An Introductory Guide to Oil Painting

Plus, how to use pigments in the making of your own masterpiece.

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woman holding paint palette
Photo: valentinrussanov / Getty Images

Oil painting is a centuries-old medium that has prominent display in museums and galleries, so why do so many painters hesitate to try it? Daunted by premium-grade supplies or the thought of using harsh chemicals is oftentimes enough, prompting a redirection to watercolor or acrylics. But techniques of the old masters inspired a new way, says Kimberly Brooks, an artist and teacher based in Los Angeles whose paintings have been exhibited around the globe. "Already an avid artist who had worked with pencil, pen, and watercolor and had dabbled in acrylics, I was initially hesitant to use the medium for two reasons," she says. "First, I put it on a pedestal, as if one needed special permission to try it. Second, I knew it involved materials that were somehow dangerous. But I couldn't resist and did it anyway. And as soon as I did, I knew that I would be using this medium for the rest of my life."

What she discovered was that the traditionally used driers, resins, and solvents are unnecessary. Solvents thin the viscosity of the paint, thereby inhibiting the oxidation process that results in drying. All solvents, including turpentine, paint thinner, mineral spirits, and varnish, emit toxic VOCs as they dry, which, when inhaled, can cause serious health concerns and illnesses. In her upcoming book, The New Oil Painting: Your Essential Guide to Materials and Safe Practices ($16.95,, Brooks walks you step‐by‐step through the fundamentals including supplies, how to set up your painting space, and—most revolutionary of all—how to remove these harmful solvents from your practice. "Too many oil painters don't really know much about the materials they're using or why they're using them," she says. "They assume they need paint, canvas, linseed oil, and some kind of solvent to thin the paint. Too often, selecting the right materials is a hit-or-miss proposition."

By teaching the chemistry and properties of pigments, Brooks helps her student artists adopt a solvent-free method when painting. For a lesson, we tapped Brooks for her expertise on how to craft your first masterpiece.

Tools and Materials

While perusing brightly colored tubes of paint is tempting, Brooks suggests limiting your supplies to a simplified palette of paints, canvas, palette knife, and a set of brushes. "Make the chip brushes your friend," she adds. "I buy them by the bulk at the hardware store." Start your painting session with larger brushes, then go smaller as you refine the details. Brooks explains that will understand fluency (a student's ability to creatively express their own ideas) through your brushes as you use each type. When purchasing paints, know that there are student grade, artist grade, and premium. A standard set she recommends is the Van Gogh Oil Color Paint Starter Set ($17.53, on a pre-stretched cotton canvas no smaller than 12 by 16 inches ($19.49, And, of course, Brooks suggests setting up an art studio at home. You can start with just an easel like the Creative Mark Renoir Large Table Top Art Easel ($64.79, and a nearby table to set your palette, brushes, and paints on. "Or, like me, you can skip the easel entirely: I hang canvases or panels directly on the wall instead," she says. "Not only does it save space, but it also allows me to paint more with my body, always moving backward and forward."

Understanding Oil Paints

Paint has three main components: pigment, binder, and additives. Each pigment falls on a scale between transparent (see-through) and opaque (fully covering, or not see-through). These commonly used pigments have historical significance—Lapis Lazuli to Egyptians, Verdigris to Greeks—in addition to modern ones like Azo, Phthalocyanine Blue, and Titanium White. "The pigments in paints are the same regardless of medium," adds Brooks, "whether oil, watercolor, gouache, pastel, or acrylic."

The Fundamentals

Oil painters know the expression "light over dark" and repeat it in their heads as if it were a sacred mantra. When approaching a painting, start with the shadows or darkest areas first. Darker paints tend to be leaner and have less oil, and they can be applied more thinly than their lighter, fattier counterparts. Even in the case of an abstract, work on the darkest areas first. Then, either going in wet-on-wet or after each layer dries, slowly build up the color from darkest to lightest. The painting will come alive. "If you're painting a face, find the planes and shadows of the head, and slowly work toward the refinement of features last," she says. "If you're depicting a landscape, start with the sky, and slowly progress toward you, painting the closest elements last."

Opaque colors more easily obscure underlying colors. They are great for several techniques including scumbling (which means either putting a lighter color over darker colors or blending pigments together with a dry brush), alla prima painting (wherein an artist makes a painting in one sitting) as well as grisaille (wherein an artist creates a monochromatic form as an underpainting). Opaque pigments are also used for creating large, flat areas of color. These colors can be made by mixing pigments together, as long as at least one of them is opaque. In oil painting, white deserves special inclusion in your palette as colors are often mixed with it—try commonly used ones like Lead White, Zinc White, and Titanium White.

Meanwhile, transparent colors feel oilier and are ideal for glazing colors on top of a lighter background. Transparent colors mixed together, but not mixed with any opaque colors, tend to darken and collapse into one another. The effect is like laying colored sheets of glass on top of one another, eventually turning the resulting color into something resembling black. Black paint was once an integral part of a classical painter's palette, but the 19th-century impressionists all but banned it from their palettes in favor of capturing shadows and light as they are actually created—as variations on the natural refractions and combinations of the visible color spectrum. Nonetheless, there are the common black pigments out of the tube, should you choose to use them: Vantablack, Torrit Grey, Mars Black, Van Dyke Brown.

"If I were in charge of introducing people to oil painting," says Brooks, "aside from making them stop using solvents, I would encourage first-time painters to start with one dark, neutral color and white to help them focus on articulating form and dimension."

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