A Beginner’s Guide to Oil Painting

Written by Abby Hope

So you’re interested in learning to paint with oils? It’s understandable why. Oil paint is one of the most versatile and long-lasting mediums around, the first recorded usage of oil paint was in the 13th century, with more modern mixes being invented in the 1400’s by Jan Van Eyck (arthistory.net). Over time, oil paint has become a favorite of artists from Da Vinci to Van Gogh. And hopefully, with enough practice, you’ll be able to rival even them some day.

A few different tubes of (well-loved) oil paint

All paint consists of a binder (such as oil, gum arabic -- even egg) and a pigment, the color (think viridian, or ultramarine), that come together to make your beautiful paint. To move the paint you need a solvent, like water or turpentine.

(Above) Linseed Oil, a popular binder for oil paint

For oil paint, your binder is oil, usually linseed oil, and your pigments can be any variety of color, from fast drying earth tones to the absurdly vibrant Alizarin Crimson. Your solvent will be something harsher, capable of dissolving oil. The most popular for oils are turpentine and OMS (odorless mineral spirits), due to their cheapness and easy use. These solvents are what thins the paint. A word of caution though, both turpentine and OMS are known carcinogens, and can cause dizziness and headaches. To use them safely, open a window with a fan in it and limit exposure! Personally, I would recommend Chelsea Classical Studio’s products, they’re all natural and don’t have the same risks as traditional solvents. 

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, you’re probably wondering, yeah but how do I actually paint? Well after you’ve collected your materials, paint, long-handled brushes, paper towels, solvent, and a canvas of some sort, you’re ready for the fun part: figuring out what on earth to do with this paint. Hopefully these tips will help you ease your way into painting, and make it less of a hassle.

A plaster copy of “Diana"

A disclaimer, I am by no means an expert on painting, these are just some tips and tricks that have worked for me and hopefully with help you! To practice forms, I’ve bought a plaster bust from Amazon called “Diana.” When you’re first learning to paint, I find it’s best to start with simple shapes. If you’re bored by a plain old white statue, try painting some vegetables or fruit!

Personally, I just love how marble statues look, and I think they have plenty of useful forms, shapes, and shadows for when you’re just trying to learn.

To begin, I like to start with a simple imprimitura. This layer helps get rid of the stark white canvas, and make it easier to choose the correct value. You can make this first layer more or less detailed, however you’d like to do it. To do an imprimitura, take a darker paint (I like raw umber or burnt sienna) and put some on your canvas, then dip your brush in solvent, and spread the paint over your whole canvas. It should be like a watercolor consistency. Do a sketch of the forms of the thing you’re painting, keep it as accurate as possible.

Below, I used raw umber to make a dark background, and kept the statue light. I make some small place-markers for where the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin fall, along with some shadow shapes around the neck and shoulders. It looks pretty awful right now, and that’s okay. Most art looks dreadful until you finish it.

Imprimitura, or the base layer

Once this is dry, or at least no longer tacky, you can begin laying in paint. For this whole study I use only five paints: titanium white, yellow ochre, French ultramarine, burnt sienna, and raw umber. You could easily do this with just white, raw umber, and ultramarine, but I feel like having more variety helps the thing look alive.

Laying in the darkest shadows

Above I started laying in the darkest shadows. I think the most difficult part of studies like this is remembering that color and value are relative. In my reference photo, the dark shadow on her shoulder looked very dark, but it isn’t as dark as it seems. Pay attention as best you can to the relationships between values, forms, and colors, notice how drastic the change is between the background and the foreground. But, the best thing about oils is that mistakes can be painted over. It’s best to get it correct at this stage, but if you don’t it can be altered later on.

I’m using Simply Simmons brushes size 6 and 4. It’s recommended to use heavier, hog hair brushes (synthetic or real) for oil paints, but I prefer lighter brushes. These are versatile and cheap but good quality as well.

This next bit is what I like to call the ugly stage. Every painting has this weird stage where the forms are just a mess, and nothing looks coherent. When you’re first learning to paint, it’s easy to get discouraged at this point. Keep at it though! A painting shouldn’t look finished halfway through.

I began pulling highlights and midtones out of the shadows. At this stage avoid adding the brightest highlights, it’s easy for them to get muddy as you work. Save the brightest white for last. I also like to add some burnt sienna or yellow ochre into my shadows, just a little, to give it a warm tone. Since the light is a cool white, I want the shadows to be the obverse of that! I also add some French ultramarine to my midtones (seen beside the nose and below the chest) to accentuate the cool light.

The “Ugly Stage”, start adding highlights and midtones

After getting an idea of the value shapes, I like to fill in the rest of the object at this point. Keep it loose, and don’t fiddle with details quite yet, just get the most basic shapes in there. Think about a photograph with only a few pixels, you can add the rest later.

This stage is my favorite part personally, because it’s where I get to really observe the object for what it is. In this stage I blend areas that need it, and sharpen any shadows that got lost. You really want to focus on shape, and be sure to not loose that while rendering. You can do this by making sure your shadows stay separate from your highlights; don’t think of shadows as an overlay on the object, think of them as their own shape. Below I have the shoulder, face, and bottom part of the bust finished.

I’m also a fan of blending the highlights into the background. You can see on the neck and shoulder that it gets “fuzzy”. This pulls the attention back to the sharper parts, such as the face.

Begin rendering and adding detail

Lastly, I’ve finished up the hair and darkened any shadows that got lost. I’ve also added some bright white highlights to show the plaster reflecting. Once this is dry, completely dry, you can go back in and glaze if you’d like to alter any hues that need it. This is usually more necessary for color works. For a monochromatic painting like this I’d recommend just fixing any mistakes with normal oil paint.

The finished study

It isn’t perfect, but I hope this has given you an idea of how a painting works and how to begin! It can seem daunting at first, tackling this material that’s been used for hundreds of years, but it’s easier than it seems. Practice makes better, keep working at it, and don’t be afraid to make something bad.


Below are more resources for oil painting, including what oil painting materials are toxic and should be avoided. We’ve also added some websites and books that give a more in-depth description of the process of using oils.

How to Begin: https://drawpaintacademy.com/oil-painting/

Tips for Beginners: https://drawpaintacademy.com/oil-painting-tips-beginners/

What Oil Paints are Toxic: https://www.sophieploeg.com/blog/busting-the-myths-of-oil-painting-toxicity-in-oils/

Using Solvents Safely: https://www.sophieploeg.com/blog/safe-studio-oil-painting-without-solvents/

Our Favorite Book on How To Oil Paint: https://www.amazon.com/Lessons-Classical-Painting-Essential-Techniques/dp/1607747898

We hope this guide has been helpful. Please contact us with any feedback, or let us know if there are any other mediums you would like tutorials/tips for! We love hearing your feedback!

All images Copyright © Abby Hope @abbbsart on Instagram

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