For those who have never considered learning to paint, it can feel like the art of painting is merely a case of slapping oil paints onto an empty canvas and making something pretty out of it. However, those who have any experience of oil painting at all – whether you are a total beginner or a pro – know that this is not true.
Because painting, just like playing music or writing, requires a lot of skill, practice, and knowledge. And it requires a knowledge of techniques that are specific to the medium in which you are working.
Therefore, painters who work with oil paint need to do quite different things than people who work with watercolour. And both of these will use different techniques to those who work primarily with tempera or acrylic paint.
The world of painting is not monolithic. It ain’t the same across the board, across different painting mediums, or across styles. Rather, each type of paint requires different techniques – as each behaves differently, produces colour differently, and requires different maintenance and preparation.
Here, we are going to be looking at the painting techniques specific to oil painting. Because this most popular of painting media is also one of the most complex to master.
What Makes Oil Paint So Special?
Oil paint is a specific sort of paint in which the colour pigments are suspended in slow-drying oils. These oils are usually made of linseed and sometimes even walnut. This means that the paint is much more easily controlled than something like watercolour – which is much more viscous and can run.
It has been popular with painters across the centuries because of this fact – and because it has a much greater colour saturation, meaning that the colours it produces are richer and more vivid. The paints too are opaque – meaning that, when applied thickly, you cannot see through to the support onto which they are applied.
Given its long drying time – which can stretch to years, depending on the colour and the thickness of application – it can also be manipulated over time. This means that artists can change and correct their work without having to reapply paint.
Compare all this to watercolour painting, say. This is translucent – meaning that the colours applied first can often be seen through the later paints – and it is much more difficult to control than oil. Meanwhile, it dries dead quickly. You can see then that different techniques might be required.
Let’s have a look at what these might be.
The Basic Oil Painting Techniques You Need to Know
When you are starting out in learning how to paint with oil, there are a few things that you really do need to know. Because without these fundamental techniques, your painting on canvas won’t stay on the canvas for long.
Oil paints crack, they flake, and they darken – depending on how you apply the paint. And, unfortunately, this doesn’t produce a hugely good-looking artwork at the end of things.
So, before we look at some of the different kinds of brushstrokes, let’s look at what you need to do before you even go near the paint at all. These are the most basic painting techniques you need to know.
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Preparing Your Canvas
Before anything else that happens with your oil paintings, you need to know how to prepare your canvas – and how to choose it too.
Because there are plenty of options when it comes to purchasing canvases. These, primarily, are stretched canvases, canvas boards, and canvas paper. Whilst the stretched canvases are those that are pulled around a timber frame, canvas boards are linen or cotton canvases placed on top of cardboard.
Canvas paper, meanwhile, usually comes in pads of paper that does not warp under the paint.
Priming Your Canvas
Most of these are bought pre-primed. However, you need to ensure that this is the case for the canvas you buy. If the canvases are not primed, then you need to do it – otherwise, with application of paint, the canvas itself will rot.
Priming is done with a type of paint known as gesso, which seals the fibres of the canvas, preventing this rot. If you are doing this yourself, you’ll need to do it in layers.
Getting the Right Thickness of Paint
So, your canvas is primed and ready to go. But now you need to prepare your paints too. Because, unfortunately, it is quite unlikely that you are going to want to use them straight out of the box.
It’s more likely that you will want to thin them first. And the skill that you will learn here is actually the same one that you will use to clean your paint brushes.
Because there’s one thing we know about oil, no? It doesn’t like water. So, cleaning your brushes in water just ain’t gonna work. You need something else.
Oils and Spirits
What you’ll want to use to thin your paint are spirits and oils – and it is best to use both as an excess of either can be destructive for your painting.
The sort of spirits you want are known as ‘artists’ white spirit’, which is a spirit with the more noxious chemicals removed (it replaced turpentine a little while back). Meanwhile, you can add more linseed oil or poppy seed oil to the paint to make it thinner too.
Your white spirit will clean your brush too.
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Applying the Paint: the Fundamental Principles
Now we’re at the point at which we can start painting. But how are we going to do this? Knowing that oil is a difficult medium to use, surely there are some rules for this too, no?
Of course there are. And whilst the best painting practice will take all of these incredibly seriously, it is not the end of the world if you get it slightly wrong. You’ll learn with practice.
Underpainting: the Baselayer
The principle of underlaying is that, sometimes, you don’t want to be staring at a sheet of white. There’s nothing to help creative block than an empty space you need to fill.
Underpainting is what most artists do with their canvas. This involves covering the canvas with a neutral tone before beginning to paint properly. This also has the benefit of letting you more clearly see tonal values.
Fat over Lean
When painting with oil, there are two ‘laws’ that prevent your paint on your canvas from cracking as it dries. The first one is this: ‘fat over lean’.
This refers to the amount of oil that is present in the paint: fat means that there is lots of oil, whilst lean means that it has been thinned with spirit or solvent.
Ensure that your early coats on the canvas are leaner than those on top – as the fatter the paint the slower it dries. You don’t want the top layers to be drying more quickly than the lower ones.
Thick over Thin
The second law is ‘thick over thin’, for exactly the same reason. Begin with thin layers of paint, as these will dry more quickly – and you go for much thicker layers later on.
Honestly, it is better this way. Because if your lower layers dry slowly, your whole painting is going to crack.
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Techniques to Enhance Your Oil Painting
With these basic techniques of oil painting covered, let’s move on to some of the more advanced techniques – or those that will give you a style all of your own.
These are some techniques that you can use with oil paint. However, there are many more!
Blending is the technique with which you gently mix two paints that are adjacent on your canvas to give the image a smoother effect. It is often used for distant elements in landscape painting for a ‘realistic’ sense.
Glazing is when you use very thin, transparent layers of paint – on top of thicker, opaque layers that have been let to dry.
We know that oil dries very slowly, so this can be quite time-consuming. However, the effect it produces is wonderful.
Impasto is the use of thick oil paint, purposely left thick. It has a nice textural effect in which the brushstrokes and knife marks are visible.
Alla Prima – or Wet on Wet
Wet on wet is a fairly self-explanatory sort of title. It refers to the process by which you apply wet paint onto previous layers of paint that has not yet dried.
Using the Palette Knife
Your paint brush isn’t the only tool that you can use on your canvas, remember. Your palette knife, usually used for mixing, can create cool effects on your canvas too.
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