How to Oil Paint

Do you want to paint beautiful, expressive paintings with oils? Here are some basics to guide you into the wonderful world of oil paints. Once you've mastered the basic techniques, the world is your canvas!


[Edit]Starting Out

  1. Choose your paints. Before you can even consider oil painting, you must get oil paints. Although there are dozens of brands of oil paint on the market, don’t be drawn in by the attraction of budget supplies. Buying cheap, poor quality supplies will make your painting difficult, tedious, and frustrating. Paying a few dollars more will give you paints that require one coat instead of two or three for the same vibrancy and blend-ability.[1]
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    • The most basic collection of oil paints should include the following colors: cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, titanium white, and mars black. You can use a combination of all of these colors to make any hue on the color wheel.(eg. yellow and red to make orange)[2]
    • You will find that you likely will run out of white paint the fastest, so buy a large tube of this while purchasing small or medium tubes of paint for the others.
    • Avoid buying “student sets” of paint, as these will seem like a good deal, but offer the poorest quality supplies. Also avoid buying sets of paint that come with paint brushes, as the brushes will likely be of poor quality as well.
  2. Get the rest of your materials. Beginning painters often fall under the tendency to avoid getting certain supplies to save money. While this is a perfectly all right practice, there are a few basic painting essentials you will need to make oil painting enjoyable and easy.[3]
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    • Choose a few basic paintbrushes of a high quality material. You don’t need many brushes to start out, but get a few of each kind. Start with differing sizes of round, flat, and bristle brushes.
    • Synthetic brushes are made of a very soft, fine bristle while natural hair brushes are a bit rougher. Use both for different painting techniques.
    • You will also need a palette knife for blending paints, a painting palette, canvas boards or stretched canvas, and some old rags and jars for cleaning your brushes.
    • Oil paint is very thick directly out of the tube, and must be made thinner for the first layers using white spirits or turpentine, and a blending medium such as linseed oil or poppy oil for later layers. The rule is 'Thick on thin', and this prevents later cracking or separation of layers.[4]
    • Optional supplies include an easel or drafting desk, an apron, a drop cloth, and a specialized box for carrying all your supplies.[5]
  3. Set up your work area. Because oil painting does require a lot of supplies, you will need a large area to use. Set up your easel or table in an area that is away from foot traffic and direct sunlight, if possible. If you have one, lay a drop cloth down to prevent any paint spills from ruining your floors.
    Oil Paint Step 3 Version 4.jpg
    • Oil paint can give off fumes, so make sure that your area is well ventilated with an open window or door.[6]
    • If you are using an easel, adjust it to the correct standing or sitting position and angle. Make sure that it is sitting in such a way to make painting comfortable for you, not difficult.
    • Put on old paint clothes to protect your nice clothes and skin. Oil paint is notorious for being exceedingly difficult to clean off, so make sure that you take precautions to avoid coming into contact with it.
    • If you have long hair, pull it up into a ponytail or bun to make sure that it does not fall in the paint. Remove any rings or bracelets that you might be wearing.

[Edit]Assessing Your Painting

  1. Create a rough sketch. Use a hard pencil to create a light sketch of your subject. You can do this directly onto the canvas or onto tracing paper, and transfer it using a carbon copy. When you’re drawing your subject, keep in mind the composition and use of negative space.[7]

    • Composition is the placement of items on the canvas. Choose the best placement so that the eye is drawn around the entirety of the canvas, rather than left to linger on a single spot.
    • Negative space is the space around an object. If you are using an item in real life and are drawing it onto your canvas, draw difficult areas by looking at the space around the figure rather than at the figure itself. Consider what you will fill the negative space with once you start the painting in order to make your subject pop.
    • Make note of overlapping figures, as these add depth to your composition. If your subject doesn’t have any overlapping shapes, consider rearranging until you do. This will add realism to your painting.
  2. Find the light source. To create a realistic painting, you must have obvious patches of light and dark. Look at your subject and determine the angle at which the light is coming from, and where shadows and highlights are located.
    Oil Paint Step 5 Version 4.jpg
    • All light sources cast shadows, but if they are directly above the subject it can be difficult to see them. Try moving your light or your subject so that the shadows and highlights are more obvious.
    • You may not have incredibly dark shadows or incredibly bright highlights. In fact, you likely will have a range of values that are all very near each other. Don’t be concerned if your light source isn’t creating a strong definition of shadows and highlights.
  3. Consider your colors. For new painters, it is often very difficult to match the colors of their subject to the colors they mix with their paint. This is because the brain provides an idealized color value; you see the sky is blue, so you mix blue paint, only to realize that your paint is much brighter and colorful than the actual sky. The trick is to get past the symbols of color our brain uses, and examine the actual colors being used. This will change the brightness of your paints.

    • A painting set at night will be darker and richer than one during the day, which is most likely brighter.
    • Check the color of the light source; on a bright sunny day, your subject will have a golden glow. On a gray day, the light is diffused through the clouds giving your subject a gray tint. You may also have actual colored lights - such as neon signs or tinted light bulbs - that affect the colors of your subject.
  4. Look at the movement of your subject. Are you painting a still life with little to no movement? Or is your figure in a field on a windy day, creating a lot of motion? Paying attention to the movement of your subject is important for planning your brush strokes. Realistic paintings have brush strokes that create movement, or a lack thereof.[8]
    Oil Paint Step 7 Version 3.jpg

[Edit]Creating Your Masterpiece

  1. Mix your paints. Oil paint is extremely forgiving in the sense that it takes many days to begin to dry. However, it is nearly impossible to mix the same paint twice so mix your paints in large batches and preserve between painting sessions so that you always have enough of the right color.

    • Use a color wheel to help you find colors to mix. The color wheel shows primary, secondary, and tertiary colors and how to make them.
    • Pure hues are colors that have not been mixed with either white or black. You can mix the primary colors to create the secondary colors.
    • To create a tint, add white to your paint. This will lighten it and make a more pastel color.
    • To make a shade, add black to any paint color.
    • To make a tone, add white to a shade (any color with black added). Tones are the most widely used, as they represent most of the everyday colors we see.
  2. Begin painting. You can choose whatever painting technique you like, whether that be painting entire sections to completion or putting layers of paint over the entire canvas. When oil painting, though, use the thin-to-thick method in which you paint with thin paint before using thick paint.

    • Try painting basic subjects. All figures are made up out of a few basic shapes: the cube, cone, cylinder, and ring. Paint these in the form of real subjects, such as a box or orange, or paint a flat form of each.
    • To thin your paint, use a blending medium (linseed oil or terpentine) mixed with your paint. Don’t use too much to start, but gradually add more until you get the consistency you want.
    • It takes three days for a layer of paint to dry enough to add a second layer to the top, so be patient while you wait for your paint to dry.
  3. Try different techniques. There are dozens of ways to perfect your painting, but learning them all as a beginner can be overwhelming. instead, focus on picking up some of these techniques one at a time.

    • Try blending your paints. This is the process by which you slowly fade two or more different colors (think of a sunset). To do this, add layers of paint so that they are directly adjacent to each other on the canvas. Then, use flat brush to smooth the paints together, working with the direction of the blend.
    • Try creating a glaze. This is when you use a solution of 1/3 linseed oil,1/3 terpentine, and 1/3 varnish to create a transparent color. You can use this mixed with any paint color to create a see-through hue over dried paint.[9]
    • Use stippling to create small dots. Use a natural bristle brush (dry often works best), and tap it vertically against your canvas. You can build up these dots to create a more opaque figure.
    • Try using a palette knife to paint. This technique is great for landscapes and creating movement on your canvas. Scoop up a bit of paint on the bottom edge of the knife, and sweep it across the canvas to create thick layers of paint.

[Edit]Finishing Your Painting

  1. Correct any mistakes. You have about three days (while the oil paint is wet on the canvas) when you can alter any mistakes or remove them completely with a damp rag. Before you decide the painting is complete, take a step back and look at your painting in its totality to see if any changes are needed.[10]

  2. Save unused paint. If you have a lot of paint left on your palette that was not used, save it for your next painting. Scoop it into small containers or into piles on your palette and cover with saran wrap.[11]

  3. Clean your paintbrushes. Oil paint will ruin your brushes if it is allowed to dry, so clean your brushes immediately after use. Use turpentine and an old rag to wipe away as much of the paint as you can, then rinse the brushes under warm water with a little washing-up liquid. To make sure all the paint has been removed, brush the bristles against the palm of your hand. Put the clean brushes, bristle-end up, in a jar or cup to dry. Provide the brushes adequate air circulation until they dry, putting in an open area––on a shelf or desk, for example, not in a closed cabinet or drawer.

  4. Wait. For oil paint to dry completely, it may take up to three months, or even longer if your painting has many thick layers of paint. Put your painting where it won’t be disturbed or damaged and allow it to air dry for the necessary time.[12]
    Oil Paint Step 14 Version 3.jpg
    • Sometimes it is possible speed up the drying process for oil paints by storing the painting in a well lit, dry and warm room. Choosing paints that have a faster drying time can also assist in speeding up the drying time.
  5. Add a coat of varnish. When your painting has dried completely, add a coat of varnish to protect it and preserve the color. When the protective varnish has dried, you’re done! Hang your beautiful creation for all to see.
    Oil Paint Step 15 Version 3.jpg


  • Ivory black is very slow to dry; avoid using it as an undercoat.
  • Avoid using linseed oil as a medium for light colors, as they will yellow quickly.
  • To clean oil paints off your hands: Use baby oil or olive oil. Pour some baby oil onto a wipe or a rag, and wipe your hands off. Don't wash your hands before the oil paint comes off, or else this method may not work. Oil paint comes off easily off hands when combined with other oil, and when the paint is all off, then wash your hands with soap and water.
  • To keep the palette with oil paint from drying out, submerge in water or put in freezer.
  • Don't put the palette in the water for too long or the paint on it will make it oily.
  • Try wearing latex gloves to keep paint off your hands.
  • When you use a new paint color, wash off your brush with warm water.
  • When painting, try wrapping your strokes around the subject for a more 3D look. For example, when painting a flat surface like the ground, use horizontal strokes.


  • Keep paints and the carriers (mediums) away from your eyes and from sensitive skin. If you should get either in your eyes, flush with clear water for at least two minutes. It is best to use an eyewash cup or an eyewash station. If neither is available, a shot glass may work or let very gently running lukewarm tap water run directly on the eye. It is extremely important to immediately dilute the chemicals with copious amounts water. This action will minimize damage to sensitive eye tissues.
  • Thinner may cause a reaction on sensitive skin. Wash the affected area multiple times with soap and warm water, then rinse thoroughly. If you develop an allergic reaction, consult a health care professional and follow their advice.
  • Thinner and oil mediums are combustible (flammable). If available, store these chemicals in an approved solvent locker. Under no circumstance should you store flammable materials in enclosed areas. This would include paint that has been "cut" with any flammable substance and the rags that you used for clean-up.
  • Oil paints and the carriers may be classified as hazardous materials in your area. Properly dispose of oil paints and carriers. Know and follow your national, regional and local regulations.

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