint from nature. The most common use for canvas board amongst professional artists is for making preparatory studies, typically when landscape painting out of doors.
Canvas paper is very thick treated paper imprinted with a canvas texture, to which you can apply paint without causing warping or wrinkling. It isn’t advisable to complete an oil painting on canvas paper that you are intending to keep and display. It is really more for making preparatory sketches, and if you are a beginner in oils it might well be worth buying a pad of canvas paper to practice on. You can read more about these options on my oil paintings page, or read my oil framing guide for more information on how to display your canvas.
Stretched canvas options
When buying a stretched canvas, you’ll have the choice between cotton or linen. If you like a smoother surface to paint onto then go for linen canvasses, which are a little more expensive but lovely to paint on. Linen fibres are more stable than cotton in the long term but harder to stretch quite as tight so may be more likely to sag. They are more likely to be sold un-primed and stallion their original light brown colour. If you like a little more texture to your picture then a cotton canvas will be more appropriate.
Canvasses (both stretched canvases and canvas board) bought ‘off the shelf’ are usually already primed for you. Before a canvas has oil paint applied to it, it MUST first be ‘sized’ (covered with a layer of glue, traditionally made from rabbit skin and now usually PVA) to seal the fibres and stop the oil paint from rotting them with its moisture and acidity. After that the canvas needs to be coated with a couple of priming layers mixed with the right amount of oil, which are then sanded smooth. If you want to prime your canvas yourself you can apply a layer of glue size and then paint or alternatively you can buy a widely available product called ‘Acrylic Gesso’ that can do both jobs in one and is applied in several layers.
With a pre-primed canvas this is all done for you and the canvas comes with a bright white surface, ready for you to apply your paint. Check on the label if you aren’t sure and make sure your canvas says something like ‘triple primed with gesso’. Canvas paper pads are all pre-primed and ready for you to work on too.
In a large art store you can buy a canvas made to order to your specific dimensions. However if you just want to select one ‘off the shelf’ you’ll find that they are sold in a huge variety of sizes in both imperial and metric measurements and typically in a choice of thicknesses between 1/2” and 1.5” The costs of these canvases doesn’t vary too much by brand within a professional art store and those made by well known companies such as Daler-Rowney, Winsor & Newton, Reeves or Loxley will be very good and unlikely to sag. In a non-specialist art store or somewhere like Hobbycraft you may find that they are a little more unreliable. I’ve seen cheap canvases available in non-art stores which seem very loose to me and I think are best avoided.
One last point to remember if you are buying a canvas: think about whether you’ll want to display your canvas in a frame or simply placed on the wall in the modern style. If you are going to leave your canvas edges exposed (and likely painted on) rather than hidden by a frame then make sure you buy a canvas with the staples that fix the fabric to the stretcher on the back of the frame, not the sides. This is known as a ‘gallery wrap’. Typically with off-the-shelf canvasses the chunkier ones will have staples on the back whereas the slimmer ones (typically of around half an inch) will have been stapled on the sides.
Some canvas problems you may encounter:
If you’ve been storing a canvas for quite before use a while you may find that it has loosened a little, even with a reliable brand. For these reason good canvases are sold with a few ‘canvas keys’ in a little plastic bag stapled to the back of the frame, as shown in the pictur above. You may have seen them and wondered what they are! These little wooden wedges are to help you tighten your canvas by pushing them into the slots in the corners of the canvas as shown.
Tap them in lightly with a hammer taking care to tap evenly in each corner so as not to skew the right-angles on your canvas. This will tighten your canvas as the fabric tautens over the frame. If you can’t quite work out which way to put them in, there are plenty of videos on YouTube that will show you.
DENTS AND WRINKLES
Canvases can become wrinkled if kept for a while before use or even dented by a finger when being held carelessly. It’s easy to get these imperfections out when you want to use the canvas: just turn it upside down on the ironing board, on a piece of clean plain paper. With the iron on a cool heat (and preferably on ‘steam’ setting) quickly run it over the back of the canvas. This should re-tighten it instantly.
CHOOSING OIL PAINTS
You’ll see a very large choice of brand of oil paint in most art shops, varying widely in price. The difference between the prices usually reflects the amount of oil which the paints are mixed with within the tubes – you’ll find that the cheaper ranges may feel oilier and thinner as they have a greater proportion of oil to the pigment. It will also reflect the quality of the pigments used and how finely they are ground.
I don’t like paint that feels too thin and oily so I use Winsor & Newton’s ‘Artists Oil Colour’ range, which is in the upper price range (although not the most expensive) but feels thick and buttery. Daler-Rowney’s ‘Artists’ Oil Colours’ are comparable in price and presumably therefore quality although I haven’t tried them and their ‘Georgian’ Range I find a little too thin. Winsor & Newton’s ‘Winton’ series is really a student range and is even thinner.
In the top price bracket you’ll come across ‘Rembrandt’ paints, which are very high in quality although a bit mousse-like in texture, and also ‘Michael Harding Artists’ Oil Colours’ and ‘Old Holland Classic Oil Colours’. These are made from the finest pigments and will probably offer the best long-term durability. I’ve tried paints by Michael Harding which is a very specialist company, and the very old Dutch firm Old Holland and both were lovely and worth the extra cost. The more expensive ranges will also generally offer the most extensive choice of colours.
For selecting your colours I don’t want to offer a prescriptive list of the colours that you will need – for a complete beginner I’d just buy a reasonable selection of basic colours (at least 6 plus white) and then see how you get on. A box set might be a good start, and you can then start adding to your palette with colours you think will suit your subject. You will find that different pigments have different drying times and you may start to find that you prefer one colour over another if it’s quicker to dry.
You’ll find that different colours vary hugely in price, depending on the pigments they are made from. All oil paints have a permanence rating as well as a ‘Series’ number printed on them (except for the student ranges, which use only the cheapest pigments) which is a rising price scale from Series 1 to Series 4.
As you become more experienced with oil paints you’ll likely want to take into account qualities such as the lightfastness of the pigment, the transparency, and how to understand exactly which colour you are buying since the marketing names given by paint manufacturers are fairly arbitrary. To learn how to read all those mysterious numbers and icons on a paint tube, try this article on how to read an oil paint label.
What are ‘hues’ ?
If you find that the colour you want is prohibitively expensive then you can look for another colour that is fairly similar and a lot cheaper known as a ‘hue’. For example: Cadmium colours are made from very expensive pigments. A genuine Cadmium Red is Series 4. But Cadmium Red Hue is an imitation of the colour and is a very close match but is only Series 1, as it is manufactured using a combination of different pigments mixed together to create a very similar yet more affordable alternative. Some professional artists may prefer to stay away from hues as they consider that they are inferior in colour quality and may not mix so well, but hues are fine for a beginner and occasionally have completely replaced a traditional pigment that is no longer produced, due to a lack of lightfastness, for instance, or turning out to be poisonous! This happened all too frequently in the past when many a well-known accidentally poisoned themselves with exposure to lead paint. Emerald Green, the favourite green of Vincent Van Gogh, was so poisonous it was employed to kill rats in the Parisian sewers!
These are a relatively new product which I have recently tried and you can read about my experiences with them in this article. A tube of water-mixable oil paint is almost exactly the same combination of pigment and an oil binder – usually linseed or safflower – as a traditional oil paint. The only difference is that one end of the oil molecule has been altered so that unlike traditional paints, it binds with water in a solution. The type of entry-grade water soluble paints that you’ll usually come across in UK art shops is Winsor & Newton’s ‘Artisan’ range.
This product would be great for people who are allergic to solvent mixers such as turps and spirits, or just those who want to try oil painting without the hassle of not being able to mix or clean the paints with water. The limitation would be that there is only currently a range of 40 different colours which is considerably less than a professional range but likely adequate for a beginner. However there is a good selection of thinners, spirits, and oils made specially for water-soluble oil paints. There are also more expensive and more professional brands of water mixable paints available online such as the Lukas Berlin range from Lukas or Royal Talens’ Cobra range.
Keeping your costs down:
Brushes are often sometimes produced in different ranges which are designed for used with either watercolour, acrylic paint or oil paint. However the different ranges may not always specify which sort of paint they will work well with and in truth, it depends to an extent what kind of oil painting you want to do. Typical and traditional oil painting brushes are made from hog’s ear hair which is strong, springy, coarse, and stiff enough to manipulate thick oil paint. In contrast soft animal hair or synthetic brushes largely designed for use with watercolour painting may be too soft for oils at least in terms of applying large areas of paint. However some artists will use a soft ‘sable’ brush for fine details in their oil painting. Most synthetic brushes sold as ‘acrylic brushes’ will be tough enough for oil painting unless you’re working with incredibly thick paint. They will give a smoother effect to your painting with less visible ridges. I tend to use some small synthetic ‘acrylic’ brushes for fine detailing.
To extend the life of your brushes make sure never to leave them brush-end down in your jar of spirits! The brush tips will become bent and unusable. Always be sure to clean your paintbrushes very thoroughly as they won’t last long otherwise (see below on what to use to clean them with) Lastly, mix your paint on your palette using a palette knife where possible and especially for large areas, don’t use your brushes to do this as they’ll get clogged up with paint that’s hard to remove.
Oil painting brushes come in many shapes. These are ‘Filbert’ brushes (flat, long, and dome shaped at the ends). Filberts are very useful as you can paint wide areas with them or use their pointed ends to work in a more detailed way, especially with a small brush. Another common type is the ‘Flat’ (long and rectangular) which is good for applying paint in thick choppy brushstrokes but no good for blending, unlike the Filbert. Lastly a ‘Round’ brush is very useful especially in a smaller size, for fine details. There are many other types of paint and this article lists all the common artists’ brush types as well as all the variety of bristles and hairs that brushes may be made from.
Remember that you aren’t limited to brushes for applying your paint! If you want to paint in a modern, thick impasto style you can apply your paint directly with a palette knife instead. These can be bought in sets with different shapes. Palette knives are usually thought of as something to mix paint with and scrape it off your palette when you’ve finishes, but artists since Van Gogh (and probably even back as far as Rembrandt) have sometimes applied their paint with a knife rather than a brush.
Mediums for thinning your paint
It may be that you are happy with the paint at the consistency which it comes out of the tube. Probably however it will be a little thick and stiff for you to work with. You can’t dilute your paint by mixing it with water, but there are two options to achieve the consistency that you want and you will likely need to use both of them at the same time for a satisfactory result. The first type are spirit-based mediums such as artist’s turpentine, or ‘Artists’ ‘mineral spirits’ (also sold as ‘Artists’ White Spirit’) Turpentine was the traditional spirit used for oil painting but is somewhat toxic and can be absorbed through skin. Artist’s mineral spirits are fairly non-toxic but they can all give you headaches in my experience. You may prefer a low-odor product such as ’Sansador’ which is a form of mineral spirits refined further to remove toxic aromatic compounds. A further alternative is Winsor and Newton’s ‘Liquin’ medium which is a fast-drying alkyd medium for oil painting which is non-toxic but far from odor free, in my experience. It comes in a number of different thicknesses and degrees of gloss.
Why you need to add oil too
There’s one disadvantage to diluting the paint with spirits which is that it also dilutes the balance between pigment and oils as they come mixed together in the tube, so you may be left without enough oil in your paint. This can cause the paint to appear very matt and dull and can even cause it to crack and fall off the canvas as it ages. So to compensate, whenever you add a quantity of thinner to your paint you’ll want to also use a few drops of oil.
The most commonly used oil is Linseed Oil, but there is also Safflower, Hemp or Poppy Oil. Traditional linseed oil is a little yellowy, so for lighter colours you may prefer to use one of the other types. If you’ve already diluted your paint with a lot of spirits as described above then it’s very important to add a few drops of oil to restore the oil and paint balance.
Why not simply thin your paint with oils to begin with, and avoid spirits? There’s no reason you can’t do this and in face historical painters often applied thin glazes of oils with only a small amount of pigment as a final layer to suggest the translucency of a fabric. However modern tastes tend towards thicker, more matte paint and as the pigments in your paint tubes already come mixed with some oil, adding a lot more may make your paint may appear overly shiny and glossy.
If you want to avoid this and if you are only adding oil to counter-act the dilution with spirits then add drop by drop and stop when you feel your paint is getting too glossy. You’ll soon get a feel for the right balance and consistency. The only exception to the need to add oil each time you thin with a spirit is in the very bottom layer: due to the famous ‘Fat Over Thin’ rule it’s important that the lower layers dry faster than those above them. Your first layer should be thin (and slightly ‘thinned’) paint and because it absorbs the oil from the layer above will not flake off. The Fat Over Lean rule is explained further here. This all sounds a bit complicated but don’t be too put off if you are new to painting but don’t be put off! It’s largely important if you really want your painting to last for decades or if you are planning to sell it.
Some painting oils such as linseed slow down the drying of the paint and some people like this as it means they can manipulate their paint on the canvas for longer and make alterations without having to paint a new layer on top. However if you’d rather your layers dry more quickly you can buy products such as Drying Linseed Oil, or Drying Poppy Oil or Liquin medium for lighter colours.
If you feel really unconfident with getting the balance of spirits and oils correct when adding them to your paint, you could try Winsor & Newtons’ ‘Artist’s Painting Medium’ (above) which is a pre-mixed solution of mineral spirits and linseed oil. This might be a good bet for a beginner who is likely to paint only in one or two layers, but remember you won’t be able to control the degree of gloss you are adding to your paint except by adding more or less to it.
Oils and mediums for thickening your paint
It may be that you want to paint really thickly (this technique is known as ‘Impasto’) and in that case you’ll need to add a medium to thicken your paint, rather than thinning it. Although oil paint is fairly stiff when you squeeze it out of the tube, if you were to apply very thick paint of several millimetres without adding a thickening medium first you might well find that it started to crack within a year or two of drying.
To counteract this problem painters have traditionally used ‘Stand Oil’, which is simply linseed oil that has been thickened by heating. If you want to make your paint thick and oily but without leaving strong visible brushworks then Stand Oil will be suitable. However if you actively prefer to see your brushstrokes (like Van Gogh!) then buy some Impasto Medium. This can be mixed with any colour and will add body to the paint allowing you to paint really thickly without the risk of it cracking in future. Your brush marks will remain thick and stiff.
Spirits for cleaning your brushes and other equipment
As well as using Artist’s turpentine or Artist’s White Spirit for thinning your paint you are likely to use them for cleaning your brushes and palette knives. Oil paint isn’t soluble in water and although you can get it off your hands using water mixed with detergent (Washing Up Liquid) it isn’t advisable to use this for washing brushes in case the detergent doesn’t rinse off fully.
You can also buy a number of products such as ‘Artists’ brush cleaner’, ‘Artists’ soap’ and ‘Artists’ cleaning wipes’ which are manufactured using a gentle non-spirit based solution for cleaning brushes and hands, but I’ve only seen these available online in the UK. When cleaning brushes and palettes please don’t ever consider using regular White Spirit from a DIY store as it will contain impurities which will get transfer from the brushes to your paint mixes and prevent the paint from drying fully.
For mixing your paints have two options: a traditional wooden palette, or a tear-off palette pad made from sheets of waxed paper. The wooden palettes are perhaps the most environmentally friendly but they to be carefully cleaned with spirits to stop paint from drying hard onto them which can be rather a difficult and messy job. Tear-Off Palettes such as this one by Winsor and Newton come in A4 or A3 size and are much more convenient because when your painting is finished you can just tear off the sheet and throw it away. They are also easier to clean than a wooden palette as the waxed surface is more slippery than wood so you can get a degree of re-use out of them by scraping off patches of un-needed or old paint and giving them a wipe with a cloth or piece of kitchen roll soaked in spirits.
If you want to varnish your oil painting to protect it, you can now choose between a matt or gloss varnish. The important thing to remember is that you must wait 6 months before varnishing an oil painting! This is because although the oil paint will appear dry to the touch after a week or two, it isn’t considered to be fully dry for many years as chemical changes continue to take place.
After 6 months you can varnish safely without trapping moisture or risking significant contractions within the paint layer. Varnishing will help if you want your painting to be preserved over the centuries! I don’t consider it completely essential though and many people prefer the un-varnished fully matte look.