How To Oil Paint | Basics for the Beginner

{This blog may contain affiliate links. If you click these links and buy, we may be compensated at no additional cost to you. See our disclaimer for details.}

Want to learn how to oil paint, even if you have no money for art lessons? Learn how you can get started as we teach you the basics. Learning how to oil paint all starts with 3 basic steps:

1. Get Your Materials
2. Get Set Up
3. Get Painting
4. Get Art Lessons

How To Oil Paint

~ Get Your Materials

Select Your Subject

As you gather your art tools, paints canvases and paints, the very first item you need to decide is the subject you will be painting. What you choose will play a big roll in the color of paints you choose, the brushes you select and the canvas type and size you use.

Artist Painting with oils
It’s time to put on your Artist’s thinking beret!

The time has arrived. What would you like to paint? You’re going to need a subject. Pick something you are interested in. Something you love – Something that moves you.

NOTE: We Have A FREE Gift For You.

We’ll start with the items you will most likely need as a beginner. Learning how to paint in oil paints is very similar to painting with acrylic paints. However there are differences. In this article, we will only be addressing how to oil paint. In another post, you can find information on “How To Use Watercolor Pencils”. This watercolor post is a a two part video series post. 

The following art supplies are basic supplies for oil painting artists. and as you progress in skill you will undoubtedly discover the need for additional items, but for now, this list will get you started. I’ve included links to help easily find quality supplies.

  • A Subject to Paint
  • An Easel
  • A Canvas or Paint Surface
  • Sketch Pencils
  • Oil Paints
  • Palette
  • Brushes
  • Turpentine
  • Linseed Oil
  • Brush Cleaning Jar
  • Rags/Drop Cloth
  • Painting Clothes

If you love cars, paint a beautiful car. If you love horses, paint horses. There is nothing is worse painting a subject that you hate looking at. Choose the subject that is pleasing to your eye.

If you are a novice to oil painting, choose a subject that won’t move or be moved soon. It takes time and patience paint. Therefore, you should make it as relaxing as possible. Choose your subject wisely since you will be spending a considerable amount of time staring at your chosen subject. So, make sure it’s not going to change or move around on you.

Let’s say you see a beautiful landscape that you want to paint as you learn to how paint with oils.  Rather than sitting at the actual Grand Canyon, first try painting from a high-quality photograph of the canyon. The same would apply for a live subject like a dog or a person.

Paint The Grand Canyon
Painting a subject that has moving sunlight, clouds and shadows may not be the best for a beginner. Choose you subject carefully.

Here’s why this is do important. Imagine you were set up on the edge of the actual Grand Canyon and attempted to paint this magnificent wonder of the world. As you try to match the colors of the canyon, clouds and sky, you will also experience the slight breeze and the shifting clouds as they float slowly across the sky. Also, the lighting from the sun on those far off cliffs will change and as you paint. As the sun moves across the sky, your lighting will move as well. That’s why,, as a beginner, you should pick subjects that won’t change and lighting and backgrounds that stays fixed.

Use a subject that you can control the lighting.

For instance, a fruit bowl, a photograph, or other smaller inanimate object that will sit still, can make your first experiences as an artist much more enjoyable. Later, as you gain more expertise, you can paint more challenging subjects like a person, who’s willing to sit still for an hour or two or an outdoor landscape, or even an office building on a busy street – as long as you can ignore the moving traffic and other distractions like moving clouds and shifting sunlight and shadows

An abstract painting might be a good way to learn how to move the paints and become accustom to different brushes and the blending oil paint colors. There are many examples of abstract art that you could use as a model or make up your own as you go. This is an important first step to learning how to paint with oils.

Select Your Canvas

Once you decide your subject material, it’ time to select your canvas.

As you gather your supplies and other painting materials, you should next choose the size and type of canvas you’ll be using. Painting in any medium can be a daunting task, especially if you’re a beginner. It’s important to select a canvas that will be easy to work with and be usable and practical when you’ve finished your project.

Give a painting as a gift.

For instance, you may want to give the finished painting as a gift. When Doing so, you should consider the size that would be most useful to the recipient of your gifted painting.

If you want a painting for personal pleasure, consider where you want to hang it and if the size you’ve chosen will properly fit the wall or room where it is to be displayed.

However, while you’re just practicing and learning how to paint with oils, just pick a size that fits your budget.

There’s always the possibility that you want to create a masterpiece that someone would like to buy. If this is the case, make sure to consider the size that would be of interest to most buyers. Also, make sure you think ahead about how the canvas is to be framed. These types of considerations will affect the type and size of canvas you select. There are several types of canvas to select from.

When choosing a canvas, use either a linen or cotton fabric. Linen is of higher quality but tends to be more expensive. Cotton however, is much more affordable and still provides you with a suitable painting surface.

The texture of the canvas is also important. Choosing the right canvas texture for the style of oil painting you are planning will make a big difference in the final outcome of your masterpiece. A course weave in the canvas fabric is more suited for broad-brush strokes and larger paintings. Whereas a finer, smoother weave will work well for smaller painting with more detailed work.

One more note on canvases. Quality paintings are usually painted over a stretched canvas. That being said, when starting out as a new oil paint artist, you should consider the more economical alternative of canvas board or panel.

A canvas panel is generally constructed using a primed cotton canvas mounted to a firm board. These panels are perfect for student artists who are just learning and exploring oil painting and need a quality surface on which to practice. Canvas panels can still be mounted and framed as can stretched canvas.

Select Your Paint Colors.

Next comes your oil paint color selection. Tubes for acrylic paints and oil paints may look similar. Make sure your paint tubes are all oil. You don’t want t mix oils and acrylics in your artwork.

Always buy quality vibrant colors.

Realize right up front that there are quality paints that are vibrant, blend well and resist fading. But there are also many cheap oil paint that are thin, don’t cover well and fade quickly over time. One of the most disappointing experiences you can have, is to watch your beautiful, vibrant painting grow dark and dim over time because you used cheap, low-quality paints. And, there nothing you can do about it after the fact. Choose quality brands of oil paint that ensure your work of art will stand the test of time and provide you with pride and beauty for many years to come.

A good assortment of oil paint colors, that will serve your basic painting needs, are listed below. You will find that white is your most used color. That’s why, a large tube of white oil paint is recommend. Small or medium tubes can be purchased of the other colors depending on the colors found in the subject you are painting.

Recommended Basic Oil Paint Color List

  • Titanium white (Big Tube)
  • Ivory black or lamp black
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Cerulean blue
  • Cadmium yellow (or lemon yellow)
  • Yellow ochre
  • Burnt umber
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium red or Cadmium red light
  • Burnt Sienna or transparent oxide brown

Don’t purchase “kits or sets” of paint colors. They are usually of very poor quality. Buy and research each paint tube separately for quality that won’t fade. Also, buy your bushes separately as well for similar reasons.

Select Your Brushes.

Saving money is great. However, in the long run, you’ll really appreciate buying high quality oil paint brushes that last and perform well. Nothing is more aggravating than a brush that sheds hair or bristles, frays and separates or doesn’t hold its shape. Quality brushes will largely eliminate these frustrations.

Make sure to purchase a variety of quality brushes.

Paintbrushes are constructed of several different types of fibers. Use softer synthetic brushes for a smooth style or painting technique. A courser natural hair like hog hair will provide a rougher application technique.

Recommended Basic Paint Brush List

  • Round
  • Bristle
  • Fan
  • Flat
  • Bright
  • Filbert

Make sure buy get several sizes of each type of brush, especially in the round, flat and bristle brushes.

Don’t forget to purchase a good quality palette knife for mixing and blending your oil paints.

Select a Paint Palette

palette of oil paints
White Palettes Show Paint Colors Better.

A palette is simple the surface where you blend and mix your oil paints. How big of a palette you buy, will be up to personal preference. To start, I would suggest the approximate size of a dinner plate. Really, any smooth, flat surface that allows room to mix and mingle your paints will do nicely. Glass, acrylic, plastic or wood palettes will all work great. They even have disposable tear off sheet of palette paper if you prefer.

One additional tip: Use a white palette when possible to better see the hues and colors you are using.

Select an Easel

Paint Using an Easel
An easel makes painting more enjoyable

* Don’t Forget Your FREE Gift!

While you could place your canvas flat on a table, this would not be ideal. An easel works best, but any stand or tripod that will firmly support your canvas while you apply your paints, will be fine.

An easel allows you to sit up straight and not tire your back as much as if you were continuously hunched over a canvas lying flat on a table.

A tabletop easel may be the best of both worlds. This is Easel Art Pro after all, so to us an easel is very important.  😉

Select Your Watercolor Pencils

Pencil Art Sketch
Sketch subject before painting.

In most cases, you’ll want to begin your project by doing either a rough sketch or maybe even a detailed drawing of your subject directly on to the canvas. To do that you’ll need some pencils. You may just be mapping out general proportions or detailing the elements within grid lines you’ve drawn on the canvas.

Either way, pencils work well for this as pencil lines are easily covered by the opaque nature of oil paints. However, you should not use graphite or charcoal pencils. Graphite is very slippery and tends to lift through your paints from the canvas to the surface of your painting.

To avoid this, use watercolor pencils to sketch out your subject material. This works well for not only rough broad general outlines like clouds or mountain edges, but this method can also be  used for more precise outlines such as a facial lines or the outer edges of a fruit or building.

Select Linseed Oil

Linseed Oil
Thin paints with linseed oil.

High quality oil paint is very concentrated and thick. The colors go a long way, therefore they need to be thinned for blending and applying to your canvas. Thinning can be done using linseed oil or another oil medium. The initial layers painted onto the canvas should be thinner than each subsequent layer you paint. Remember to paint thick over thin and not the reverse. Thin layers dry quicker. This technique allows the paint to dry from the inside out. Drying from the outside in, tends to cause the dry outer layers of your painting to break and crack.



Select Turpentine or Mineral Spirits

You’ve heard the saying, “oil and water don’t mix”. This holds true in art as well. After each paint session, you’ll want to thoroughly clean your brushes. Water won’t work as a cleaning agent with oil paints so you’ll need to get some turpentine or mineral spirits. Look for the colorless, odorless type.

Select a Jar for Cleaning Brushes

Paint Brush Cleaning Jar
Clean your paintbrushes in a mason jar.

A common Mason jar works well as a paintbrush cleaning jar. Just add enough mineral spirits to a cleaning jar to cover the brush tips twice over. Make sure you have a tight fitting lid and you can store the solution (without the brushes) for several cleanings.

After the brushes are clean, remove them and dry them on a clean rag or cloth. Never leave your brushes in the turpentine solution for an extended amount of time.

Select Some Rags/ Cloths/ Drop Cloths

As stated above, you’ll need rags for drying your brushes after cleaning. You’ll also use them frequently while you’re painting. You should always have a good clean rag handy while you are painting.

A drop cloth may be needed for larger projects or if your technique is a messy one.

Select Your Painting Clothes

It’s never a good idea to paint in your nice clothes. Invariably, you will accidentally nudge or bump a palette or wet canvas. So dress appropriately! It’s also important to dress comfortable, loose fitting clothing that you don’t mind getting paint on. Removing any jewelry is also a good idea.

Oil painting clothes
This is why you should never paint in your nice clothes.

How To Oil Paint
~Get Set Up

Now that you are dressed in your painting clothes, take a some time to set up your art area. Choose a location where you won’t be disturbed and that has sufficient light. Use a drop cloth if you’re worried about ruining your nice floors.

Poor lighting makes for a poor painting

Ensure you have proper lighting on your chosen subject as well as on the painting canvas. Make any adjustments needed to ensure there is no glare or distracting shine.

You’ll want to avoid direct sunlight and make sure there’s plenty of ventilation. Oil paints, thinners and turpentines are not always as odorless as we would like them to be. Also, make sure you choose a painting location where you can work undisturbed and preferably where you can leave your painting and come back to it over several days. This is one of the nice things about oil paints – they dry slowly. By painting over several days, you makes your artistry more a part of your lifestyle and not just a passing occasion.

As you set up your work are, adjust your easel or stand to a comfortable height where you can sit or stand in a relaxed and a enjoyable position.

Once you have all your materials at hand and ready to use, it’s time to create your masterpiece.

How To Oil Paint
~ Get Painting

As you prepare to mix your first few colors, consider which part of the painting you’re going to apply first. In most cases this will be the background colors. As a general rule, you would paint sequentially from the backgrounds to the foregrounds, layering each over the other.

Mixing Oil Paints
Follow these simple rules of thumb when mixing oil paints.

Here are a few simple ‘rules of thumb’ that may help as you begin your painting adventure.

Add Dark To Light

Let’s say the sky was the background you wanted to paint first. You may choose to use a light blue hue for the background sky using white and ultramarine. The rule of thumb is to decide light or dark hue and then mix as follows:

Light resulting hue: Place on your palette a sufficient amount of the light color (Titanium White) to cover the desired area on the canvas. Then, carefully add small amounts of the darker color (Ultramarine) to to the white on your palette and mix until you reach the desired hue (sky blue).

Dark resulting hue: Place onto your palette, a sufficient amount of the dark color (Ultramarine) to cover the desired canvas area and carefully add the lighter color (Titanium White) to your palette and mix with the dark color until you reach the desired hue (night sky).

It is much easier to tint white to a desired color than the other way around and you’ll use mush less paint. Generally you’ll find that adding small bits of dark paints to lights works best.

Add Opaque to Transparent

It takes just a little of an opaque color to influence a transparent color. It does not work that way the other way around. Again, this uses less paint and as you’ll see when you begin buying them, oil paints can be rather expensive.

Combine Only 2 or 3 Paint Colors

Don't Mix More Than 2 or 3 colors together.
Don’t mix more than 3 paint colors together.

The more colors you add to a mix, the muddier the resulting hue.

The brightness and vibrance of your painting can be affected by muddy hues which will give your painting a dull appearance.


To Brighten, Don’t Whiten – Add Glaze

Adding glazes to a palette hue can brighten your colors better than anything else.

Never use white to brighten a color as it only makes your color more milky. White is an opaque and, as we noted earlier, white will transform any transparent color into an opaque.

A Hue Only Mixes That Way Once

When mixing your colors, make enough of that color to finish your painting. It you run out of that color mix, it will be extremely difficult to duplicate that exact hue again. So, mix it once with enough to finish. Don’t worry about your paints drying out on the palette. Simply cover you palette with a foam paper plate to keep the plastic bag from touching you paints and place the whole thing in a zip lock bag and place in the freezer.

Also, you should find a good oil paint color mixing guide or color wheel to assist you if you’re looking to obtain an exact color match. You can get a FREE Basic Color Guide Here. Usually though, the colors you choose are simply a matter of your personal color taste.

Add Black to Any Color Makes Shade

When painting subjects that are positioned both in light and shaded areas, mix a little blank paint with a portion of your subject color to give the new color a shaded hue. Use this darker color to paint the shaded portion of that subject.

Lighted and shaded subject
The colors on the lighted (right) side of this subject can be mixed with a portion of black to give your colors a shaded hue for the shaded (left) side of your subject.

After mixing your paint to the color you want, thin it to your desired texture by using an oil paint medium like linseed oil. To thin your paint, gradually add your chosen oil medium until you arrive at the desired consistency.

Select Your PaintingTechnique

There are many oil painting techniques. To start, I would encourage you to do what comes natural and see how that works for you. Part of the joy of painting is the discovery of how your painting comes together. You can pick up tip, tricks and new techniques along your artisan journey. The important thing is to start and enjoy that journey.

Finish Your Painting

When painting in stages over several day, remember that each layer of paint will take about three days dry to a point where you can add anew layer without damaging the most recent layer of your painting. You may have to be patient. After each painting session, stand back and objectively observe your masterpiece and see what you really think of it. If you see anything that needs fixing, take care of it before the three-day drying time passes,

Clean Your Brushes

Cleaning your paintbrushes is a must immediately after every paint session. Brushes are an investment and keeping them clean and in good condition is important to their ease of use and the quality of art you produce. Ruining your favorite brush because you thought you’d clean it later can be a bit heartbreaking.

As discussed above, use turpentine and dry your brush with an old rag. Make sure there is no residual paint in the brush before you store it with the bristle up. Storing the bristle pointed down will bend and distort you brush bristles making it difficult to use the next time you paint. Allow them to further air dry in a well-ventilated area.

Allow Proper Drying Time

Remember that the 3-day rule that allows you to add a second layer of paint does not mean your painting will be completely dry in 3 or 4 day. It only means you can add another layer to your painting with out disturbing the lower layers. But it actually takes up to 3 months or more for your oil painting to completely dry, depending on how thick your paint layers are. Store your painting in a warm dry room to assist the process.

Have Fun!

Happy Artist
Oil Painting Is Fun!

Above all, HAVE FUN! Painting can be fulfilling and can enhance your life if you follow these simple tips and hints to learn how to paint with oils.