learn paint oils good!
January 10, 2006 8:59 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to paint with oils?

I really admire and am inspired by the "painterly" style of oil painting. Can anyone recommend a good book (or other resource) that covers the techniques of oil painting? Or would it be more instructive to enroll in a class at the local community college or whatever?

(see: ashleywoodartist.com, somepaintings.net/Alex.html as the kind of painting style I'd be aiming for).
posted by philscience to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It would be more instructive to enroll in the class.

What kind of media are you coming from?
posted by furiousthought at 9:08 PM on January 10, 2006

I'd agree with furiousthought and tell you to find an art class at a junior college or art school.

I've tried learning to paint from books and it is just not the same as having it explained and taught to you by a person.

If I had to recommend a book it would be

Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting

It is not on amazon but the author sells it on his website. Pricey, but regarded as the best painting book by many artists I admire.
posted by meta87 at 9:23 PM on January 10, 2006

I'd have to agree with what's been said above so far...while it might be possible to learn to do watercolour on your own (to some degree), oil painting is a whole other can of worms. I'd definitely recommend taking a class and SEEING how it's done...it'll save you a lot of time. I'm not saying it's not doable, but it's way harder to learn on your own.
posted by johnsmith415 at 9:42 PM on January 10, 2006

i slightly disagree, having been through many painting classes in art school. IF you want to learn technique, by all means take an art class. However, I don't think technical painting is meant for all painters. I would suggest purchasing some paints from Utrecht (which hands down, has the cheapest oil paints you will find -- if you go to a regular art store, you'll find a ton of bullshit "pro" paints that no-one in art school ever uses because they're too expensive) and just painting. Once you've put some stuff down on canvas, you'll have a feel for how the paint moves and works (painting is MUCH different from drawing) and you'll know if you want to get more technical. If you DO want to learn technique, by all means, think about an art class, but honestly, the quality will vary WIDELY depending on who teaches it. You may pull a real technical painter and learn a lot of technique -- you may pull a self-trained painter who doesn't paint technically and basically just says "yeah, yeah, just keep painting -- i don't know what to tell you -- just paint!" (this was the advice offered to me by Manuel Ocampo, a super nice guy who was doing a sabbatical at berkeley when I was there).

if you do want to paint technically and you don't have a drafting background, when you buy paints from utrecht, also buy a projector (just the first link i found -- you shouldn't pay more than $50 or so for a real cheap one) and just trace for awhile. see if you like the results. If you do, learn a little about how to render real-life objects. This'll probably require learning some drawing skills.

spend maybe $50 on paint, and maybe $50 on the projector, and either buy canvas at thrift stores or at art store clearance sales (they regularly sell pre-stretched canvas for under retail, so look out for sidewalk sales and the like). You'll know better precisely what you want to do after you've tried it, and that may involve classes, but it also may not.

Oil painting in the style of a particular artist DOES require some technical skill and might mean taking classes -- however, ANYONE can paint with oils. You do not need classes -- you just need to get a feel for the medium, and then after that, pursue what interests you most about it.
posted by fishfucker at 10:27 PM on January 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

oh, and if you're buying canvas at thrift stores, you'll want some gesso to paint over whatever is on them. This is available at utrecht for about $20/gallon (will last you for quite awhile). I forgot to mention you'll also want to buy an assortment of brushes: at least one large room-painting-type brush for gessoing, several small detail brushes (if you want to trace/do realistic stuff) and whatever else looks interesting. Get some ... damnit. Brush-cleaner, which I can't remember the convential name for now (it smells like pinesol).

Consider acrylics if you want to be able to work faster -- oil paints take a LONG time to dry. If you need to paint over something, it'll be about a day before you're able to. However, oils have a different feel than acrylics, and you can "work" a color into another and get a smoother blend (in my personal experience) than you can with oils. if you've never played with either, check them both out.

but yeah. if you're serious about "masters" techniques in oil painting, take a class. forget learning it from a book. not worth it.*

* i'd encourage painting first to see if you really want to paint like the masters.
posted by fishfucker at 10:34 PM on January 10, 2006

I don't trust books to be straight on the supplies you'll need. Usually they're very caught up on some brand or something very specific, when it's more important to understand the general idea behind what you need. Once you know how it works, you can substitute in anything.

1) Something to paint on. I suggest cardboard or a heavy paper. You need to gesso it first. Buy the cheapest gesso you can find, it really doesn't matter -- it's basically white acrylic paint. Use a regular broad housepainting brush to apply a coat of gesso to the area you intended to paint, let it dry, then apply another coat. The idea behind this is you need to prevent the paint from soaking into your painting surface and destroying it. You can learn to stretch your own canvas or prepare a panel later.. I could probably babble on for hours about making a very nice painting surface, but it doesn't matter at this point. For now the idea is to produce lots and lots of paintings, and it doesn't matter if they last hundreds of years or not.

2) Something to paint with. Big brushes, if you like it painterly. Stick with synthetics -- they're much cheaper than real hair, and they're quite nice. Just get a variety of shapes that appeal to you. Palette knives are good too, of course, for applying paint as well as for mixing it. Actually, definitely get a palette knife. Mixing with your brushes is bad for the brushes and not very effective.
** This is important: keep. your brushes. clean. You must keep them clean unless you like muddy color. I usually paint with two sets of brushes -- one set only for warm colors, and one set only for cool colors. If you are good at keeping your brushes immaculate, that probably won't be necessary.

3) Paints. I'd stay middle-of-the-road as far as price goes. For a few paints, it doesn't matter if you use student grade crap -- anything pthalo, for example, just buy the cheapest brand. But as a general rule, the super cheap stuff is cheap because it has less pigment and more binder, so the color is less vivid. The expensive ones are nice, but not necessary for learning.

4) A palette. Don't go to an art supply store and get something labelled "palette." For the most part, they're small, annoying, and overpriced. A piece of glass will do (very easy to clean with a razorblade), or a piece of gessoed masonite (available from any place with lumber) that you just wipe down with turpenoid to clean. I suggest getting at least 18x24" because you don't want to stop to clean your palette all the time, and you don't want it to be all cramped. Some people have systems to putting down their paints, other people are haphazard.

5) Turpenoid for cleaning things, or a similar solvent that won't kill you quite as fast as real turpentine. They sell little glass jars with metal coils in the bottom -- while I am suspicious of most gadgety art supplies, these things are brilliant. Get yourself one, fill it with turpenoid, swish your brush around in it, rubbing it gently against the coils -- tada, clean brush. Just don't leave your brushes sitting in it -- it will destroy them. Also, if your painting really pisses you off, dip the end of your rag in the turpenoid and scrub away at the painting. Also, don't dump the turpenoid down the sink. Get a great big glass jar and dump your dirty turpenoid into it. Let it sit for a few days and all the crap will be settled at the bottom -- then, if you pour gently, you can keep re-using your turpenoid.

6) Oh yeah, rags. I used to buy torn-up bed sheets by the pound from the hardware store. You need lots and lots of rags. And you're going to have to think about what you want to do with these after you've soaked them in solvents; obviously they're a fire hazard.

6) A medium -- you have a jar of this -- you occasionally glop some out onto your palette and mix a little into your paint. The medium "thins out" the paint. You can, of course, paint with no medium at all, which means you will have very rich colors but you'll probably use gobs and gobs of paint. I was taught to mix lots of turpenoid, maybe half as much linseed oil, and a small bit of damar varnish, and that was my medium. I didn't like it, personally -- too much turpenoid will make your painting look grey. (Bolded because this happened to me and it was six months until someone told me why.) There are lots of pre-made mediums (media?) available, such as Galkyd (very thick and sticky) and Liquin (very slick, fast drying iirc). Usually when I go to an art supply store, they have a giant tub of sample-sized bottles. Try out a bunch.


That was a brain dump. Maybe you're better off going to a class after all. This might be easier to digest after attending a class and watching someone paint.
posted by Marit at 10:48 PM on January 10, 2006 [3 favorites]

Er oh, and I know that 7 comes after 6, really....
My brain has been destroyed by solvents obviously.
posted by Marit at 10:52 PM on January 10, 2006

Broader, but somewhat similar thread here
posted by bunglin jones at 12:20 AM on January 11, 2006

There is certainly something to be said for a purely experiential approach to oil painting. My initial response was really just comparing classes to books... I suppose the kind of intro class that I had in mind was a looser one where you didn't have particular techniques drilled into you, but just had a chance to work with the medium in a group setting... I don't know. I'm not at all sure whether a technical or experiential method is the best way to start out. I've seen people come out pretty well out of both. Whatever class you take, talk to the teacher. (And don't suppose you can tell how someone's going to teach just by looking at their work!)

A whole lot of this depends on what the poster's level of art experience is.
posted by furiousthought at 12:51 AM on January 11, 2006

If you'd like to learn how to use oil paints, I agree that some sort of formal, hands-on instruction is very useful. A class at a community college or through a continuing education program at a larger school will probably only cost a few hundred dollars in tuition money. This is a few hundred dollars well-spent, as you will learn the answers to important questions like "why do my colors keep getting so muddy?" and "how do I lay these strokes down more transparently?" and "how much damar varnish fume can I breathe before I pass out?" Also, if you start painting regularly and at a decent size, you'll realize that it's pretty easy to blow through a few hundred dollars in paints and gesso and canvas and that really great size 28 filbert brush. In the long run, the cost of a class shouldn't amount to much. So if you'd like to learn how to use oil paints, start looking for a class to enroll in.

...HOWEVER, I see you've used the "mind-meld" and "faking-it" tags, so maybe a class isn't what you're after right now. You'll probably spend a good amount of time in an introductory oil painting class doing things like painting color grids and working on bizzaro still lives set up to present you with a variety of surfaces and lighting challenges (yes, I did just dig out the first 'real' painting I did in a Painting 1 class and take a crappy digital photo of it and put it online for this question. hah!) So whether or not you decide to take a class, I will offer these quick tips:
(on preview, Marit already said a lot of this stuff, I've edited down my list)

1.) Draw a lot. It really helps. If you get an idea for a painting, make a little thumbnail sketch of it. Now do it again like 20 more times, at different sizes, and for different durations. Work on one sketch for only one minute, and try to get the whole thing in. Now do another, but work on it for thirty minutes. You get the idea.

2.) Paint from life whenever you can. It really helps. Painting from photographs sucks. A lot of the fun of painting is learning to see things differently, looking for spatial relationships between things, figuting out how light hits surfaces. If you're painting from a photograph, so much of that information is already lost... So yeah, seriously, paint from a primary source as much as you can. And by primary I mean "your eyeballs."

3.) Copy other people's work. Literally. This may seem to conflict with tip number two, but it's a great exercise. You like Alex Kanevsky's paintings? Great! Get the best reproduction you can find of a piece you like (actually, he has pretty decent sized images on that site you linked to). Now make a copy of it. Paint one of his paintings. You'll learn a lot doing it.

4.) Paint "all over." Don't get caught up in one area of a painting. Don't start focusing on the little details until you're almost done. Keep moving around your painting space.

5.) Stop painting around the contours of things. A very common pitfall of beginners' painting is that they'll treat the paintbrush like a pencil. Don't make line drawings and fill them in. Find other ways to deal with object boundaries. Pay attention to volume.

6.) [SUPER SECRET FAKING-IT TIP] "Painterly" painting doesn't need to be oil painting. You can make those same painterly strokes and swashes of color with acrylics. The biggest difference between oils and acrylics is that oils stay wet while you paint, and acrylics dry much faster. So? Paint a little faster. What, you fucked up and something's wrong and it's already dry? Paint over it. That's one of the great things about painting. If you want to go this route (which in no way stops you from learning to paint with oils later) I'd recommend buying some big sheets of printmaking paper (22"×30" Stonehenge will be cheap) and some big tubes of that Liquitex Basics acrylic paint. Use water as a medium/thinner if you feel like it, and just start painting. Make some reproductions, set up simple still lives, get someone to model for you, whatever. It'll be much cheaper than working in oil, and you'll get a feel for painting at the same time.
[DOUBLE SUPER SECRET FAKING-IT TIP] Oh, you like the nice finish on the oil paintings, you think the acrylics look to matte, too house-painty? Well then, slap a coat of clear shellac on your acrylic painting-on-paper when you're doine. INSTANT SHINY.

So yeah, you know, just do it, YMMV, IANAA, also see this thread, etc.
posted by drumcorpse at 1:05 AM on January 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the thread that bunglin jones linked to further back contains a lot of safety information that hasn't been strongly hammered on here, so to repeat, "Working with oil paints means working with various TOXIC, CAUSTIC, and FLAMMABLE substances. Please take note."
posted by drumcorpse at 2:07 AM on January 11, 2006

The forums at Wet Canvas are great for questions as will as inspirational browsing.
posted by Ostara at 7:40 AM on January 11, 2006

If you decide to take a class (which I think is the best advice) and you have some different options to choose from, here's how I'd choose: See if you can get a look at the work that's being done by that teacher's students. The teacher will exert a lot of influence over the work the students do, and it's important to find the right fit if you're aiming to learn a particular style. The work of the teacher matters less, I think: I've gotten great instruction from artists whose art I didn't care for, and less than great instruction from those whose art I really respected. If you're interested in a relatively naturalistic "from observation" style of painting, look for classes that focus on that. Look still life and figure painting classes in particular, rather than more non-specific painting classes.
posted by owen at 7:48 AM on January 11, 2006

however, ANYONE can paint with oils. You do not need classes -- you just need to get a feel for the medium, and then after that, pursue what interests you most about it.

while this is true, I think oils as a medium have a pretty long learning curve just in terms of things like mixing colors and creating texture. The biggest thing about oils is how long they take to dry, esp if you're using linseed oil as a thinner. You have to be quite patient about adding layers, and quite knowledgeable about how colors will interact if the surface is still wet.

I remember one exercise from art school was to create as many different shades of grey as possible without using black or white paint. This was an interesting way to explore the non-intuitive relations between pigments, but it is also useful as a warning - mixing paints will often dull down the colors, so it is a good idea to take a somewhat scientific approach to familiarizing yourself with how things combine.
posted by mdn at 11:38 AM on January 11, 2006

Alice did not feel encouraged to ask any more questions about it, so she turned to the Mock Turtle, and said `What else had you to learn?'

Well, there was Mystery,' the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers, `--Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling--the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: HE taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.'

-- Alice in Wonderland
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:52 AM on January 11, 2006

I am not an artist, but I have taken an oil painting class. My teacher recommended water soluable oils and I have to say, in terms of ease of clean-up, I really like them. and no nasty smells/chemicals to deal with.
posted by j at 2:05 PM on January 11, 2006

How the heck can oil paints be water soluble? You thinking of acrylics, perhaps?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:12 PM on January 11, 2006

How the heck can oil paints be water soluble?

they have soap added into them. that allows water to mix with the oil. they have deep color and long drying times just like regular oil paints.

oil painting is an industrial chemical operation. don't attempt it unless you have a well ventilated studio. if you do it in your house, your entire house is going to become a toxic cancer factory.
posted by 3.2.3 at 6:39 PM on January 11, 2006

About's webpage on water soluble oils.
posted by j at 8:26 PM on January 11, 2006

I'd personally recommend acrylics before oils. Acrylics allow a lot of the same texturing effects as oils and they are far, far easier to deal with. Water soluble, no toxic vapors, you can actually live in the room you paint in.

Continuing my theme of laziness, I used to build frames and stretch and gesso canvas. Then I found canvas paper. You can buy it at the art store, it's not more than about $1 per sheet for even fairly large sizes, and it doesn't require any prep work. You wouldn't use it for your masterpiece, but it lets you spend a lot less time prepping and a lot more time painting.
posted by bjrubble at 9:05 PM on January 11, 2006

also, i don't agree about cheap grades of gesso. high quality gesso dries harder, like freaking rock hard, which allows you to sand it with fine grain sandpaper and get a surface to your liking (rough, pebbled, or slickity). cheap gesso just comes off in peels when sanded leaving dents in the surface. high qualiy gesso also has more titanium pigment, making a much brighter white where that might be required.

there's also black and other color of gesso for applications where that might be advantageous.

a gallon bucket of high quality gesso is not that much more expensive than the crap quality and lasts a pretty daggone long time unless you are prepping stupendous three story tall studio sized canvases (which take forever to sand anyway).
posted by 3.2.3 at 12:03 PM on January 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

You can learn a lot about how to organize your approach to a painting by looking at (and trying) digital painting. Many principles cross over.

Here are some great resources

The 700+ page long Speedpaint thread at Sijun.com forum

Craig Mullins web site

Linda Bergqvist web site

For me it's all about organizing your thoughts on how to paint a subject, rezzing up from simple to complex (divide and conquer), getting the values right in order to reveal form, recognizing color and learning how to mix it, understanding and controlling your hierarchy of edges (soft to hard)

If you can practice a lot of this digitally, the concepts will translate to oil.
posted by jfrancis at 12:19 PM on January 15, 2006

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