How to oil paint?
January 15, 2015 1:21 PM   Subscribe

My sister gave me a starter set of oil paints for Christmas. I know nothing about how to use oils, basic techniques... nada. Can anyone point me at free web resources on how to get started? Seems like there's a lot out there and I'd appreciate finding stuff vetted by the hivemind.

Two specific questions:

I know I need to get some turpentine--I worry about its downstream environmental effects though, is there a substitute that works as well, but is less damaging?

Are there differences in painting on canvas vs hard surfaces? How do they need to be prepared?

I have read through this and there are helpful suggestions there, but I am also looking for stuff that's more like "This is your first day of art class, we are doing oil painting, and you have never held a brush before."

I'm interested in more the technical aspects than the artistic; I already have ideas about what I want to explore visually.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Such a big topic.
A youtube search Beginning Oil Painting, will probably serve you best, you can pick the style of instruction.

Turp: used for thinning paint, washing brushes. But you can actually avoid mineral spirits altogether. Use a bit of linseed oil when you want to thin paint (though it slows down the paints drying properties), and use Dawn or Murphys Oil Soap to wash brushes.

Substrates: There is a big difference between a smooth hard surface (like a wood panel) and canvas material. Don't attempt to begin learning on a smooth surface. I suggest canvas panels which are cardboard with canvas glued to the surface...they're inexpensive to learn on and store easier (thinner) than stretched canvases.

BTW, you have your oils already, but you might be interested in water soluble artists oil paints. They thin with water, easy to clean, and less oder in the house. I don't use them personally but friends say Windsor Newton's 'Artesian' series have the best range of color.

Just a reminder that many of the pigments used in artists paint are toxic—just beware and avoid rubbing your eyes or getting paint on skin. Some folks wear gloves and I certainly do when brush washing.

Happy trees!
posted by artdrectr at 2:40 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Try posting this question at It might also be worthwhile to look for inexpensive art classes in your area.
posted by bunderful at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2015

Best answer: Turpenoid Natural is a non-toxic alternative to turpentine. But before you assume that you need turpentine or a substitute, read the labels on your set to verify that she did indeed give you traditional oil paints and not the water soluble kind, since the latter are growing in popularity and are often sold side-by-side with the traditional kind.

I recommend getting one of those little metal mesh things (example) to sit in your rinse jar to rub your brushes against so the paint particles you rub off sink to the bottom.

If you buy pre-stretched canvas or canvas boards (which as a newbie, you should) then they should already be treated with gesso. If you end up venturing out into other surfaces, you'll need to paint them with a few coats of gesso first before applying your oil paints.

The Bob Ross 3-Hour workshop covers some painting basics. That, all the other Bob Ross Joy of Painting episodes, a few other oil painting video courses, and various oil painting instructional books can be downloaded from the usual places that one might download TV shows or movies from.

You can also get a lot of help by just going to an artist supply store (not a crafts and fabric supply store, but a proper artists supply store) and asking the staff. Many of these stores will have flyers for classes taught by local professional artists. Your parks and rec dept might have some inexpensive beginners classes as well.

I recently started oil painting a few months ago myself so a lot of things that wouldn't be obvious to a total newbie are still fresh in my mind but I don't feel up to typing them all out right now so I MeMailed you my phone number or maybe we can figure out a way to voice or video chat online. Video chat would be best because I could hold things in front of the webcam instead of trying to describe them to you as "the thingie with the stuff on it."
posted by Jacqueline at 4:43 PM on January 15, 2015

Best answer: I use Gamsol in lieu of turpentine.

Something not obvious at all: how to stand/sit at an easel, and how to hold a brush correctly. Hold the brush about ¼-⅓ of the way from the BACK of the brush; don't choke up your grip near the ferrule. Stand or sit so that when you extend your arm, the bristles of the brush can easily touch the canvas, but you're definitely at least the length of your arm+brush away from the canvas. In other words, don't choke up on the easel, either. Example here. Your grip on the brush should be light and easy, not tight.

Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice by Juliette Aristides is a great book for technique.

Most canvas panels and canvases you buy in the store will already be gessoed, don't stress. Hard surfaces are usually more difficult for beginners, until you learn how much medium + paint to use, there's no tooth to grab the paint, so it can get drippy fast.

Oh, and get the green, rough soap that comes in a beige wrapper with brown lettering (can't remember the brand to save my life right now) to clean the oil paint off your clothing.
posted by culfinglin at 5:29 PM on January 15, 2015

Lava Bar? That's the only green, rough soap I can think of but I don't think the wrapper is brown. But you are thinking of some sort of pumice soap, right?
posted by Jacqueline at 5:45 PM on January 15, 2015

Note that Turpenoid Natural is not a one-to-one substitute for regular Turpenoid, as you should not use it as a painting medium. (Turpenoid is a mineral spirit similar to Gamsol. Petroleum-based, unlike turpentine which is derived from pine. Either of those can be used for clean-up and as a painting medium. Turpenoid Natural is another thing entirely, only suitable for clean-up.)

You can certainly paint without using solvents at all, just look up 'solvent-free oil painting' on the google.

I think culfinglin is talking about Master's artist soap. Any art supply store should have it. The same company also makes a great bush cleaner.

If you do have technical questions about aspects of oil painting, the technical support staff at Gamblin (who make Gamsol as well as oil paints and mediums) are a fantastic resource.
posted by jimw at 7:11 PM on January 15, 2015

Best answer: One thing that is important is to paint in a well ventilated area. Don't be painting in your bedroom or anything like that. Bad bad bad.

Instead of turpentine you can use odorless mineral spirits or citrus thinner. You should still paint in a well ventilated area. Use the solvent of your choice to thin your paint sparingly. Mostly you'll use it to clean brushes, but you don't throw it out when you are done. Instead you put it in a safe container with a tightly sealed lid. The paint will sink to the bottom and you pour off the solvent to use again next time you paint. Use less solvent, better for the environment. When you dispose of the dregs (and your rags or anything else) do it properly at your local disposal area/hardware store. Oil, as mentioned above, will also thin your paints but it will slow your drying time.

With oil paint you can paint on canvas or board. Usually they will be prepared in some way, most likely with acrylic gesso. Other options include animal skin glues, but this is used much less frequently these days and is something you'd have to do yourself. Gesso is cheap to buy and easy to apply, or you can buy canvas that is pre-gessoed. If the canvas is white it is already gessoed - if you are buying it from an art supply store the gesso is almost certainly already on there. If you buy gesso you can just paint it on yourself. Some people like to sand it, apply several coats, others will just slap on a thick coat. It stops the paint from soaking through to the canvas and the solvent in the paint from eating away at your canvas. Some artists do paint with oil paint on "raw" canvas but this is fairly uncommon. Gesso gives you more "bounce back" as the light goes through your colour to the white gesso at the back of the canvas/board.

I actually like painting on board quite a lot, but canvas is certainly more common.

I'll give you a few of the technical hints I give to my students on the first day or two.

Buy decent brushes. If you pull on the brush head and hairs come out, that's a bad sign. You can use synthetic or bristle brushes, buy a few in different sizes and shapes. Painters brushes and rollers can also be fun, and you'll want some rags and a palette knife to scrape/rub as well. Traditionally long handled brushes are used for oil painting. Wipe off paint when you are done, then rinse in the solvent, then wash with regular dish soap. Hang to dry with bristles down if possible. Alternately, if you are lazy like me, wrap the brushes in plastic and toss them in the freezer until the next time you paint.

When mixing colour always start with your lighter colour and add in the darker. You'll save a lot of paint doing this. Put away your black and your white paint. Never touch the black again, and only use the white if absolutely necessary. Unless you are Kandinsky, in which case ignore everything I say and go and do whatever you like. Repeat to yourself: white does not make light. If painting from life, never underestimate the power of a shadow.

Oil paint dries fairly slowly - this is variable depending on how thick you paint, how much oil you use, how humid it is where you live, and the hue of paint you are using. Any time three primary colours collide you'll get mud. If you are Walter Sickert this may be a good thing. Otherwise, probably something to avoid or to do with care. Pay attention to your hues and decide which way certain colours lean. For example - do you have a yellow that leans to green, or one that leans to orange? Colours that are close together on the colour wheel will make brighter more intense mixes, those far apart will make more neutral colours (those three primaries will start to collide). Try working with a limited palette of colour to accelerate your understanding of colour mixing.
posted by Cuke at 7:24 PM on January 15, 2015

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