How to Paint with Oils

Instructions for Painting With Oils

There are millions of artists all across the world who want to paint just like the old masters such as Rembrandt, Monet, or even Van Gogh. Museums and galleries are full of beautiful works depicting a wide range of scenes and subject matters for viewing. Whether you are an amateur or a professional, painting is the ultimate artistic expression. It allows you to form a visual statement using materials and techniques that have been around for centuries.

Depending on your style, painting with oils can be a challenge. By nature, they take longer to dry than other paints because the pigments are suspended in a slow-drying oil base. Historically, the oil base was originally organic but recent technology has seen the use of some synthetics. Oil paints are considered by many universities and art institutes as a fundamental form of art that every student should know. Because of their slower drying time, oil paints may be reworked over and over. Their ability to blend into the surrounding areas of paint to create very subtle mixtures and hues makes oil paints the ideal medium for realistic painting.

The Materials

Any artist that wants to learn how to paint with oils is going to need the right materials. You can get painting supplies at two places: a local art store or online. There are many online retailers that offer a wider selection of oil paints than your standard arts and craft store. Oil paints and supplies are not cheap. For the paints, there are a couple of grades you can get. Beginner or student grades are a cheaper type of oil paints. They are just as easy to work with but the colors are not as rich or intense. Then there are the professional grades which are more expensive but you can get more variation of hues and the colors are deeper and richer. Here is a list of basic needed supplies:

  • Basic Oil Paints: ultramarine blue, green, cadmium red, cadmium yellow titanium white, mars black, yellow ochre, and raw umber (there are a lot more but this will get you started).
  • Basic Brushes: You want quality brushes such as red sable or a good synthetic. Get about four or five different sizes in both flat and round.
  • Paint Thinner
  • Linseed Oil
  • Palette (non-porous)
  • Clean rags
  • Canvas
  • Gesso


You are going to want to paint something so unless you are doing an abstract, you will need references. Find or take a photograph or find a picture from a magazine. Choose a subject that inspires you. Make sure that the reference is clear enough that you can see all the important details or aspects. If you are just learning and you are not going to sell your work as an original piece, you can even copy another artist. It’s a good learning tool because you can see how they approached the painting process. However, eventually you will want to move on and do your own thing.

Prepping the Surface

Once you have your subject chosen, you will need to prep the surface you will be painting on and transfer the image to it. Most artists who work in oil paints use canvas to paint on. The slightly rough surface can be ideal for a number of brush techniques. If the canvas is unfinished, you will want to paint it with a coat of gesso first. Gesso is a medium used to cover and seal a surface so that it will accept paint better without soaking it up. However, most ready-to-use canvases are already gessoed so you can skip that process. If you don’t like the roughness of canvas, you can even smooth it out with enough gesso. Some artists even prefer to work on gessoed masonite which is an ultra smooth board.

When you have your surface prepped, you can transfer the image that you want to paint directly to the surface. You can draw it free hand with a pencil, of course, but if you make any mistakes, the lines are difficult to erase. Many artists prefer to either transfer the image using something like carbon paper or artists transfer paper. If you have the extra cash, you can invest in a projector. This machine can project the image directly onto the surface where you can trace it off.

Working with the Paints

Now that you have the image on the prepared surface, it is time to paint. You will start out with an underpainting. This is a thin layer of paint quickly applied to the image. The object is to get a general idea of colors and to work out the highlights and shadows. You don’t have to put in any details during this stage. It is going to get covered up by your final layer.

You can thin the paint using the paint thinner. In order for it to dry quicker, you can apply a brush tip’s worth of linseed oil to the paint.

Once the underpainting is done and has had time to dry, it is time to start the final stage. You will want to work from the background to the foreground. This means that you start painting the elements in the background first. As you finish them, you can move to the next ground in front, working your way forward until you get to the foreground. The reason for this is because elements in the background will get covered up by elements in the foreground.

Generally, you will want to work with the middle tones and add in the shadows and then the highlights. If the paint is too thick, add in small amounts of paint thinner. Don’t over work an area or you will start to scrub off the layer underneath if it is not yet dry. Some professionals use a cobalt dryer to get their paintings to dry really fast. However, this product can be hazardous to handle and you always want to clean your hands thoroughly if you get it on you.

Drying Time

Once you have your oil painting completed to your satisfaction, you need to let it dry. The time it takes depends on how much linseed oil or cobalt dryer you used. Oil paint on its own can take days to dry. For linseed oil, a typical oil painting may take anywhere from eight to twelve hours to dry thoroughly enough to touch. Cobalt dryers will dry it in about half that time. It is important to put the painting somewhere out of the way so that you or someone else will not bump into it or risk scuffing the wet paint.


There are plenty of self-taught artists out there but learning how to oil paint on your own can be difficult. Yes, you can go online and read tutorials or you can buy any number of books. However, the best method for learning how to oil paint is to go to a workshop. A workshop is a learning session where you have an instructor that teaches other artists. Some art and craft stores, private galleries, and studios will likely have information on where you can find a workshop. You can even check out some artist’s magazines. Workshops are not free and some of them can be very expensive but nothing beats learning in an environment with other artists and getting that one-on-one instruction.

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