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Oil paint is one of the best and most common mediums to work with. Oil painting techniques can be overwhelming at first but they’re totally worthy of your time and energy. 

The tips below can transform your process and help you master your oil painting techniques. I’m a self-taught artist and everything that I learned was from hard work, books, tutorials, and blog posts like this one. I tried different styles and mediums such as watercolors, acrylic, and charcoals; so far, oil paint is my favorite! I know how hard oil painting may seem in the beginning, but quickly they became my favorite colors to work with. 

If you’re interested in learning oil painting, here I will walk you through 10 fundamental oil painting techniques and tips that should help you out. If you’ll take the steps and start learning, you’ll see an amazing transformation in your art. Oil painting is a continuing learning process, there’s always more to learn but these will help you get started and see if you love working with this fascinating medium. 

Paint Dark to Light

Everything has depth. When you paint an apple or vase you can see that some places are darker, and some are brighter. You can’t outline the object and fill it with one color, it will look odd and unrealistic. 

Basically, the reason you should paint dark to light is white paint. The lighter you want to go, the more white color you’ll use, and the paint will be thicker. 

It also helps with blending. If I’ll paint from light to dark, it will be much harder for me to keep the values of the darker colors. It will be brighter than what I need.  On the other hand, if I start with the dark spots and goes lighter, it’s easier to maintain the values I want, to blend the colors, and make it look more realistic. 

Paint With a Palette Knife

The palette knife is not just for mixing colors, you can use it to create incredible paintings. This is a problem for people who move from drawing to painting. Using the knife forces you to get away from the lines and focus on the shapes and textures you can create.

Fun exercise- create a painting only using a palette knife. Test it, see how it feels, how different it is from drawing. See what you can do. Then, start another painting in your regular style and try to work with the knife as well. You’ll see a difference between the works you don’t use a palette knife to those you do. 

Prepare your Canvas

Before your start painting with oil painting, you have to make sure your canvas has sufficient gesso coating. Most pre-primed canvas already arrived this way but it’s still important to make sure before you start. 

Then, you should add another background color (with acrylic) before you start applying oil paint. The color depends on what you’re painting, I play with abstract and realistic- I love playing around with the colors of the background. Some artists who paint realistically, love colors such as raw umber or gray. 

As some artists may tell you, white is a tricky color and the paint looks different on white background, painting straight onto a white canvas could possibly wrap your sense of values. Another benefit, it’s a great way to make sure of don’t have white parts on your canvas (parts you left without painting). After you’re done with the background, you can start sketching. The sketch doesn’t have to be perfect or accurate like a drawing, it only there to guide you around the canvas. 

Personally, this is my favorite part. I love playing with acrylic and acrylic ink in the beginning. After I create the texture I love, I fill the blanks with a layer of acrylic paint (in a similar color to the palette I used) and only then start applying the oil paint. 

Paint Big to Small-

Especially if you started drawing, you’re used to the small details and you’ll see the brushes just like pencils. Start using big brushes. Start with the biggest brush you feel comfortable using and then move smaller. A large brush forces you to be decisive and efficient with your strokes. Another benefit- you can cover the canvas more quickly. 

I use smaller brushes when I need to paint faces and small details, I start big in my first layer and when I paint the background. It allows me more freedom than smaller brushes. 

oil painting brushes

Paint Thin to Thick

This is one of the 3 rules of oil painting (the other two are painting fat over lean and slow drying over fast drying). What does it mean? It basically means you should begin with painting with thin washes of paint and move towards more oil-based paint.

In the beginning, use more turpentine/ Gamsol, the paint will look transparent and very thin. As you progress, you should add less turpentine and more paint. It will help your paint dry much faster and evenly.  

Another quality- thin layers make the object looks more distant, if you’re trying to create volume, you can start with applying thick paint in the foreground and go thinner which the paint as you go to the background.

Paint with a Limited Palette

More colors don’t mean better painting. Try to limit your palette to 5 colors- blue, yellow, red, white, and brown. Every kid learns that blue + yellow creates green, yellow+ red creates orange, and so on. You can create every color using the three primaries. Add white and play with how much color you add to achieve different colors. 
I added brown because it’s essential mostly for creating skin tones. 

Using a limited palette will help you focus on the painting and create harmony. When you’re using more color, it’s more difficult to balance your painting and control the colors. 

A limited palette makes you more aware of the colors you add, every color is there for a reason and you create many variants from the first color you mixed. Let’s assume you created orange- you can create tons of values using more yellow, red, and white. All of them belong to the same family and when you apply them on the canvas they create harmony instead of chaos. 

Limited oil painting palette

Use Glass Palette

Great way to save money and use a sustainable palette. You can take a picture frame with glass/ any glass sheet, attach it to a grey/white sheet and a foam board and create your own palette (if you’re interested in more DIY and money-saving tips for artists, read this). Some artists love using only glass sheets because you can test how the colors will look like when you put them near a certain color/ background.

More benefits for glass palette are:

  • Easy to clean- if it’s wet, you can easily wipe it, if it’s dry, you can use a blade scraper.
  • Helps you judge the values better and the ability to tone the underneath of your palette. 
  • You can keep the palette in the freezer to keep the paint wet and use it again. 

Get to Know your Materials

If you’re a beginner, start with less expensive paint. Professional oil paint can be expensive and it’s best to try and study with a cheaper paint. As you continue to paint, you’ll notice which colors you love more, how they interact, and what brands you prefer. You may like a Blue of one company and hate the other.

I also recommend starting with small tubes for the unessential colors. You definitely want a bigger tube of white, red, blue, yellow, and brown (as I explained before) because you’re going to use them more often. I recommend investing your money in the essential colors while exploring with cheaper and smaller tubes. For example, when I started, I brought a small Van Gogh oil paint set. It was cheap, and I got 12 different colors. I LOVED a few of them and kept buying bigger tubes in the future. For those I didn’t like, I kept trying similar colors from different brands.  

Take the time to truly know your paint and materials. It will save you money and trouble. 

Few things to know:

To mix the paint- don’t forget to use a palette knife. If you’re mixing with brushes, you’re damaging your brushes and you’ll need to change them more quickly. 

NEVER apply acrylic paint over oil paint. 
Oil and water don’t mix! It’s a basic 101 science class. However, you CAN apply oil paint over acrylic paint. The reason is, oil painting dries extremely slowly, even when the surface feels dry, the paint underneath may be wet. If you paint acrylic over on top of oil, the paint will crack, and the painting will be ruined. 

If you have oil painting leftovers, you can still use them. As I said a couple of times, oil painting dries extremely slowly, meaning, the painting on your palette is still useable if you’ll use it a few days later. You can also freeze the paint and it will last for months!

Be Organized

Prepare everything you need before you start. I organize the brushes, the paint, mediums, and cleaning supply before I start. When you’re in the middle of a painting, it’s hard to stop and try to look for stuff. Also, when you have everything organized, it’s easy to get started right away. You don’t need a big art studio in order to paint daily, I use an organizer that contains 90% of my supply. It’s organized in different boxes and it’s easy to get what I need when I start painting. 

Clean your Brushes

It may be obvious but it’s extremely important that you’ll take care of your brushes. First of all, paint brushes are expensive, you don’t want to waste your time buying new supplies after a couple of paintings.

While painting, I use one container with turpentine/ Gamsol for cleaning my brushes and one with medium to make my paint thinner. After you paint, use dish soap and water to clean your brushes. If you won’t clean it the color will dry on the brush and it will be impossible to keep painting with it. 

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