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How to Work With Oil Paints

How to Work With Oil Paints main article image
Posted on July 22, 2022 by Lyndsey Drooby

When you think of oil painting, it is a fantastic type of paint that was the go-to for many Renaissance painters to create rich and detailed pieces. Oil paint, as we traditionally see in these world-famous paintings, can be a painting method to create a modern piece with a luxurious feel. Anyone looking to try out oil paints should not feel intimidated by them, because yes, there is a bit of prep and added supplies needed for oil painting. Instead, think of the medium as a vivid and versatile tool that produces a completely different look that acrylics or other paints don’t yield in creating. 

Let’s get into the meat and bones of the art of oil painting. 

What Are Oil Paints?

Oil paints are made of pigment powder and oil. The oil is most likely linseed oil. Since oil is an ingredient, the paints take longer to dry and demand special care and treatment when using and cleaning. 

How to Oil Paint

To begin, you will need to gather up your materials:

  • Paintbrushes – oil painting works well with natural hair paintbrushes like hog hair or for synthetic-friendly brushes, there are alternatives. 
  • A set of oil paints, or a few tubes of colors you want to try
  • A prepared canvas or surface to work on 
  • A solvent (preferably an odorless solution) or you can use linseed oil to thin out the paints
  • A palette to mix the paints
  • Paper towels or rags
  • An easel

When experimenting, start with a few basic colors to get the idea of working with a concentrated paint. You may want to try a few different tubes rather than going all in and purchasing a full set of paints. With your limited colors, you can also experiment with mixing the colors and get an idea of the different qualities oil paint has to offer. Start out with primary colors as well as black and white to expand on different monochromatic tones as a chance at creating tone and shadows. 

Brushes will indicate which paint they are made for and purchase the kind you prefer. Some brushes are still made with natural fibers, but some feel comfortable using synthetic fibers, which can be easier to find anyway. Get a few different styles from rounded, flat, and fanned. Once you get the hang of oil painting, you can add more brushes to your collection. 

The surface best for oil painting is a stretched canvas or a canvas board. There is a whole process of prepping your own canvas which can start with building your own frame, stapling the canvas, and prepping the surface with gesso. Alternatively, there are pre-gessoed and prepped canvases you can already purchase that will eliminate all that prep work. 

Building and prepping your own canvas works well if you’re doing a commissioned job or something specific enough that it requires to be a certain size or other reasons. 

Set Up a Work Space

Setting up a space for oil painting takes some care and planning. The paints themselves have a strong smell and if you’re working with solvents or linseed oil to thin out the paints or clean brushes, you will need a ventilated area. You can also set up outside. Another suggestion is to use latex or another type of safety glove when handling the paints and chemicals. 

About the Canvas

Oil paint is very thick, that is why a canvas needs to be prepped. If you make your own canvas, gesso needs to be applied. Gesso helps keep the paint looking even and prevents it from soaking through the canvas completely. Gesso is a mix of chalk, gypsum, and pigment. It acts like a glue or white base to add a protective seal on the canvas before paint can touch it. Gesso takes about an hour to fully dry after applying two coats.

Of course, time and energy can be saved with a pre-gessoed canvas which are widely available in craft stores. 

Starting to Paint

It is a common practice to cover the canvas in a thin layer or a wash of color that will consist of being the base of the painting. After drying, sketch out the main shapes or subjects you are painting. Consider the lines and focal points. 

When you’re ready to paint, add paint to a palette and apply solvent or linseed oil and mix together to test out the different thicknesses of the paint. You may notice the thicker the paint, the more opaque of an effect you get. The thinner the paint, the softer the effect. Also, this stretches the paint out and you’ll realize you don’t need to use as much paint. 

Further, thicker paint takes longer to try and will also crack if you have painted globules onto the canvas. 

Oil paints take around 24 hours to feel dry to the touch but to fully dry, might take a few days or longer. 

Cleaning Up

Cleaning up after painting is another process. Since the paints are made of oil, you can’t wash them simply with water. The paint should not be left to dry on the bristles as it will obviously ruin the brush, so wipe off the excess paint first with a rag or towel. To clean brushes, you need turpentine applied to a rag to remove any trace of paint. If you don’t have turpentine, there are other solvents on the market to use that are meant for removing oil paint. 

A note of safety: before throwing away any used rags or towels, soak them in water before disposing. These chemicals are known to combust. 

To continue cleaning, run the brushes under warm water and use a grease-fighting dish detergent. Make sure all paint is removed. Place the brushes after washing into a jar or container that will allow them to dry upright with good air circulation. 

Oil painting is a great medium for any painter looking to try something different. It takes some time and care, and since the drying takes a bit longer, you can take your time with painting the details until you’re completely finished. 

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How to Work With Oil Paints

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