Oil Painting - The Basics

So as most of you have hopefully figured out I LOVE painting, and I especially love oil painting. I was doing a post about DIY oil painting back during December and I realized that the amount of instruction necessary for someone who has never oil painted before is pretty much endless, and that it was impossible to give it all in that one DIY post. So for today I have prepared a post about oil painting basics, to introduce new oil painters to the medium and necessary materials. This is a LONG post so bring some snacks or something and take frequent breaks if you need it.

*Please note that I am not a professional oil painter and by no means know EVERYTHING there is to know about oils, but I was taught by one of the best last spring- I participated in an intensive mentorship with a local professional artist who worked only with oils. I received a lot of training then, and that is mainly what I base my painting off now. I also take art classes at school ( I am in painting this year, and I took freehand drawing last year). So yeah, there is my training if you were wondering :)

So the first step of oil painting is to understand necessary materials. There are A LOT of materials you need to oil paint. So I am going to do my best to explain each on and how it's used, then dive into choosing paints, setting up your palette, choosing brushes, and prepping a canvas.

When oil painting, the first thing you want to get ready is yourself. Lay out everything in a comfortable area that you are ok with spending a while in. Don't try to force yourself to paint in a place you aren't comfortable. If you prefer to sit on the floor, prop you painting against a wall and sit on the floor. If you want to sit on a desk, situate yourself comfortably at a desk. Lay everything out close to you, don't make yourself to get up and go get stuff in the middle of a creative process. Turn on your favorite playlist and wear nice, comfy clothes. If you are a person with long hair, like me, I highly recommend putting you hair into a bun or braiding it or something before you start. I have gotten paint in my hair before and it's not a great experience. An apron is something it's good to consider wearing, or also an old T-shirt works too. When working with oils, it is very important to wear gloves. Some paints can have poisonous materials, and you really don't want to get them on your hands.

After you are situated, one of the first materials you need to consider is terpenoid. Terpenoid is essentially the thing you dip your brush in to clean it off, like water would be for water colors, except that oil and water don't mix. The brand of Terpenoid is 'ordorless', but it does give off a pretty strong smell so that, if you have a sensitive nose like me, it can get annoying pretty fast, and also is not good to inhale for long periods of time. Make it a rule- when you open terpenoid, open a window. When it's time to clean a brush, swish it around in the terpenoid until all the paint is off. Dry it thoroughly on a towel before dipping it back into paint again, because terpenoid works as a paint eraser and will wipe the paint right off the canvas. This can be good though, because if you have a spot on your painting that you don't like, run your damp (with terpenoid) paintbrush over it and you will see the paint start to disappear and be absorbed into the brush. Don't get it too wet, or else it's going to get pretty watery everywhere. If that happens, lightly dab the spot with a cloth.

Terpenoid is easy to buy on amazon or a craft store, but you really don't want to have to keep buying it over and over. There is an easy way to save both your money and terpenoid. Pour a good amount into a jar. Use it for painting. Then let it sit until you paint again. When you paint again, you'll notice that the clear terpenoid will separate from the paint. Pour all the clear liquid into a new jar, and then the murky liquid into an old bottle or jar to be disposed of properly later on. Wipe out the paint on the bottom with a paper towel, and then use the new terpenoid for painting. Continually switch jars until it's time to refill! 
*Note- terpenoid cannot go down the sink. Check to see how to properly dispose of it in your area.

Linseed oil is another easy thing to buy at a craft store or online. Linseed oil is essentially something that you mix into your paint (only a little bit) to soften it up. It's non-toxic, so don't worry about smelling it (but don't eat it because duh) When using linseed oil, dip your brush in just a little bit, then gently mix into the paint you are using. Get it as soft as you like, then apply to painting. I like to pour my oil into a little cup (I think it's supposed to be a shot glass, but I personally think it works best for linseed oil) I found in a large package at the grocery store. My teacher kept hers in those little mini jam jars. Either way works fine. Keep in mind that you cannot soak rags in linseed oil, because they will spontaneously burst into flames which is not something you really want to happen. So if you spill linseed oil and have to wipe it up, treat the rag properly before disposing of it. Look up how to take care of linseed oil soaked rags if you encounter this situation.

I clean my brushes using Ivory bar soap. There are specific brush cleaners you can buy at craft stores or online to use, but Ivory bar soap has worked fine for me so far. When cleaning a brush, turn on the sink to a very gentle trickle of water, and wet the tip of the brush. Swipe it through the soap back and forth until it has lots of soap in the bristles, then rub it over you palm under the water, swiping the brush on your hand as if you're painting. Repeat until the paint is out of the brush. Sometimes a brush will stain, and that's normal.

Ok how are we doing? You still with me? If you need a break feel free to go eat some crackers or cereal or something and come back later. Ok you back? Let's do this!

All right we made it to paints! Woo hoo! The rule of thumb with oil paints is that the less ingredients it has, the better. Just like food. Oil paint is made from pigment mixed with oil as a binder. A good paint will just have a couple ingredients, so that the paint is very pure. A bad paint will have a gazillion, which means that lots of ingredients are being used as fillers, and when you mix the paint it's going to turn to what artists call mud, which essentially means yucky brown. So buying high quality paint the first time is better! If you are going to do a large section one color without mixing it at all, then go for a cheaper one, because you aren't mixing it anyways. But your base colors are better off nicer. I recommend buying a starter pack of about twelve colors, and then building off that when you feel you need more. I have Winsor & Newton paints which I ordered off Amazon, and I am very happy with them.

Next up is your palette. My art teacher taught me a very specific way to arrange a palette when painting. Every artist seems to have a different way though, so if you feel more comfortable doing it a different way then you can. But I find that this way is very effective, and works well. It is also really neat how each color has a meaning. For your palette you can use anything- a piece of paper, some palette paper, a wood palette, a plastic palette, a sheet of glass or plastic- whichever feels most comfortable for you. I am the kind of person who only wants to put out the colors necessary, but my teacher says to put out a drop of every color out on the palette, even if you think you're not going to use it, it's better to have it there than to have to interrupt your creative process to get another color out. Mix colors together using a brush or palette knife.

Paintbrushes are hard to choose- there are so many of them and in every size, color, and material. The first step when buying brushes is to locate the brushes that say oil. These are usually kind of rougher. I personally don't love the rough texture, so I like to buy ones that are for acrylic and oil, that way you get a smoother brush. I have found that there are three main types of brushes you need- filberts, fans, and rounds. When you're painting you always want to use the biggest brush possible. So when I sit down to a painting I usually end up using a fan brush, (swipe this back and forth over paint to smooth and blend) a large filbert and a small filbert ( for doing most of the painting) and a very small round (for tiny details and the signature). It's important to try out lots of brushes to get a feel for your brush style. When painting, try to only get paint on the end of the brush, not the part closer to the handle, as it makes the glue holding the hairs down less sticky.
*Note- the numbers on brushes indicate the size.

So you've got everything you need, all your materials in order, how do you start? Well, with a canvas. There are many different types of canvases to try, the main two types being canvas board and stretched canvas. Stretched canvas is canvas mounted on a wood frame, and canvas board is canvas mounted on a board. You can buy both ready made at art stores. If you are really cool then you stretch your own canvases, but that's a post for another day. I usually work with cotton stretched canvas, because it's not too expensive and I like the way it looks, but it's really your choice. 

Once you've got your canvas picked out it's time to prep it. Before you put any paint on, you need to gesso it. Putting gesso on a canvas protects the paint from eating through the canvas. You can use a gesso brush from the store, which is essentially just a brush that you might use for painting a wall, or old paintbrushes, or a foam brush. The upside to the paintbrush is the texture of the bristles, the upside to the foam brush is that there are no bristles to fall out. When gessoing, you want to do two layers. First do one horizontally, allow to dry, then do one vertically and allow to dry. If you want, you can even do a third one, which would be diagonally. Once it's dry use either a charcoal pencil or regular pencil to sketch out your painting's layout on the canvas. Keep in mind that it will NOT erase very well, so make sure your drawing is how you want it the first time. If it really gets messed up either in the painting or sketching, then you can easily gesso over it!

Once you do these steps you are all set to paint! Good job getting through all of this! Keep your eyes our for more oil painting posts, like brush techniques, mixing the right color, and other helpful stuff. I hope this was helpful, and remember, leave me comments below with any questions you may have and I will do my very best to answer. Thanks everyone!


  1. I've never tried to do anything with oil painting, but thanks for this super informative post!!

    1. Thanks- I hope it is helpful if you ever give oil painting a go!

  2. This is fantastic, thank you!!
    I just found your blog and am throughly enchanted, you definitely have yourself a new follower. :)


    1. Thanks so much Ava! I'm glad it was helpful and that you are enjoying my blog- it really warms my heart to read comments like this <3

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