Absolute Basics for Beginners
There is so much information available, especially on-line regarding oil painting, its important to set the scope of this discussion. The primary focus is to get the beginner started. Its easy to become swamped by information, some contradictory, and abandon the whole idea. The profile of the person it’s aimed at is as follows.
You like oil paintings. The colours, some paintings are rich and sombre, others are light and subtle. The range of styles is enormous. Somewhere in there must be a place for you. You like the surface texture. Its smooth as silk or rough as pebble dash. The paintings are substantial, more like furniture than a flimsy sketch. You’ve tried other media. Watercolour, pastel, acrylics all seem simple to work with but seem to require a lot of skill not to look shallow or amateurish. You might have tried oil paints. You got an ‘all-in’ set with a multitude of colours, brushes, knives, oils, solvents, canvas and you don’t know where to start. If you identify with this person you might find this personal approach a help in overcoming the technical ramp which frustrates many beginners. The technical stuff is only mentioned where it is critical to moving forward. Oil painting is the most accommodating medium in terms of achieving an effect, especially for beginners. Making the system work does not require an artistic approach, merely a knowledge of how it works. With the basics applied you can take full artistic advantage of what the medium offers.
Background: Powdered pigments are dull and flat. If wetted with water the colour changes to a richer colour. If applied as a paint and allowed to dry it will revert back to the powdered look. Mixing the pigment with oil also creates the ‘wet’ effect. Certain vegetable oils, like linseed or poppy, harden on exposure to air and if these are used in the paint paste, will harden with this ‘wet’ appearance. This is oil paint. Some pigments speed up, and others retard the oil hardening process. Some pigments cause the oil to be less ‘glossy’ than others when the oil hardens. Modern chemists at the paint manufacturing plants have come up with various solutions to these drawbacks but the basic method hasn’t changed for a few hundred years.
Oil Painting Surfaces: So is the above relevant for a beginner who buys an ‘all in’ oil painting set and just starts painting. I’m afraid it is. If the surface is not suitable for oil painting the process does not work. Its all about absorption of the surface. If there is no absorption, the paint does not grip and eventually flakes off. If there is too much absorption the oil soaks into the surface leaving the pigment as it was before the paint was manufactured, dull and flat. The best surface has very little absorption, just enough to allow the oil get a grip on the surface so it stays put when the oil hardens. ‘Suitable for Acrylic or Oil Painting’ on the canvas pad or board, in my experience, means too much absorption for oil painting. Unfortunately, a beginner will not know what’s good or bad. They will look at their work and wonder why the colours are so lifeless – the darks are not dark enough and the lights are dull. If you experience this, suspect the painting surface and try and find an alternative. I find a canvas pad called ‘Fredrix’ to be good, although I have found some oil painting paper to be good, but paper is delicate and can crack if handled roughly. Start with a small painting. The sheets in a pad can be halved or quartered as required. Four attempts at a small painting is better than one attempt at a large one.
I’m trying to find a test, other than actually painting a picture, to check absorption. The best I can come up with is to place a single drop of linseed oil on the surface. Leave it for a few days, until the oil hardens. If the drop is glossy, the surface is worth trying. If there is only a straw coloured matt patch it means all the oil has soaked in and this will also happen to your paint. Its not a perfect test, but it will indicate a ‘blotting paper’ type surface to be avoided. Some painters like to prepare their own painting surfaces. I used to do this years ago before the convenient materials became available. Its an interesting thing to do and you might like to try it some time but its time consuming and I’d prefer to spend my time actually producing pictures.
Paint: If you have read my blog you will know I like to restrict the range of colours used in my paintings for a multitude of reasons. I would advise not to buy the oil painting sets which usually have a large range of colours and are consequently very expensive. There are many different styles and techniques of painting and as many recommended material lists. All I can do is explain what I have found to be suitable for my method and let the finished product justify this explanation. To start with, to produce a landscape with a full spectrum of colour, you will need to have red, yellow and blue colours. White to lighten and black to darken the resultant colour mixes.
Many leading manufacturers of artists’ paints make 3 qualities. The lowest quality is sometimes called ‘Students Grade’. Its inexpensive and as the name suggests its for learning and experimenting in oil painting. The highest grade is called ‘Artists Grade’. There are ‘in between’ grades which are good enough to produce a finished painting but differ from Artists Grade in purity of colour and long term resistance to colour fading. The cost difference is considerable and if you are serious about painting the extra cost of the Artists Grade is worth it. Another consideration in the cost of Artists Grade paints is the pigment from which the individual paints are made. The colours are graded into ‘Series’. Some colours are made from inexpensive materials like the ‘earth’ colours, Siennas, Umbers, Ochres. Many manufacturers refer to these as Series 1 and this can rise to Series 6 or 7. The prices can be checked and the difference between Series 1 and Series 5 is quite large. In recommending a Artists Grade range of colours for a beginner this cost difference must be taken into consideration. The starting range of paints I recommend is, Burnt Sienna (red), Yellow Ochre (yellow) and Cobalt Blue (blue) plus Ivory Black and Titanium White. They are all Series 1 paints except Cobalt Blue (Series 3 or 4). This means 4 of the 5 are the most inexpensive paints in the highest grade, Artists Quality. Add to this list a little at a time but before you do check out these paintings painted with only these 3 colours.
Irish Landscape Impressionist, Irish Landscape, Three Cows. Also for the absolute beginner Part 1 and Part 2. Look at the variety of paintings produced with this limited range, plus 1 or 2 other colours, here.
Brushes: Round, flat and filbert are the standard shapes. Hog bristle is the traditional material used. A beginner might try a filbert shape, which is slightly rounded and flat, a sort of halfway house between round and flat. Brushes are a personal choice so don’t buy a large number of a particular type until you’ve tried painting a few pictures and you’ll soon have a very clear idea of which type you would like to have. Ten to fifteen millimetres is a good width for a small painting. Some manufacturers of brushes have numbers for different sizes. Windsor & Newton, number 8 filbert, is the above type. Remember to clean your brushes after use. I rinse firstly in White Spirits, wipe off excess, then use a little ‘washing up’ liquid in the palm of my hand to work up a lather with the brush. Squeeze out the lather between the fingers and repeat until no colour is seen in the lather. Rinse well in water, squeeze out excess and leave to dry with the bristles upright. Be sure not to break the bristles by applying pressure on the tip, or ‘jabbing’ the brush either in cleaning or painting.
Media: The oil in the tube of paint is a medium. In the tube its at a minimum, just enough to produce a paint. Its OK to use as is but you might like to add a little more to make the paint flow more freely. At the moment I like ‘Liquin’. It makes the paint smooth and easier for applying in fine lines. It also speeds up drying. Linseed Oil is the traditional oil used. The colours always seem more vibrant when Linseed is used but it is very ‘greasy’ when compared to Liquin. Oil media can be mixed together, for example, 50/50 Liquin and Linseed Oil. This has the advantages, and unfortunately, the disadvantages of both, but its well worth experimenting with different mixes to find a mix you prefer. A solvent can also be added (like White Spirits) to thin the mix. This is very often used with Linseed Oil to reduce the above mentioned ‘greasy’ effect.
I will update this page from time to time, either in response to queries or questions which would be of general interest.