Discover More Classes in Painting

Explore thousands of classes in painting, watercolor, and more.

There’s a certain old-school cachet associated with oil painting, largely because the medium was used and popularized by many European Renaissance masters. But, that doesn’t mean oil paints can’t be used for fresh, contemporary art, or that artists should feel intimidated by them. In fact, they’re one of the most popular types of paint because they’re so rich and versatile. 

If you’re looking to add further depth and technique to your art, follow these steps tailored to oil painting for beginners. 

How to Oil Paint in 5 Steps

First things first: What are oil paints? Oil paints are made of pigment powder and oil, usually linseed oil. They take longer to dry than most other paints and require special care when using and cleaning. Here are the five steps you should follow when beginning oil painting. 

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

To create an oil painting you’ll need oil paints, brushes, canvas, and a few other supplies.
To create an oil painting you’ll need oil paints, brushes, canvas, and a few other supplies.

To get started with oil painting you’ll need the following supplies:

  • Paintbrushes made from hog hair (preferable) or synthetic fibers
  • Oil paints
  • Canvas or another surface to paint on
  • Solvent (preferably odorless) and/or linseed oil, to thin your paints
  • A palette to mix your paints on, such as a piece of thick card, and a palette knife for mixing (don’t use your brushes themselves)
  • Paper towels and/or old rags
  • An easel

When beginning oil painting, start with just a few basic colors. This will allow you to experiment more with color mixing, which will give you a good feel for oil paints’ qualities. Start with the primary colors plus white and black, and add others once you’ve mastered the oil painting basics. Starter sets provide a good range for beginner oil painters. 

Most quality paint brushes will specify whether they’re suitable for oil painting. As with paints, you can get a starter set or choose individual brushes. Gather a combination of round, square, and fan shapes in different sizes. Like with paints, it’s a good idea to start with a smaller collection and then add to it once you’ve had a chance to experiment.

The best surface for oil painting is a stretched canvas or canvas board. Whichever surface you choose, you will need to prep it with gesso (see Step 3, below).

Step 2: Set up a Safe Work Space

Set up your workspace properly so you have the freedom to focus on creating with oil paints.
Set up your workspace properly so you have the freedom to focus on creating with oil paints.

Some people are under the impression that you can’t do oil painting at home. This isn’t true, but you do need to take care. Oil paints themselves can have a strong smell, and the solvents needed to thin the paint and clean your brushes are toxic. Find a spot outdoors or in a room with lots of ventilation. The use of latex or nitrile gloves is also advisable when handling paints, as some contain dangerous chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin.

Step 3: Prime Your Canvas

It’s important to prime the canvas properly for the paint to stick and to prevent problems later on.
It’s important to prime the canvas properly for the paint to stick and to prevent problems later on.

When learning how to paint oil on canvas, there’s an important step you shouldn’t skip. Oil paint is thick, and the oils will seep into your canvas or other surface if you don’t apply gesso first. Not only does this affect the look of your finished artwork, it can also lead to the degradation of the canvas over time. Gesso also helps the paint go onto the surface more easily.

Some canvases and boards are pre-primed with gesso, but if not, you’ll need to do this yourself. Gesso is a mixture of chalk, gypsum, and pigment, and it comes in acrylic or rabbit-skin glue varieties. Gesso takes about an hour to dry, and you typically need two coats.

Step 4: Outline Your Painting

Roughly sketch your subject on the canvas in a single color before adding layers of oil paint.
Roughly sketch your subject on the canvas in a single color before adding layers of oil paint.

After preparing your canvas, you’re ready to start the oil painting process. It’s common for artists using oil paints to begin by covering the canvas in a thin wash of the color that will be the base of the painting. Then, they roughly sketch the dominant shapes, lines, and focal points onto the canvas in pencil or a light coat of black paint.

With that done, you’re ready to mix some colors. Apply color mixing principles to oil paints as you would to other types of pigment. You can thin your paint to give a different effect by adding solvent or linseed oil to the paint from the tube.

Step 5: Layer Your Paints

Thicker, oiler paint takes longer to dry than thinner paint, so it’s important to layer properly.
Thicker, oiler paint takes longer to dry than thinner paint, so it’s important to layer properly.

After prepping your painting, you’ll need to build up the paint and color. One of the oil painting basics is to follow the “fat over lean” rule. This prevents oil paint from cracking once dry (or taking forever to dry in the first place). The oilier the paint, the “fatter” it is, and the longer it will take to dry. So, you’ll always want to apply leaner (thinner) paints first, beneath the fatter (oilier) layers, to prevent cracking. How long does oil paint take to dry? That depends on how thick it is, but it can take three months or longer.

Learn How to Use This Versatile Medium

Introduction to Oil Painting by Ashleigh Atmore

How to Clean Oil Paint Brushes

Learning how to paint oil on canvas is only one step in the oil painting process. It’s important to know how to clean up, too.

Because oil paints are made from, well, oil, you can’t just wash them off your brushes with water. Oil paint shouldn’t be allowed to dry on your brushes as this will ruin them. 

Step 1: Wipe off Excess Paint with a Rag and Solvent

When using oil paints, it’s important to clean brushes with the right chemicals to avoid ruining them.
When using oil paints, it’s important to clean brushes with the right chemicals to avoid ruining them.

To make the washing process easier, wipe excess paint from your paint brushes with an old rag or a paper towel. Next, add turpentine or another solvent to a cloth to remove all traces of paint.

Before throwing rags or towels out, soak them in water because the chemicals that have been applied to them could cause them to combust.

Step 2: Wash With Warm Water and Detergent

Looking after your brushes properly will mean they last much longer.
Looking after your brushes properly will mean they last much longer.

Next, run your brushes under some warm water and rub with a little dishwashing detergent. Make sure that all paint is gone before you stop washing.

Step 3: Dry in the Open Air

Your oil paint brushes can even be a good subject for an oil painting!
Your oil paint brushes can even be a good subject for an oil painting!

Place your brushes in a jar, bristle end up, in a place with good air circulation, such as a windowsill. Don’t put them in a dark cupboard.

5 More Tips for Oil Painting

Once you know the oil painting basics, you can get practicing with different brushes, colors, and painting techniques.
Once you know the oil painting basics, you can get practicing with different brushes, colors, and painting techniques.

Here, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions about how to oil paint.

1. Is Oil Painting for Beginners? 

It definitely can be! You just need to understand the oil painting basics, as the medium has some different qualities to other types of paint.

2. Do You Need to Add Oil to Oil Paint? 

Only if you want to make the paint more fluid. Oil paint is most stable directly from the tube, but if you want to experiment with texture then you can add more oil, or thinning solvents, to the paint. Be aware that this can weaken the paint, though.

3. Can I Add Water to Oil Paint? 

No. The water and oil will separate and you won’t be able to use the paint.

4. How Long Does Oil Paint Take to Dry? 

Up to three months. Because of oil paint’s slow drying time, you will probably need to work on your paintings in several sittings. But that’s part of the process, so enjoy!

5. Do I Need Special Equipment for Oil Painting?

Aside from the items listed above, not really. If you’re completely new to painting, then you may need to invest in a few basic pieces of painting equipment, like palettes and an easel. If you’ve been using other types of paint for a while, you will already have much of it.