Oil Painting: Where To Start

Every human on the planet has an artist within just waiting to be released.  Every time you doodle with a pencil, or spread paint on a wall or redecorate a room, you are encouraging the artist within.  It doesn’t matter how old you are or what talent you think you have or don’t have: each of us expresses our artistic flair in thousands of different ways each day of our life.  Sometimes it is as simple as re-arranging tools in a garage, or getting a new paint job on an old car.  The point is we each express our creative self in many ways;  and one way is oil painting.  The challenge for the novice is to know where to start.  Doesn’t learning how to paint require a major money investment for art education and supplies?

You might ask yourself just how do you go about teaching Art?  It is like saying you are going to teach creativity (Oxymoron).  You are already creative, so about all you can achieve from a formal art education is a handful of techniques and a credential proclaiming your expertise (or at the very least that you attended a school).  Learning oil painting happens on the canvas by doing and what you need to learn in the way of techniques can be found free on the net or in a library.  What you need to be cautious of on the net is getting involved with Artist forums.  You might pick up a few techniques but mostly you will be picked apart for even daring to think that you can just pick up a paint brush and paint.  What you need to understand is that most of what you will learn on these forums is how to spend money on expensive brushes, paints and canvas which is not necessary in order to produce a quality oil painting.  The most amount of money involved in oil painting is made by selling art supplies to the naive oil painting novice.

A painting can be done in a variety of mediums, including oil, acrylics or water color.  Acrylic is really a modern alternative to oils and has its own unique properties.  It dries much quicker than oil paint and is water soluble.  This makes cleaning up much easier but it also means that it is less forgiving if you want to make changes (Oil based paint is slightly more expensive than acrylic paint). My  personal preference is to use oil but either medium will allow you to produce a quality painting.  Both oil and acrylic are typically painted on a canvas surface, but both can be used on painting boards such as compressed hard board or hardwood plywood.  Both canvas and board should be primed with Gesso prior to applying paint.  There is some controversy as to the use of Gesso (the modern form is an acrylic base) under oil.  However, the controversy surrounds the possibility that oil may (this is not absolute) delaminate from the Gesso after 20 or 30 years.  This may be an important issue for the professional artist who is selling her or his work for thousands of dollars.  Should you be concerned about this issue?  Your creation is also susceptible to fire, do you want to spray it with a fire retardant?  The whole issue is a non issue for most of us ordinary folks.  Leave that worry to the egotist artist.

Pre-primed canvas is readily available from any Wall Mart store and does not need to be covered with Gesso (the primer has an acrylic base). Start with 14 x 18 canvas, anything bigger is going to be too intimidating. After a few paintings go up in size to 16 x 20, then 20 x 24 and when you are feeling really confident try 24 x 30.  These larger canvases and boards take a lot of paint so to keep cost down make sure you plan your painting on actual size paper.  You can use news print paper, but I have found that poster board makes a better planning surface.The best art box for containing your paint and brushes is the rubber maid boxes that have lids which overlap the edge.  These are great for keeping out rain  and are really inexpensive.  If you find yourself purchasing a fancy wooden art box you have just thrown money down the toilet. A very good pallet is glass but difficult to use outside.  A thin bamboo cutting board makes an excellent pallet and is really inexpensive.

There is an odd ball sort of problem that I have run into with the paint tubes.  You will notice this problem with White, but it exists for all the colors.  When you unscrew the cap on the tube, over time a grey residue begins to form around the end of the tube and can distort the color.  I have not yet found a good solution, but what you can do is keep a clean cloth available, dampened with mineral spirits, to wipe the end of the tube.  The residue comes directly from the material that is used to make the tube (a sort of soft metal). It is not necessary to use thick coats of paint.  In fact you are going to get a much cleaner painting if you stick to thin application of the paint.  It may be necessary to wait for applications to dry, but in the end the painting will look much better when seen up close.

Keep a good supply of Qtips tips ready for cleaning up errors.  Dampen the Qtips tip with mineral spirit and wipe off the error.  If you have to much mineral spirit on the Qtip you can make the problem worse.  Use a dry Qtip to finish up the correction.  After a painting is finished you will want to give it a light coat of Krylon Kamar spray varnish.  This protects the painting from yellowing.

Art Supplies For The Beginner

The primary ongoing cost of supplies is of course paint and brushes.  You will find a wide variety of costs, however the adage “you get what you pay for” does not always apply when it comes to art supplies, this is especially true for brushes.  Brushes are so varied that there is no simple way to say one product is bad and another is good.  You can pay 15 dollars for a brush and it still may fail.  Paints are easier to judge and come in two major categories: student level and professional level.  Unless you are already skilled, have a patronage foaming at the mouth to purchase your latest creation, there is no reason to use professional paint.  Grumbacher makes and excellent student grade paint called Academy. Winton oils are also an excellent choice for the beginner. The prices range from 5 to 12 dollars a tube and if purchased on line you can find some really great prices.  You can get twice the amount of paint for the same price you would pay at your local art and craft store.


The basic colors you need to get started should include the following:

Titanium white  (Do not use the fast dry type.)
Prussian Blue
Cadmium Red
Viridian Green
Light Green
Cadmium Yellow
Yellow Ochre
Burnt Sienna
Burnt Umber
Raw Umber
Payne’s Grey


*Note: You will use white more than any other color.  Therefore you need to purchase the largest tube of white you can find.

One problem you will encounter with the tubes of paint is that a residue of the tube material (metal) will discolor some of the paint, especially the white.  It has a silver gray appearance. I have not yet found a good solution, but what you can do is keep a clean cloth available, dampened with mineral spirits, to wipe the end of the tube.  The residue comes directly from the material that is used to make the tube (a sort of soft metal).


This is a tough issue because the brush size really depend on the size of the painting.  However, since your first painting is likely to be on a Wal Mart 14 x 18  pre-primed canvas any brush over one inch wide is overkill.  The real issue is the hardness of bristle.  Natural bristle is very hard and not all that useful, unless you are planning to paint your house.  Synthetic bristles are just fine for starting and you can usually purchase them for under 6 dollars each.  The following picture is my arsenal of brushes (the quarter is useful for judging relative size).  Smokes and ash tray are optional.

Except for the fan brushes these are all relatively soft bristle.  Don’t hesitate to use a water color brush if that will get you the result you want.  All too often the new artist thinks they have to use proscribed tools and procedures.  This is Art: there are no rules!  If painting with the end of your index finger does the job, then use it.  Notice that the palate knife is metal and not plastic.  You will find that the plastic ones are impossible to clean properly.  And you will need a metal paint scraper to keep your palate clean.

You have to become obsessive about cleaning the brushes.  The best cleaner and thinner is odorless mineral spirits.  You can purchase nearly a quart of it at Wal Mart for under 7 dollars.  Notice that little glass jar behind the paints?  That is what I use to hold the mineral spirits while I paint.  This has to be cleaned often, because the residue that builds up in the jar will eventually stick to your brush and discolor the next paint you use.  Many artists use linseed or walnut oil to thin the paint.  I prefer using mineral spirits for thinning paint as well as cleaning brushes.  If you do purchase linseed oil do not use it on the color blue, it will yellow the paint.  Avoid turpentine, it is hard to use and the odor in a closed room will cause injury to your lungs.

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