For the longest time, I had been intimidated of oil paints, thinking they were too complex and it was too difficult to control them. I bought my first set of oil paints back in 2015, but didn’t paint my first oil painting till 2022! I believe to learn a new medium, you have to be gentle, spend time with the medium, “listen” to it and observe how it wants to behave. You need to embrace it for its uniqueness and not try to make it act like another medium that you love.
I've talked a lot about acrylic painting, and taught it extensively, but this is the first time I'm talking about what I've learnt while learning to oil paint.
[Btw, if you're an acrylic painter, download my free ebook - "My Personal Top 10 tips for Acrylic Painting]
In the last one year, I painted more than 50 oil paintings, including a few studies and that has helped me become better. In this post I’ll go through some tips that would have helped me when I started this journey, and hopefully will help you if you are just starting to play with oil paints.
1. Stop expecting oil paints to act like acrylic paints.
Most artists (including me till a couple of years ago) think that they need to “graduate” to oils from acrylics. That is not the case, as I’ve learnt. I assumed oil paints would be exactly like acrylic paints, with more vibrant colours. The only compromise would be the significantly higher drying time. I sort of saw the higher drying time as a punishment or something you had to work through in order to get those more vibrant colours. And so I would look for oil paints that dried the fastest! The lesson I learnt as I got to know oil paints better was that they are nothing like acrylic paints. They both have their place, their roles and their strengths and weaknesses, and only when I let go of the comparison did I slowly start to get better at oils.
2. Mineral Spirits will thin the oil paint, mediums will make them more fluid.
Yes, I know that’s confusing. What’s the difference between thin and fluid!? It took me a while to get a hang of this, but in simpler terms, mineral spirits (or paint thinner) will thin the paint the way water will thin out acrylics. Paints will lose vibrance as you add more and more thinner, to the point that the pigments will almost break down on the canvas and peel off. Typically, the base layers of paintings will be made with paint thinned down by mineral spirits, and you’ll see they dry super-fast! Mediums on the other hand, like Linseed oil, Alkyd etc. will keep the paint thick, but make them wet or flowy enough to easily spread on the canvas. But adding too much medium will lead to transparent layers and unsaturated colours. So maintain a balance!
3. Always paint thin to thick.
Typically the first few layers of a painting should be made with more paint thinner, and less paint. The middle layers which go on top of wet first layers should consist of paint and a medium. And the final layers will only stay on the canvas if you use minimal mixers and use almost pure oil paint. This technique of painting wet-on-wet paintings is called painting thin to thick.
Remember this cheat code:
Unless you follow this, you’ll find it’s extremely difficult to get layers over one another. Try putting a thin layer over a thick one, and you’ll end up with mud on the canvas. (Had to do it to know it!)
4. Finish your first few oil paintings in one session each. (Alla Prima)
When we think of oil paintings, we automatically think of stretching a painting to over months and months. A lot of people don’t work in oils because they like to “work fast”! I thought so too, but let me tell you. I’ve found that I have to work faster when I’m working with oils. Don’t believe it? Let me explain. The whole beauty of oils is in their ability to get moulded on the canvas. The fluidity and malleability of oils make them what they are. So it’s great to try and do that in your first few paintings. You’ll learn so much more! Try to paint Alla Prima (or wet-on-wet), and learn to manipulate the paint after you’ve already put them down on the canvas and see the magic that happens. As long as you follow the
5. Learn Colour Theory!!
I cannot stress this enough. Learning colour theory is like learning magic! You’ll understand why things look like they’re at a distance. You’ll learn that things which seem blue are actually purple? You’ll learn how to paint sunlight. Really! It is magic and it’ll change your art world. (Okay that was a lot of words, but I promise it’ll be worth it). Very soon I’ll make a blog post about everything I know about colour theory, hope that’ll be helpful 🙂
Let me know if these tips help you! And if you have any tips of your own, leave them in the comments below, so we can all grow and learn :)