To help bright-eyed artists eager to try oils, we spoke with two artists who also teach painting and compiled five tips for familiarizing yourself with the medium.
1. Paint Safely
Before you begin, it is extremely important to consider where you will paint. Many mediums, like turpentine, emit toxic fumes that can cause dizziness, fainting, and over time, respiratory problems. Turpentine is also highly flammable, and even rags that have absorbed the medium can self-ignite if not properly thrown away. It is of utmost importance that you work in a ventilated space that has access to a safe means of disposal. If you don’t have the ability to work in such a space, try painting with acrylics, which can easily take on some of oil paints qualities with the help of special mediums.
The pigments in oil paint often contain hazardous chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin, so you should wear protective gloves and clothing. Many professional artists will reserve certain articles of clothing for when they work, and slowly develop a wardrobe for the studio. In addition, artists usually purchase latex gloves in bulk, but if you have a latex allergy, nitrile gloves can take their place. Lastly, if you ever find yourself working with loose pigments, make sure to wear a respirator. These steps may seem small or obvious, but they can prevent chronic exposure to toxic materials, and lifelong health concerns.
2. Take time to get to know your materials
Once you’ve secured your safety precautions, you can begin to slowly find out which materials and tools you like best. Typically, an artist just starting to work in oil paint will want to gather a selection of brushes, rags, a palette, surfaces to paint on (commonly called supports), a primer, turpentine, a medium, and a few tubes of paint.
For Margaux Valengin, a painter who’s taught across the U.K. at schools like the Manchester School of Art and the London’s Slade School of Fine Art, the most important tool is the brush. “If you take good care of your brushes, they're going to last for your whole life,” she noted. Start off with a variety of different kinds, looking for variation in shape––round, square, and fan shapes are some examples––and material, like sable or bristle hairs. Valengin advises to buy them in-person at a store, not online. This way you can physically observe the qualities and differences in the brushes before you purchase them.
As for paints, Valengin recommends investing in less-expensive paints if you’re a beginner. A 37 ml tube of high-quality oil paint can run upwards of $40, so it’s best to buy cheaper paints while you’re still practicing and experimenting. And as you continue to paint, you’ll find which brands and colors you prefer. “You might end up liking this red in this brand, and then you find you prefer this blue in another brand,” Valengin offered. “Once you know a little bit more about colors, then you can invest in proper pigments.”
To supplement your brushes and paint, make sure to buy a palette knife to mix your colors with—doing so with a brush instead could end up damaging your bristles over time. For a palette, many artists invest in a large piece of glass, but Valengin notes that if you happen to find a spare piece of glass lying around, you can use it by simply wrapping it’s edges with duct tape.
To prime canvas or other supports, many artists use acrylic gesso—a thick white primer—but you can also use rabbit-skin glue, which dries clear. You’ll also need a solvent, like turpentine, to thin your paint, and most artists usually keep a couple different kinds of oil-based mediums on hand. Some mediums, like linseed oil, will help your paint dry slightly faster, while others, like stand oil, will elongate it’s drying time.
Oil paint dries extremely slowly, and even if the surface feels dry, the paint underneath might still be wet. When using oil-based paint, you should always keep these two rules in mind: 1) paint lean to thick (or “fat over lean”), and 2) never layer acrylics over oil. To paint “lean to thick” means you should begin your paintings with thin washes of paint, and as you progressively layer, you should add less turpentine and more oil-based medium; otherwise, the layers of paint will dry unevenly, and over time, the surface of your artwork will crack. The same goes for layering acrylics and oils––if you don’t want your paint to crack, always put oils on top of acrylics.
3. Limit your palette
When you go to buy paint, you’ll most likely be met with a wall-sized rainbow of colors. Instead of purchasing every color you’d like to include in your painting, start with just a few—carefully choose the tubes. “The most productive method for starting out is to limit your palette,” noted Sedrick Chisom, an artist who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Usually, a cadmium orange or ultramarine blue combo is a favored choice when first beginning,” he added. When you work with two opposite colors, like blue and orange, it forces you to focus on value––how light or dark your color is––instead of intensity or chroma.
If you add one more tube to your palette, such as cadmium yellow light (a pale yellow), or alizarin crimson (a magenta color), you’ll see how few colors you need to create every other hue. “In the store, they sell all types of greens that you can actually make with yellows and blues,” said Valengin. “It's good practice to try to make your own colors.”
If you’re not attuned to color theory, try making a chart to see how your colors mix: start by drawing a grid, then place each of your colors along the top and bottom. For each square, mix equal amounts of the colors until you have filled in the chart with all of the possible color combinations.
4. Try painting with a palette knife
The number one exercise Chisom recommends for new painters is to create a painting using a palette knife instead of brushes. “One of the most basic problems that arises has to do with the presumption that drawing skills translate to painting,” said Chisom. “Students get fixated on ideas of drawing and quickly get overwhelmed by the concerns specific to oil paint––that the material isn’t dry media, that color can structure an image better than line most of the time, that the material surface is half of a painting, etc.”
Using a palette knife forces you away from ideas of precision and line, and makes you focus on how the push and pull of color and shapes can create an image. Chisom recommends working on a surface that is at least 9-by-13 inches, as a larger space may encourage you to make larger, more confident marks.
5. Paint the same subject again and again
During my first oil painting class as an art student at The Cooper Union, I was irked by one project in particular: We had to paint the same still life, over and over, for three months. But looking back, I now see how important it was to have a fixed subject matter while learning the technical craft of painting.
If you stick to painting the same subject for a long period of time, you will be relieved of the pressure to “choose” what goes into your image, and instead, your creative thinking will shine through in the application of your paint. If your attention is focused on the techniques of oil painting, you can begin to pay particular attention to every brushstroke––how it directs light, how thick or thin it is applied, or what it signifies. “When we look at a painting, we can see the brush marks, we can see what kind of brushes the painter used, and sometimes painters try to erase the brushmark. Some people use rags,” said Valengin. “The gesture the painter performs on the canvas really gives it a unique thing.”
A painter’s style can be as conceptually complex as the subject they’re painting. This is often the case when artists work “wet-on-wet”––a technique where wet paint is applied into a previous layer of paint, which is not yet dry. When you work in this style, it is difficult to layer paint to create the illusion of a realistic picture, so the tactility and fluidity of paint becomes a central idea. Or sometimes, as in Color Field painting, an artwork will use large planes of color to create an emotional or atmospheric effect. Sometimes, instead of expressing narrative through images, it’s the way that a painting is made that tells a story.