Oil painting has a long tradition in the history of art. Many of the world’s greatest designers have used this material to produce their masterpieces, and its legacy remains one of the most popular media today. If you’ve ever thought about painting, or are a pro looking to switch up your practice, chances are, oils have crossed your mind.
Acrylic and oil are two of the most well-known types of paintings used by contemporary artists. But what is the difference between acrylic paints and oil paints? It all depends on how they are built. Oil paints contain pigments suspended in oil (usually flax seeds), while acrylic colors are bonded using an acrylic polymer emulsion. Acrylics can be thinned with water, but oil paints require more care. To dilute the pigment or clean your brushes, you will need to use turpentine or mineral spirits.
Don’t let the extra work of maintaining oil paintings put you off. There are good reasons why artists continue to use them; the pigments are rich in tone and have a glossy finish. Plus, oil paints are slow to dry and give you time to change up your artwork after you’ve applied a first brushstroke.
Want to learn to paint in oils? Find out about the basic supplies and essential oil painting techniques you need to know.
Oil painting supplies
Before you start painting in oils, here are some of the supplies you’ll want to have on hand. Chances are you have some if you’ve ever painted with acrylics or watercolors. It is, however, best to have a set of tools that are only intended for oil painting – water and oil don’t mix!
A set of oil paintings – You will need at least one set of base shades to get started. We’ve put together a guide on what to look for in an oil paint set, as well as the best oil paint sets to buy.
A brush set – Look for many types of brushes intended for oil paints. You will need different sizes as well as different shapes. Depending on what you’re painting, you’ll want to change the type of brush you’re using. A flat brush, for example, is great for creating layers of solid color while the round cut allows you to add lots of fine detail to your work.
Paint palette – The stereotypical pallet is a curved wooden board with a hole for your thumb. While this is certainly an iconic item, there are much more comfortable options. Although plastic pallets are the norm; this one is portable, too, for painting on the go.
Palette knife – The best practice for mixing colors is to use a palette knife. Using one will allow you to blend even shades and avoid loading your brush with pigment while you try to blend. You can also use a palette knife to apply textured paint, like artist Anastasia Ablogina.
Cloth – If properly primed, you can use oil paint on a variety of surfaces. Canvas, however, is the go-to for many artists and what we recommend if you are just starting out.
Turpentine or Turpenoid – To clean your brushes and fine pigments, you will need a bottle of Turpentine or Turpenoid on hand. We recommend Turpenoid because it is odorless, but make sure you are always working in a studio with good ventilation.
Understand how to paint in oils with these techniques
Once you have all the basic supplies on hand, it’s time to start working. Here are some of the essential oil painting techniques that everyone should know about.
Glazing involves painting a thin layer of transparent or semi-transparent paint on a surface. In doing so, each subsequent coat changes the appearance of the color below and results in a multi-faceted tint.
To dilute the oil paint, you will need to use turpentine (or something similar). Alternatively, you can use linseed oil. It will add shine to your pigment unlike turpentine which can make your color dull.
When painting, there are few things more intimidating than a totally blank page or canvas. Under painting solves this problem by being the first coat of paint applied to a work surface. It serves as a guide for the rest of your image and establishes where values and tones will go.
With an undercoat, you will start by thinning your paint. Then, using a color with different tones, paint loosely where the main parts of the composition will be. In a sunset painting, for example, you’ll block out areas with trees and hills. These will be darker than the sky. That way, when the time comes to apply the paint to the canvas, you will know exactly where it will go.
Wet on wet
There is a lot of waiting time in painting. To apply a new coat of pigment, you need to sit idly by while the previous coat of paint is completely dry. But with the wet on wet technique, you exercise the opposite. Also called alla prima, it is a painting style in which wet paint is applied over wet paint on the canvas. Impressionists like Claude Monet and post-impressionists like Vincent van Gogh used this approach. Working wet in wet gives you the flexibility to work quickly and mix your layers on canvas. For landscape painting, this is ideal because you can complete the job in one sitting.
Oil painting, with its delayed drying times (it can take days), is ideal for trying wet-in-wet.
The palette knife is often used to mix paint, but consider using it as a way to apply pigments to your canvas. Depending on the shape of the trowel, you can create textural strokes that you couldn’t reproduce with a brush alone. Due to the hard edges of the palette knife, this technique is best suited for angular marking and abstract imagery.
Think back to all the times you admired Van Gogh’s paintings. Did you notice how visible each stroke was and the paint stood out from the surface? It is called impasto, and it’s something you can replicate. Using a brush and excess paint, apply the material in thick layers. Mixing colors on canvas (as opposed to your palette) is also encouraged.
Grisalle is an oil painting approach in which the image is complemented in shades of gray or another neutral (but grayish) color. It was popular in the early Renaissance because it mimicked the appearance of sculpture but was cheaper. Today, the monochromatic technique is reminiscent of black and white photography as opposed to sculpture.
Similar to underpainting, blockage in is something you do when you start a painting. You can start by applying the general colors and shapes of the composition to your canvas using diluted paint and a large paintbrush. In doing so, you create a plan for the painting and make sure that the hues and other elements work in harmony. You can then build on these layers and refine the image by adding more color and detail, or you can leave some of the stuck paint exposed to showcase the initial energy of the artwork.
chiaroscuro is the italian word for “Light dark”, and it refers to the balance of light and dark in a drawing or painting. It is often associated with oil painting because it originated in the Renaissance. Caravaggio and Rembrandt are perhaps the most famous artists to have used this technique. Their works present a strong contrast between darkness and light; it is as if their silhouettes were standing in a pitch black room and only one lamp was shining on them. The result gives their subjects a three-dimensional feel.
Most figurative oil paintings will use this principle. If someone describes a painting in chiaroscuro, it is probably because there is a noticeable contrast between dark and light.
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