Ill-prepared, but taking up oil painting anyway
November 16, 2008 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Artfilter: I've decided to take up oil/canvas painting. I have good artistic sensibilities, but no formal training and no supplies. What do I need to know/own?

Possibly useful: there is a Utrecht nearby, and I'll be making a trip later this afternoon.
posted by charmston to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I would start with acrylic painting, actually. The medium is more forgiving. If you're in a hurry to correct a "mistake", you can blow dry your canvas with a hair dryer, then paint over it. The paints and supplies are also much cheaper and less toxic (in terms of fumes). Here's a brief discussion of the pros of acrylics, along with a short list of colors/supplies to start with.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:05 AM on November 16, 2008

Awesome, oils are so much fun. What do you think you'd like to paint first? And what sort of techniques are you interested in trying, or what sort of style or effects would you like to explore?
posted by notquitemaryann at 7:09 AM on November 16, 2008

Response by poster: I have some bare walls in my apartment, and I spent a week looking for some decent artwork to hang there. It's very expensive, none of it matches my decor, and little of it is to my taste anyway. I'll probably start with some fairly geometric abstract-ish things for my four walls. From there, I'm completely open to suggestion/experimentation.
posted by charmston at 7:22 AM on November 16, 2008

Oil paints take a long time to dry. This can be a good thing (you can change your lines, etc) or a bad thing (watch out for cat hair, other things finding their way into your piece). You also need to have turpentine for brush cleaning and removing any other mistakes.

Just tell them at Utrecht that you're new to it and they'll hook you up with the correct brushes, etc. Buy student grade paint to keep your prices down, and have fun.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 7:45 AM on November 16, 2008

Best answer: never ask a question like this of a painter, at least if you're in any kind of hurry. because we will not be able to shut up. to wit:

while it pains me greatly to recommend that anyone use acrylics for anything (i don't touch the stuff, myself), they don't sound ill-suited for what you seem to have in mind. you can't really go into an oil painting (or oil painting, as a medium) without a pretty clear sense of what you want to accomplish, given the time and cost commitment. Still, he's a rundown of what you'd need, if you do eventually go that route.

a surface:
you can either make your own canvas or buy one pre-fabricated. if you go for the pre-fab kind, look for canvases that are a) more than a half-inch deep and b) don't have staples or tape visible on the sides. these cheap ones more or less cannot look nice unframed, and they use an especially cheap gesso with too much chalk and filler, which will sap some of the luster from the paint film.

if making your own, you can buy the snap-together stretcher frames: even the chintzy looking ones are fine, provided your canvas is no bigger than 24" on any one side. anything bigger and you should consider making your frame and building in cross-braces (or at least buying the heftier, more expensive stretcher bars) to avoid warping.

you can go for the cheapest unprimed canvas available. heavier canvas is harder to stretch (some people need to use canvas pliers for this, though my pair has gone more or less unused in the eight or so years i've owned them). pull it snugly (but not too tightly: the gesso will tighten the canvas a fair amount, and, if you stretch it too tightly, the shrinkage can actually snap cheaper stretcher bard) and staple (with a staple gun) to the back of the frame, making hospital corners.

for acrylic gesso (i'm not going to go into oil ground, which is the route to take later on, if you find yourself getting more serious about the medium), use something not too cheap. golden brand is sort of the standard, though the utrecht house brand isn't awful. three coats if you thin it (to the consistency of whipping cream), two if you use it straight from the tub. a gesso layer that's too thin will lead to oil leaching through to the canvas, which will damage the painting in the long run, and, in the short term, will mess with the surface of the paint film.

for beginners in oil, i actually would recommend forgoing canvas entirely: get a good, heavy etching paper (something like rives BFK), tear it to the desired size, tape down all four edges to a piece of masonite or a drawing board, and put down a few layers of an acrylic gel medium. once dry, you'll be ready to go.

paint: i personally have no issues with the student-grade paints on the market. i started with winsor & newton, and they still get some occasional use. you'll need a range of colors, so here is a fairly brief list that will give you more or less everything you'll need. this is only a starter set; if you stick with it, you'll no doubt end up accumulating many, many more:
  • titanium white (get a big tube)
  • a black; payne's gray is good (it doesn't overpower other colors so badly, when mixed, though it is a "cool" black); as is mars black (a bit warmer); or lamp black (much darker, but it has a cool cast to it)
  • earth colors: terre vert (a green); burnt umber, burnt sienna, yellow ocher, and naples yellow.
  • red: vermilion or cadmium red hue and alizarin crimson. a permanent rose can be useful, too.
  • yellow: a cad[mium] yellow light
  • green: not crucial, since it can be mixed easily, but i find a permanent green light useful. sap green is also nice for its translucency.
  • blue: french ultramarine and prussian blue
  • violet: i like having a quinacridone, dioxazine, or mineral violet handy.
medium: for beginners, liquin is sufficient.

solvent: go for an odorless mineral spirit of some kind. turpentine is to be avoided at all cost unless you have really good ventilation. also, look for the little glass jars with a metal coil at the bottom; these hold the solvent and let the paint from brush-cleaning sink to the bottom.

brushes: look for the brushes with white acrylic bristles. i still use these, since i can't be trusted with the more expensive natural hair brushes. pick up a fan brush if you're going to want to do any seamless transitions between color/value areas (this is not a "tree brush," whatever bob ross might have lead you to believe; you don't actually load it with paint ever, you just brush it lightly over colors you've already laid down to smooth out the brush strokes).

palette: one of those pads of tear-away palette paper (basically a kind of waxed paper) are fine. a glass palette is also nice; in that case you'll want to pick up a paint scraper (one of those razor-blade doohickeys) to clean it with.

palette knives: for mixing colors (you want to mix on the palette as much as possible, rather than on the canvas). one medium-sized knife with a fairly long blade will be all you'll need, initially.

gloves: if you're worried about poisoning yourself (and you should be, really), consider getting any solvent-safe gloves, either reusable or disposable. the solvent-safe ones tend to be either green, blue, or purple, depending on the manufacturer.

soap: they make special hand and brush soaps for painters, but a bottle of dishwashing liquid is all you'll need.

alternately, for acrylics, you will just need paint, a couple brushes, and something to paint on.
posted by wreckingball at 8:13 AM on November 16, 2008 [22 favorites]

I find it's easier to paint BIG - most people seem to want to start out small, but that's very constraining. The best paintings I ever did were on giant 4' x 6' canvasses that I made myself.
posted by Ostara at 8:19 AM on November 16, 2008

Your life will be far easier if you use water soluble oils. People decry them but there isn't a huge difference between regular oils and water soluble, especially if you are starting out and just painting decorative abstract works. I'd avoid acrylics like the plague. Horrible, plastic-y, cheap looking results. Oils are more difficult to work with but then nothing worth doing is easy.

I agree with a lot of what wreckingball has written above. I'd second getting acrylic hair brushes but I'd do without a palette knife, mediums and a palette, you'll find something around the house for a palette. An old plate will suffice. Mix your oils on your palette with the brush, thin with water if needbe, and clean your brush with water - keep it simple.

Colour wise you could start with Titanium white, Naples Yellow, Cad. Yellow Pale, Cad. Red, Indian Red, Burnt Umber, Raw sienna, French Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue. If you're starting out I'd avoid ochre and anything exotic like a violet or even a green, you can mix towards that type of thing. Keep your palette simple and earthy and you'll get more pleasing results.
posted by fire&wings at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you plan to learn on your own? Or will you take a class?

If you want to take a class, find out who is the most popular teacher in your area. The teacher will have a list of the supplies for her students.

A good teacher get you comfortable with materials and technique, and will help you find the direction for your art.
posted by valannc at 9:22 AM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I find it's easier to paint BIG - most people seem to want to start out small, but that's very constraining. The best paintings I ever did were on giant 4' x 6' canvasses that I made myself.

Really? Part of this is a temperamental thing: some people are predisposed to making large work--when teaching, these are usually the people I'll coerce into making things less than a foot square. The results can be alarming--sometimes in a good way.

In teaching painting, I find people tend to paint to the scale of their surface: small brushstrokes on small canvases, medium brushstrokes on mid-sized canvases, large strokes on large canvases. This doesn't typically yield the best results: a huge slab of paint on a tiny canvas can be kind of exciting, and of course insanely detailed large works are always impressive. The mid-sized canvases (say, 18×24" to 3×4') tend to be the most problematic. The scale doesn't force one to work either tightly or loosely, and, for beginning painters, this often leads to middling, noncommittal painting. By which I mean, "crap."

Whether you're using acrylics or oil, it's crucial to remember that how one applies the paint is as much a part of the "content" of the painting as the subject matter, composition, or color choices. I've found this a bit of advice that can take some time to sink in, and, and the risk of sounding like a capital-P Painter (ick), the only remedy is to look at actual paintings. In person. And experience: lots of it. There's nothing that screams "student painting" quite as loudly as brushwork that doesn't look intentional.

Mind you, you won't be able to convey a sense of "intentionality" until you, you know, know how to paint, but if there's one thing to keep in the back of your mind and strive for, it's this. The thing that all good paintings, from a Correggio to a Sargent to a Morris Louis to a Twombly is that, no matter how differently they approached getting the paint from point A (tube) to point B (surface), you, as the viewer, buy into their decision-making process without reservation.

Though I guess it bears mentioning that this "internal logic of the painting" angle is the legacy of Modernism (defined broadly). A lot of contemporary painting relies on upsetting the idea of mastery and intent. But I don't know if that's a line of conversation well-suited to beginners. I don't, for instance, recommend that someone just getting into painting spend time with, say, early Eric Fischls. 'Cause homeboy did not know what he was doing, at first, and, as good as those paintings can be said to be, I wonder if they're the right thing for impressionable upstarts.
posted by wreckingball at 9:30 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your life will be far easier if you use water soluble oils. People decry them but there isn't a huge difference between regular oils and water soluble, especially if you are starting out and just painting decorative abstract works.


If you want to use oils, use oils. If you don't want to mess around with solvents, use vegetable oil instead.

If you want to try out water-soluble oils, just cut the paint with Palmolive: that's more or less what the paint companies do, and the results are about what you'd expect.
posted by wreckingball at 9:33 AM on November 16, 2008

I don't paint, but this book always made me want to. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. It's a good read and you might find it inspiring.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:04 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have taught drawing and painting and have found the following to be helpful:
I would look at art history books. Start with a broad survey book so you can see a lot of different paintings and see what you like or what grabs you attention. If you already have some favorite artists or like certain art styles, then I would spend some time with them.
Also, take a trip to a museum and see what paintings you like. Bring a sketchbook. Actually, get in the habit of carrying a small sketchbook around with you.
Look at how others have used: paint in terms of its application, traditional and nontraditional subjects, size, and materials. Additionally, some people actually "copy" master works as a way to learn. That might be helpful to you, or not.
Keep in mind certain subjects are harder (people) than others (still life) for beginners.
A good rule of thumb when starting drawings/paintings:
1. Block in basic shapes (break things down into basic shapes)
2. Check or sight proportion (make sure things are accurate in size and in relationship to each other)
3. Sketch in characteristics (flesh out shapes)
4. Solidify lines and shapes (get rid of sketchy or uncertain lines, basically keep what you want get rid of whats not working)

Looking at art helps people make art. I truly believe that. And, like with anything, the more you do something the better you become.

Good for you for enriching your life.
Good luck and enjoy.
posted by bookshelves at 10:32 AM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ok, so I was in the same position as you. Artistic with no painting training. I never used a knife to mix. I used a piece of glass with white paper taped to the back as a pallet. I'm sure I had some crap paints, but if I didn't mix in a healthy amount of linseed oil, the paint came out flat rather than shiny, which I personally dislike. And oil takes an inordinate amount of time to dry. Really. I left a painting over a weekend to dry, and it didn't. And, if you're just starting, you could do canvas boards rather than canvases themselves.
posted by santojulieta at 10:40 AM on November 16, 2008

A good thing I learned when I did it in college, is get the turp that is not all stinky, like this stuff: It will make your life much better. Also, you won't feel like you are fucking lightheaded from your turp all the time.

If you are really going to make the leap, I also agree with using real oils - not water soluble stuff. If you want to get that thick, reblendable texture, just use the real stuff.

Also, making your own canvas is fun and everything, but if you have a job and dont have a ton of time, skip all the DIY stuff. Just buy canvas. It's pretreated, ready to go. Also, to make your own canvas, you need a staple gun, pliers, and other expenses that make it not worth it if you think you might paint one canvas and quit. After all, oil is a horrible medium for the hobbyist - even many real artists. You need real studio space for it, as it stinks and is ultra-messy, and never dries. You need patience, and way too much spare time.

Lastly, is oil really for you? Do you really need the power to infinitely blend color on canvas to the point of photorealism? Since it sounds like you want a couple mondrian-style geometric wall-hangings, oil will actually hurt your cause. Oil will take forever to dry if your squares or circles aren't perfect, and will look messy at the edges, as blending will happen everywhere. Acrylic will be very opaque, and easy to correct. To get a more oil "look" at the end, just add like 3 coats of acrylic medium, and you will get a nice, shiny canvas like you would with oil. Also, your clothes and hands will be much more grateful for using acrylic.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 10:52 AM on November 16, 2008

I just started painting in watercolors, so I can't help you on that aspect - but, while at Utrecht, sign up for their free ArtSmart card. Since I signed up, I've been getting coupons for 20-25% off one item nearly every month. If you plan your shopping right, you can get some good deals with these!
posted by spinifex23 at 11:07 AM on November 16, 2008

first, do yourself a favor and don't go to utrecht. you're in st. paul, go to wet paint. (disclaimer: i'm a partner in another independent art supply store in los angeles. but i am not a painter myself.)

i would recommend starting out as cheaply as possible -- you can get a basic set of 12 oil or acrylic colors for about $7. an assortment of cheap brushes for $8. a few 8x10 canvas panels for about $5. you can improvise a palette. for oil painting, you'll want some turpenoid (odorless turpentine substitute) which you can get for $8, and probably a brush cleaning tank, which will set you back another $5 or so. keep in mind that one of the issues you'll have with oil painting is disposing of the waste.

basically, you should be able to spend about $20-30 to experiment. and then you can decide if you really don't like oil or acrylic, or what sorts of colors you want to work with. if you decide to stick with it, you can start to upgrade your improvised/cheap equipment to the fancier stuff.
posted by jimw at 11:13 AM on November 16, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, such great advice from everybody.

Addressing a few specific points:
- I think I've been convinced that I'll start with acrylic. I'd like to eventually be doing oil, but funds are limited, skills even more so, and I live in a small studio apartment without the best ventilation.
- I was remiss to update my profile when I moved; I no longer live in the great north, I now live in the nation's capitol. Good for the suggestion of visiting museums, bad for jimw's suggestion of Wet Paint.
- I very much appreciate @wreckingball's comment (argh, too much Twitter) that I be deliberate with each stroke. That's the sort of veteran advice that I certainly would have missed on my own. Does anyone have any other technique-related comments as such?

Thank you all very much. As usual, you've been supremely helpful. Cheers!
posted by charmston at 2:42 PM on November 16, 2008

nthing water soluble oils and avoiding acrylics.
posted by villain extraordinaire at 3:11 PM on November 17, 2008

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