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  • Writer's pictureVishakha

The Basics of Oil Paint for Art Every Beginner Must Know

Updated: Jun 11

Oil painting has long been revered as one of the most prestigious forms of art. From the works of Leonardo da Vinci to Vincent van Gogh, oil paint has been the medium of choice for many of history's greatest artists. If you're a beginner looking to dive into the world of oil-based paint, this guide will walk you through the essential knowledge and skills you'll need to get started.

Crucifixation an Oil Painting

Introduction to Oil Painting

The use of oil paint in art has a rich history dating back to the 15th century. The medium's origins are often attributed to the Northern Renaissance, where artists like Jan van Eyck began experimenting with oils to achieve unprecedented realism and detail in their work. Van Eyck is frequently credited as one of the first to fully realize the potential of oil paints, perfecting techniques that allowed for delicate blending and layering.

One of the earliest known oil paintings is The Madonna with Chancellor Rolin, created by van Eyck in the early 1430s. The painting demonstrated the superior ability of oil paint to create depth and luminosity, inspiring many artists to adopt this innovative medium. Over the centuries, oil painting evolved with contributions from masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, whose Mona Lisa exemplifies the subtle gradations and intricate details achievable with oils, and Vincent van Gogh, whose expressive brushstrokes and vibrant colors pushed the boundaries of what oil paint could convey.

Advantages of Using Oil Paint

Before starting with any art medium, it is important to understand why you want to use it. Every medium comes with its own set of advantages that can help you step up your skills and make the best use of it. Here are some prime advantages of using oil paint for art and how it surpasses other commonly used art paints like watercolors and acrylic.


Oil paints can be used to create a wide range of textures and effects, from thin, transparent glazes to thick, impasto strokes. This versatility is unmatched by watercolor, which is often limited to lighter, more transparent layers, and by acrylics, which dry too quickly to allow for extensive manipulation. The ability to modify oil paint’s consistency with different mediums allows you to experiment with various techniques and achieve a diversity of artistic expressions in a single piece.


The slow drying time of oil paint allows you to blend your colors seamlessly, which is particularly beneficial for creating gradients and realistic shading. This characteristic stands in contrast to acrylic paints, which dry rapidly and can make smooth blending difficult. Watercolors, while blendable, tend to be more transparent and can be harder to control once applied. The extended workability of oil paints enables an artist to make detailed adjustments over a period of days or even weeks, fostering a meticulous and deliberate approach to their work.


When properly cared for, your oil paintings can last for centuries without fading or cracking. The chemical composition of oil paint forms a resilient film as it dries, providing long-term stability to the artwork. Historical oil paintings, preserved in museums, are testaments to the enduring nature of this medium, maintaining their vibrancy and structural integrity through centuries.

Richness of Color

Oil paints have a high pigment concentration, resulting in vibrant, intense colors. This rich pigmentation allows for deep, saturated hues that won't vanish even upon drying. The refractive quality of oil binds the pigments in a way that enhances their brilliance, creating a visual depth to bring your paintings to life. This quality makes oil paint particularly favored for works requiring bold, vivid expression.

Disadvantages of Using Oil Paint

You cannot master an art medium if you do not understand both its strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Only when you understand the setbacks associated with your resources, will you be able to learn to work around them. Here are some common issues artists who work with oil paints face.

Drying Time

While the slow drying time can be advantageous, it can also be a drawback for artists who prefer to work quickly or need to complete projects within a tight timeframe. Compared to acrylics, which can dry within minutes, and watercolors, which dry almost instantly, oil paints require patience and careful planning. This prolonged drying period can be frustrating for artists accustomed to more immediate results, necessitating the use of drying agents to speed up the process if needed.

Health Risks

Traditional oil paints contain solvents and chemicals that can be harmful if inhaled or ingested. Proper ventilation and safety measures are essential to avoid exposure to these toxic substances from affecting your health. To prevent yourself from the side effects of these Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) you must invest in safe studio practices while using oil paints. Make sure to use respirators, gloves, and adequate ventilation, to mitigate health risks associated with their usage.


Cleaning brushes and palettes after using oil paint requires solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits, which can be messy and again, hazardous. This process is complicated and time-consuming than other art colors that can be washed off by simply using water. The necessity for special cleaning agents not only adds to the cost but also introduces additional health and environmental concerns. You must always be diligent in your cleanup routines to maintain a safe and tidy workspace.


High-quality oil paints and supplies can be expensive compared to other types of paint like watercolor and acrylics. The initial investment in oil paints, brushes, canvases, and mediums can be significant, and the ongoing costs for solvents and other materials add up over time. Hence they are not a very feasible choice for beginners, especially if you are working with a limited budget. On the other hand, acrylics and watercolors are more budget-friendly and require fewer additional supplies, but the superior quality and longevity of oil paints justify the higher expense for many artists.

How Oil Paint is Made

Oil paint is made by mixing pigments with a binder, typically linseed oil. The process begins with grinding natural or synthetic pigments into a fine powder. These pigments are then combined with the binder to form a paste. This mixture is carefully milled to ensure a smooth, even consistency. Linseed oil is the most common binder due to its excellent drying properties and ability to form a strong, flexible film.

The choice of pigment affects not only the color but also the opacity, lightfastness, and drying time of the paint. Different oils, such as walnuts or poppy seed oil, can be used to alter the drying characteristics and finish of the paint. Additives may also be incorporated to modify the paint's texture, sheen, or drying time. This meticulous manufacturing process results in a high-quality product that offers a rich, luminous finish ideal for fine art.

Preparing for Oil Painting

Preparing for oil painting involves several crucial steps to ensure you have the right materials and setup. These preparations will help you create a smooth and enjoyable painting experience.

Priming the Canvas 

Start by priming your canvas with gesso. This creates a smooth, absorbent surface for the oil paint to adhere to and prevents the paint from seeping into the canvas fibers. Gesso also adds a layer of protection, ensuring the longevity of your artwork.

Choosing the Right Brushes 

Always use brushes specifically designed for oil painting, typically made from natural bristles like hog hair. These brushes can withstand the thick consistency of oil paint. Different brush shapes, such as flats, rounds, and filberts, offer various stroke techniques, so it's helpful to have a variety on hand. However, if you have just started out, do not spend on all the brushes at once and start with the basics.

Setting Up Your Workspace 

Ensure your workspace is well-ventilated. Cover your work area with a drop cloth or newspaper to protect surfaces from spills and splatters. Adequate lighting is also important to accurately see your colors and details as you work. Also, do not forget to take adequate safety measures when working with oil paints.

Basic Items Needed 

Arranging basic items in advance helps you focus on your art better. So gather all necessary materials before starting, including oil paints, brushes, palettes, canvas, gesso, palette knives, and cleaning solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits. Having all your tools within reach will streamline your painting process.

Mixing and Preparing Oil Paint 

To mix oil paint, use a palette knife to blend different colors on your palette. You can adjust the consistency of the paint by adding linseed oil to make it more fluid or turpentine to thin it out. Experimenting with different ratios will help you achieve the desired texture and effect for your painting.

Dissolving Oil Paint 

When cleaning your brushes or thinning paint, use solvents such as turpentine or mineral spirits. Dip your brush in the solvent and gently work the paint out of the bristles. It's important to work in a well-ventilated area and follow safety guidelines when handling these chemicals to avoid health risks.

Tips for Beginners

It can be a bit overwhelming to start working with oil paints, especially when you are told to gather so many art supplies. Here are some tips you can follow for a smooth start.

  • Begin with a few primary colors (red, blue, yellow), white, and black. This helps you understand color mixing and prevents your palette from becoming overwhelming.

  • Oil painting mediums, such as linseed oil or turpentine, can alter the consistency and drying time of your paint. Experiment with these to find what works best for you.

  • Apply thicker (fat) layers of paint over thinner (lean) layers to ensure proper drying and prevent cracking. The "fat" layers contain more oil, while the "lean" layers have more solvent.

  • Oil paint's slow drying time can be frustrating, but it allows for detailed adjustments. Embrace this and take your time with your work.

  • After each session, clean your brushes thoroughly with mineral spirits or a brush cleaner. Rinse with soap and water, reshape the bristles, and let them dry.

  • Strong drawing skills provide a solid foundation for your paintings. Spend time sketching and practicing your composition before diving into the painting.

  • Study the works of great oil painters. Observe their techniques, brushwork, and use of color. Reproducing masterworks can be an excellent way to learn using oil paints.

Oil Paint is One of The Richest Media For Artists

While it may be a difficult medium to master, oil paints are one of the richest and most sustainable mediums for creating art. It was one of the top choices for artists since the Renaissance period and has been loved by many ever since. As a beginner, you may find it intimidating to begin with, but once you get accustomed, creating oil paintings may become a rewarding experience for you.

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