Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting Started with Oils: Materials

I get asked about starting out in oil painting pretty frequently, so a year ago I figured I'd put together some posts on the bonehead basics of it. I'm only now getting to that. Sue me. Anyway, this first post is mostly about materials, I'll do a step-by-step of some principles soon.

Before getting to that, I hear a lot of beginners- and a few digital painting professionals- say how frightening oils are, and even if they've used them before, how doing a full illustration in the medium seems insane. If you're new to these, I promise that it's not as scary as you think. As far as traditional media go, oils are easily the most forgiving. They stay wet for a long time, so you get a lot of room to make changes, work edges, scrape off and redo passages, and whatnot. It has more body and won't eat your brushes like acrylic. One mistake won't completely ruin your piece like with watercolor or ink. Maybe gouache is a little easier to use, but even there you have to be careful about painting over existing layers. All that ease of use, and it probably has more inherent range than any of those media. So don't be daunted. Remember, all you're doing is pushing colored mud around with hairy sticks. Your first few pieces will suck, but you'll improve. Look, here's my first oil painting. Feel better?

Now that you've said goodbye to fear, let's go over what you'll need. 


It will be tempting to go for cheaper materials when you're starting. I've been there, and I can't stop you from skimping. But for the love of all that is holy, do not skimp on the brushes. If you must, you can be cheap with the paint and everything else, but those awful brushes you get in packs at Michaels will be far more trouble than they're worth. Robert Simmons and Trekkel make very high quality brushes for a pretty low price, go with those. 

Most of what you'll come across are synthetics and hog bristle brushes. The majority of all your painting will be done with hog bristles. They're stiff and provide resistance against your surface, and they hold a lot of paint, which you'll need… since you're trying to put paint on the canvas. Synthetics are tempting, but only really useful for pushing paint that's already there and blending, unless you're working very thinly. Keep them on hand, but don't instinctively grab for them. Sable and Mongoose brushes are great for different things, but they can be expensive and I'd avoid them for now.

These are the common bristle brush types in the order shown above-
Round - I don't know anyone that uses these, but they can be good for more refined work.
Flat - Leaves a sharp edged, square mark. Get a few, you'll use them a lot.
Filbert - A flat with a tapered edge. These give the best of both flats and rounds and you'll probably use them for the majority of your painting, get a full size range of these.
Fan - You've seen Bob Ross use these. They're useful for lifting excess paint off of passages, but you probably won't need it that often. Never use them for blending.
Eggbert - Just a long filbert, they hold much more paint and are great for expressive marks.
Broad - A big flat. Good for blocking areas in. Not strictly necessary, but good to have on hand if you can afford it.
Bright - A cropped flat. These don't hold as much paint, and are good for thin passages. I don't use them, myself.


Now, a lot of people, including some painters I really respect, will recommend starting out with a fairly full gamut of color, with warms and cools for each primary and some very chromatic pigments. I'm sure that's a great way to learn for some. Personally, I find it batshit insane. Cadmiums and phthalos are great colors, but they can be difficult to control when you're starting, and can give you too much range before you're comfortable with the medium or principles of color mixing. Plus, it can get really expensive. You don't learn to drive in a sports car. Early on, I'd recommend sticking with the following low chroma colors. It may not seem like it yet, but they'll give you almost the entire gamut that painters before 1800 had, which can get surprisingly colorful. As you get better with working with these, you can add or remove colors as you need in the future.

Titanium White
Yellow Ochre
Venetian Red
Ivory Black - This is your blue. 
Raw Umber - This is optional, but it's nice to have a transparent color

These paints are all cheap enough that you won't need to worry about using a lot, and can go with one of the mid-range companies like Winsor Newton, Rembrandt, or Gamblin. This is important because the one mistake that every newbie makes is not squeezing out enough paint on to his/her palette. So, they can't get enough on the brush to make marks, and they dilute it with more oil or turp. So the paint becomes muddy and unworkable, and takes forever to dry. So they get frustrated, give up, and talk about how scary oils are. Don't be that person.

Avoid the student grade paints like W&N's Winton line, and and all costs stay away from Georgian. And anything that says "Hue" on it. These paints have very little pigment in them and are mostly filler, so they have no mixing strength and feel like painting with toothpaste. Or worse, acrylics. 


Most oil paint is bound with linseed oil, so that's a good medium to use to change the consistency while working. It dries somewhat slowly and smells amazing. Use very little of it for now, and try to do most of your work with pure paint. You can also get a fast-drying medium like Liquin or Galkyd, but they smell like death and can get tacky in a few hours, so avoid them for now.

You'll need a mineral spirits to thin your paint and to clean brushes. Gamsol is your best option there. Don't use turpentine- it's wonderful, but unless you're in a very well ventilated room, it'll probably kill you.


Any kind of stretched canvas or wood panel will do, and you'll need to experiment a bit to find what you like the most. If you're buying bare canvas or panel, you'll need some acrylic gesso to prime the surface with, as the oil in the paint will eventually rot it otherwise. 

Canvas panels, being just canvas glued to cardboard, are an extremely cheap option for practicing on, but they feel like sandpaper under the brush. Tracing paper is actually a surprisingly good surface for studies. It takes a little getting used to, but it's cheap and easy to store. Believe me, you're going to run out of space with those studies very quickly. You'll be doing hundreds of them.


Take your pick here. A wooden, handheld palette is most common and it's what I use. They actually get better with time, because the thin layer of paint that builds up on top (the patina) after cleaning provides an increasingly slick mixing surface. Just be sure that you DO clean it and don't let it get gritty. A glass palette, also very common, and is the easiest to clean. You could also use those disposable paper palettes, but… come on.

Brush Care

Get a non-detergent based soap and wash your brushes after every session. You do not want paint drying up in the ferrule (the metal part) as it ruins the ability to hold paint, and how it handles in general. Here's William Whitaker demonstrating how to properly wash your brushes -

That covers what you'll need to get started. I'll have another post up soon, going over some basics about handling the medium, which will be done in monochrome. Let me know if this was actually helpful, or if you have any questions, I'll be glad to answer them.


  1. Thanks for posting this - I've been dying to learn to oil paint, especially after seeing so much great traditional work at Illuxcon (yours included!). That limited palette suggestion alone will probably increase my chances of actually getting started tenfold - the split-primary system has always seemed like way too much of a headache to tackle in addition to all the other difficulties of learning a new medium. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series...

    1. Thanks Wylie, nice to get some feedback on it! Hopefully I'll get to the next part soon. And yeah, the split primary palette is very good for learning some things, especially color temperature, but personally I feel it's jumping into dealing with high-chroma colors way too early. Your mileage may vary, but it was a headache I didn't need when I was starting out.