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 ImpressionistIrish LandscapeThree 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.


61 thoughts on “Absolute Basics for Beginners

  1. Pingback: More for the absolute beginner in oils « PictureS

  2. Pingback: Ready, Set…Procrastinate!!! « alissa's art

  3. I’m really going to enjoy your site and all the information available. I’m new to the world of painting and every resource is a gold mine. Thanks for the treasure trove.

  4. Hi, when I was putting together my PAINTING JOURNAL POST I remembered your comments and my visits to this blog a few months ago and thought it would be good for me to click on over and learn something new, as well as, confirm what I’ve been learning in my oli painting class, when I was happily surprised by your LIKE on that same post…leaving me with the direct link to your blog…yaaay!! so that evening I read through your ‘beginners’ pages: wow, very important info, I was happy to read that some of your tips agree with what I’ve learned so far and other’s are totally new for me…thank you…I knew I was following your blog but right now renewed my subscription (never got updates!) anyway…thanks again and read you soon, Alexandra

  5. Feb.25 2013
    I’m new to the world of painting.I have no training and I’m learning so much from your blog.Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

  6. I have never used oils, I am a child of the 80’s, Pop Artists and Motherwell. Some day I will learn. Thanks for checking out my blog.

  7. Liam, I have never heard of white spirits. Is that a European form of orderless thinner or turpentine that is sold here in the states?

    • I believe its called Mineral Spirits in the US. There is an artist’s quality as a safe replacement for turpentine. Its not completely odourless and is classed as an irritant as opposed to turpentine which has a toxicity. Wikipedia has a page on this.

  8. Thanks for visiting my blog Abstract Reception and liking my latest post. Your site has a lot of information on how to properly use oil paints. When I was getting my BFA in painting, they barely grazed the surface, giving us limited information on how to use acrylics and oil paints. Sadly, I found I had to do my own research, read magazines etc. to learn what to do and what not to do. I think it is great that you are sharing your knowledge and insight with others.

    • You’re welcome. I have a fondness for ‘loose’ watercolours. Keep up the good work. I try and use some of the method in oils but with solvent, not water of course.

  9. I agree with you about color useage! I too paint with a restricted amount of oil colors (and watercolors)- around seven colors a most and use those same colors for all of my paintings!!! Thanks for sharing – enjoyed it!!! Happy painting!!!

  10. Thanks for visiting my new website. Glad you liked it…it is still under construction as I try to add my paintings to the gallery portion. Nice to have some good Irish friends! I too have an instruction blog, I think you might have visited before too at http://ohmygoache.wordpress.com/. Come back in a few weeks to see my finished website. Thanks for sharing your expertise on here as well.

  11. Thanks for the like – I haven’t tried oils but at the moment I’m only able to spend short moments painting … but I also only use a limited palette – come from design and print background!

    • You are welcome. Oil painting is a bit ‘industrial’ with oils and solvents and all that cleaning up. Hopefully your circumstances will change and allow you do a bit of experimenting with oils.

  12. Dear Sir,
    You can’t imagine how I struggle with the cost of colors in India. For some reason nobody thought art was also a profession to be nurtured, so art supplies are hard to come by and the good ones are really expensive. It was great to be introduced to a color palette for beginners, makes complete sense instead of buying the whole set, which is more often than not completely useless. I wish I had read this blog before beginning my watercolors because surely the same rules may apply there as well. I might have bought a few relevant good quality colors rather than the atrocious set I now have ( cobalt blue looks like royal blue ink and will make you cry). So thank you for this great blog and I hope I can incorporate all that you are trying to teach.

    • I’m sorry to hear of your difficulties with the cost of materials. Unfortunately this is overlooked when beginners are being advised and material suppliers will push sales and the painting methods which require the maximum amount of material. I hope you will benefit from this frugal approach and learn for the future.

  13. Hi Liam. Do you have any suggestions for photographing paintings on canvas? I’m having trouble with the texture on the canvas and photos not being sharp. Thanks.

    • I am, at the moment, preparing a page for my blog on videoing and photographing paintings in the wet stage. I will post in a few days. If this does not help you please contact me again.

  14. Thanks for visiting my blog Micaela Marsden sketchjournal and liking my latest post. It looks lIke your site has a lot of information to help people with starting out in oil painting. There is so much to learn, even if you have been at this for a while, there’s always something more! I recently learned, for example, that when people refer to painting “fat over lean” – they are referring not to the thickness of the paint, but to it’s oil content.

    • You have an interesting site, love your vivid colours. By the way, the ‘fat over lean’ rule really only applies to paintings painted in layers, each allowed to dry before the next is applied. This is the traditional way of oil painting. A ‘fat’ layer is flexible like rubber and a ‘lean’ layer is brittle and crusty. This inflexible layer will flake off the rubbery oily layer as they dry. Alla prima (like I do) is a single layer all applied at the same time and usually homogenised by the brushing. So there are no distinct layers to flake off.

  15. HI Loved you blog. Since I haven’t learned painting there is so much for me to learn from your blog. Will have a detailed study of your blog soon. And thanks for visiting my blog.

  16. I really struggle with color mixing. Interestingly, I never thought that perhaps I had too many colors to start with! I’ll reduce my palette and force myself to work with smaller sets of colors therefore learning the most simple mixes and values before moving to different colors sets.

    Thanks for the posts!

  17. Bonsoir, vos vidéos sont superbes, j’apprend beaucoup en vous regardant peindre. Je travaille aussi alla prima, Je suis heureuse de vous avoir découvert, vous êtes un grand artiste !! Merci encore pour tous vos conseilles. Cordialement

    • Solvent can be used anytime as it evaporated leaving no trace. The problem is using too much solvent on a dry layer which contains more medium. This ‘medium layer’ dries much slower than the solvent layer which restricts further the drying. With ‘alla prima’ there are no problems as all paint is applied in one session.

  18. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise. You really make it seem possible to get a piece done in a short time. I’m switching from acrylics to oils and find your instruction very helpful. Thanks again. Stephanie

  19. Aloha from Asia! I really enjoy your website and your generous sharing of your painting techniques. Highly recommend your website to my friends who also love painting and will continue to follow your update! Keep it up! 😀

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