Are you born with a passion for painting? 

Maybe you've always dreamt of having your own art exhibition and are already quite familiar with the wide variety of paint techniques at your disposal to create bold and colorful paintings.

Whether you are the next Vincent van Gogh or simply starting out your exploration into the world of painting, working with oils and discovering the history of oil painting techniques can be one of the most exciting journeys any artist can take.

Here's an introduction to oil painting for beginners. You’ll find out how oil painting has become one of the most well-known mediums for artists to capture scenes from our history, the equipment you need to get started and some techniques you can use to better tell new stories with your pictures.

The History of Oil Painting

Painting has been a visual medium for storytelling since the beginning of humanity. Cavemen painted images about their survival against wild animals and ancient Egyptians painted complex hieroglyphics on papyrus to tell stories about the afterlife.

Classical oil painting history goes as far back as 11th century in Europe and the easel-style painting we use today only became popular during the Renaissance era. The development of oil paints happened over centuries, but one the most significant movements, according to recorded history, was when artists combined linseed oil with colour pigments.

During the 15th century, Flemish painter Jan van Eyck painted with oil using the techniques and art materials we use in oil painting today.

The most recent discovery around the origins of oil painting were made in 2008 when archeologists found decorative oil painting in an ancient cave complex in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Dating back to 7th century CE they suspect the oil extracted from poppies or walnuts were used to create the paint.

Oil paints and techniques were further developed in the 17th Century and this could be seen in the paintings of famous artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Diego Velázquez.

Famous Oil painting - D
The Triumph of Bacchus is a well-known painting by Diego Velázquez which was done during the Baroque Era - Image from Pixabay

Modernist and abstract art movements continued to make use of oil paints in new and different ways. Having an understanding of the history of oils will not only help you to combine old methodologies with new ideas, you’ll also learn which effects would better convey your own visual story through the stroke of a brush.

Why Learn to Paint with Oils?

Creating an art piece that moves people takes more than exceptional talent. You'll require practiced skills and knowledge around how different materials or techniques can be used to bring your vision to life. Oil painting can ‘feel’ different to other painting techniques and mastering oils, as with other paints, will require practice, time and patience.

Learning about oil painting should be fun and exciting, especially if painting is something you already love.

Oil paints have a stiff consistency when they come out of their tube and this is achieved by pigments suspended in drying oils. It gives oil paint the unique ability to create layered colour so artists can fuse colour tones in a way that can only achieved by oils.

Oils are perfect for creating colour grades and blending.  Subtle modeled forms, blending and carefully considered colour variations can be seen by artists like Johannes Vermeer who created almost life-like artworks.

Whether you want to paint opaque, transparent or create more translucent type or artworks, the smooth and buttery consistency of oil paints will be perfect to create texture and blending alike.

Oil Painting Techniques and Process

Oil Paint consistency
Oil paints allow you to create layers of paint, giving it a textured feel - Image by Mark Rademaker on Pixabay

The best way to speed-up your learning process in oils is by studying the experts and applying their techniques. Historical painters experimented with oils, developed and tested brilliant techniques and they became famous together with their resulting art pieces.

Most artists spend a significant amount of time to plan their painting first. From picking the substrate to paint on, to planning proportions, composition, adding shading and colour selection through to artist tools and techniques.

There’s a lot you can do before you even pick up your first paintbrush.

Artists from the 15th century originally did their paintings on wood. The preferred substrate eventually became the canvasses we know about and see in art shops today. A Canvas is made of pure European linen that’s stretched over a wooden frame. They’re then primed with a layer of specific white paint to prohibit the absorption of paint while allowing the artist a smooth, refined surface to paint on.

You’ll see in your first professional art class, or by watching an online oil painting tutorial that most artists will begin their painting by drawing the outlines of their painting with charcoal. You’ll know by this stage whether you will be creating a landscaping image, portrait painting or something abstract and the picture would most probably also guide the process you use.

More experienced painters might immediately start painting onto the canvas, but if you are a beginner with oils we recommend planning your painting as oil paints and art materials can be quite expensive.

The next step is creating your first ground layer of paint. This foundation layer of paint will take away the white glare on the canvas while laying the groundwork for your shading and sealing in the charcoal so that it won’t smudge.

Starting with your groundwork will you to create masses of monochromatic shade and together with the use of light colours it is known as underpainting.

Underpainting allows the artist to plan his shading and contrast before adding texture and additional layers - Image by Demiahl on Pixabay

Now we'll start to add opaque pigments and spend more effort in defining the shapes and contrast between shaded areas and light. This might not seem important in the beginning, but it's an important foundation that will be used to build your painting as you go.

It’s imperative, as any art teacher or art tutor will tell you, that you allow oil paints to dry before applying the next layer.  This will prevent it from cracking and maybe your painting will then last as long as Vincent van Gogh’s Mona Lisa.

The last layers of paint is what gives oil paintings that well recognized three-dimensional feel.

Layering paints thick enough to see the brush strokes, also called impasto, is probably one of the most familiar techniques that give oil paintings a textured and luminous appearance. The painting knife technique allows the impasto application of oil paint in a rough and robust manner and is certainly something you’ll learn in an oil painting art class.

Now you can finish your painting off with varnish. This is to protect your painting from harsh environmental factors like sun, wind, moisture or dust.  A matt finish will give your painting a natural look, while gloss varnishes give colours the bright and intense appearance that's similar to the original wet colours.

Famous Artists to Research

With practice you’ll develop the ability to do highly controlled impastos and use paint methods to create textural depth in your work. Be sure to study the paintings of these famous artists who created groundbreaking advancements in oil painting techniques:

  • Leonardo da Vinci created spectacular work like the famous Mona Lisa using oils of better clarity by adding beeswax to them
  • Rembrandt van Rijn’s work included enhanced glazing techniques and he approached blending in new ways to create advanced impastos
  • Peter Paul Reuben used light colours in opaque form and created impressive contrasts with dark backgrounds, using thin shadow colours in new ways
  • Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso continued to challenge form and colour usage and brought new creative angles and possibility to oil painting
Nightwatch was a famous oil painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. It was quite controversial as he painted people as they are and not in the traditional airbrushed manner - Image by WikiImages on Pixabay

What You Need to Get Started

Oil painting for beginners can be an expensive exercise if you don’t have any of the required art supplies, but it doesn't have to be. You can start with basic art materials and cheaper oil paints and buy more premium arts supplies and equipment as you go.

The affordable approach would be to use a cheap brush set, affordable paints and a small canvas.

A wide range of cheaper, synthetic brushes can be found at your local art store. A small brushed tip, medium flat brush and large oval brush will be a good start and most art shops sell great starter packs to make this choice much easier.

You’ll want to use quality brushes as you progress in oils to ensure your brush techniques become more visible in your work. High-quality brushes are made of red sable bristles or bleached hog bristle, comes in a variety of sizes and shapes but can be quite pricey.

The type of oil paint you choose will be determined by how long you want it to last, the colour intensity you prefer and your budget. Most artists believe you should buy the best paint you can afford, but this is not always possible. Cheaper paints tend to have less pigments and therefore you have to do more layers to get the best colour effects.

Lastly, you’ll need something to paint on… Artists from the 15th century used wood and even steel, but today the canvas is an easy option if you are starting out. It’s easy to learn to paint on canvas if you are a beginner and smaller sizes are fairly inexpensive. Whatever surface you choose, remember to prime your surface and wait until it’s dry before proceeding to painting.

Easels, palettes, palette knives, varnishes and all other equipment will be added to the mix the more you work and fall in love with oil painting.

Art supplies
An art tutor would be able to advise you what's best to buy when you start out in oil painting - Image by Trung Kien Thai on Pixabay

The more you work with oil paints, the more you will start to relax and trust the process. A great art tutor will encourage you to play and discover how oil paint behaves as you create contrasts between smooth and rough, thick and thin or light and dark.

Find an artist that specializes in oils on Superprof and start your journey today towards creating your own famous oil painting.

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Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.