So you want to paint? First off, let me begin with a brief disclaimer. I am not a world
famous artist. Yes, some of my art hangs in the households of museum curators, doctors,
and everyday people. Yes, some of it lives in about fifteen different states. By no means
am I an expert, I'm just a guy with a brush who occasionally paints. This guide isn't
intended to be a complete college painting course. It's intended to provide a brief
overview of supplies, preparations, the painting process, and cleanup. I've learned from a
few mistakes over the years, hopefully this will help prevent someone from doing the
same. Before we begin, let's start with a few rules that I like to live by.
Rule #1 - NEVER pay full price for art supplies (unless absolutely necessary). Watch the
Sunday ads in the paper (or online) and online for the major chain stores - Hobby Lobby,
Michael's, etc. they usually put brushes on sale one week, paint the next, then canvas.
The chain stores usually have a coupon in the paper for 40-50% off one item, sometimes
it's also posted online, print out and use when possible. It's always nice to get a canvas
with a coupon when you're out buying brushes or paint. Usually you can use the online
coupons more than once, if you're willing to make multiple trips to the store.
Some of the online retailers also offer pretty good sales and substantial savings, here's a
list of retails that I've used in the past:
I cannot stress seeking out savings enough, when I first started out in the art world, my
first purchase was at a chain store during a grand opening, I had a coupon for 50% off of
everything. I managed to drop several hundreds of dollars on my first trip - granted I
bought a bit more than what an absolute beginner would need but by having a coupon I
also saved several hundred dollars.
Rule #2 - DON'T be afraid to experiment. Some of my most enjoyable works started out
as experiments. Try new techniques, new strokes, mix in new materials if you want to -
you never know what you're going to get.
Rule #3 - HAVE FUN - I cannot stress this enough, years ago when I was more than a
starving artist, I stressed myself on getting things just right. That bit of perfection led to a
rough bout of insomnia and took the fun out of art. Life is way to short for that. If you're
not having fun, it's not art.
Some paints are toxic and can be hazardous to your health, please read and follow all
health precautions on paints and solvents. Additionally, thinners and solvents are
flammable, please use caution when using and take care to dispose of rags properly.
An Introduction to Oil Painting
Absolute Beginners List
Paint - Obviously the first thing you’ll need is oil paint. Just to complicate things a bit,
there are two types of Oil Paints - Traditional and Water Soluble (or Miscible) Oils.
Traditional oils are pigments mixed with oil they have been around for hundreds of years
and are not mixable with water. Most of the masterpieces hanging in museums were
painted with traditional oils.
Water soluble oils are mixable with water, however they are not water based. Some
traditional painters seem to snub them, but I've been using them for years. They have
many advantages over traditional oils, first and foremost, they're much easier to cleanup,
the drying time is a little faster over oils (think weeks, not months), and anyone who is
allergic to the solvents used with traditional oils won't be affected by water soluble oils.
Additionally, they can be mixed with traditional oil mediums or with water.
For beginners interested in traditional oils, I’d suggest Winsor & Newton oil paint. It’s a
less expensive brand of oil paint, but the quality is fine. If you're interested in water
soluble oils, I'd highly recommend Gumbacher Max Oils or Winsor & Newton Artisan
Water Mixable Oils, I've used both with great results.
If you're on a budget or just want to get your feet wet, consider starting with the primary
colors and white. For sample palette, I'd recommend: Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow,
Ultramarine Blue, Titanium White. Technically you should be able to mix these colors to
create any color imaginable, however mixing colors isn't always easy. I've turned plenty
of grand colors into muddy browns or baby puke greens.
For a bit more workable palette, I'd recommend: Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow Light,
Cadmium Yellow, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Umber, Alizarin Crimson,
Titanium White, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, and Viridian Green.
To start, purchase smaller tubes, if you decide that painting is for you seek out larger
tubes on colors that you use frequently like Titanium White.
Canvas - For now, I'd start with pre-stretched pre-primed canvas or panels. If there's
desire for it, I'll write up a stretching guide in the future. Canvas comes in all shapes and
sizes, inexpensive canvas usually has staples running down the edges, and more
expensive canvas has gallery wrapped, thicker frames with hidden staples. For beginners
I'd recommend starting with an inexpensive smaller canvas, then work up to the larger
ones. I prefer the gallery wrapped edges over the others because they help the piece look
more substantial on the wall and they don't require framing. Usually edges are painted a
solid color or some people continue to paint the painting around to the edge. If using a
gallery wrapped canvas, consider painting the edges first before the painting. Panels are
also a good starting place for beginners, they're basically a wafer board panel with canvas
glued to the front, they're thin and easy to store and transport. You don't have to risk a
hole getting punched through a panel like you do a canvas.
An Introduction to Oil Painting
Oil Paint Medium - Oil that comes straight out of a tube is a bit thick - although you can
spread it directly on a canvas, it's much easier to work with if thinned a little bit. Usually
mediums are 1 part oil (like linseed oil) to 2 parts solvent (like mineral spirits) There are
other mediums available, each has it's own purpose, some speed up drying times, some
lengthen drying times, some are used to add texture, etc. there should be a vast selection
at any art store.
Brushes - Beginners won't need a lot of different brushes. To start, I'd recommend a few
brushes in different sizes. Seek out NATURAL or SYNTHETIC brushes that are made
for oils. Some synthetics are fine for acrylics, or watercolors but they simply can't hold
up to oils. Rule number 1 applies here, NEVER pay full price for brushes. Consider
starting with two small, two medium, and two large. Brushes also come in different
shapes, I'd recommend starting with flats - they're flat, or brights - they're like flats but
with rounded off corners. Brushes designed for oils have much longer handles than other
brushes, this is to help keep you further away from the canvas and allow for some
working room. When buying your first few brushes, you might also consider starting
with something fun to add and build up or add texture, like a pallet knife, comb, or
Palette - no, you don't have to have a fancy wooden palette that you can stick your thumb
in, just about anything will work. Some people use glass so they can scrape the extra
paint off when it dries, I've used plastic pallets with built in tubs and a center area for
mixing. I've also used old AOL CD's as smaller pallets, the choices are endless, you want
something that's a non-porous material.
Clothes - Something to get messy in. There have been plenty of times where I haven't
gotten anything on my clothes, but there's been plenty of times where I have. Don't ruin a
nice shirt by wearing it while you paint.
Charcoal Pencil - for roughing in or sketching our your painting. Charcoal works better
than regular graphite pencils, remember it's just something to block in with, not for fine
details. If you're painting something abstract, it's more than ok to work without one.
Two small containers with lids - one for the medium and one for the thinner.
Mineral Spirits OR Paint Thinner - These are highly flameable so be careful.
Newspaper (or scrap paper)
Drop cloth and Rags
Latex Gloves - I usually paint in these as it help me keep a grip on the brush but also
prevents me from having color stained fingers the next day.
An Introduction to Oil Painting
More advanced supply list
These are things that are nice to have but you don't necessarily need them to start.
More brushes - if you decide that you like painting (and I hope that you do) your brush
collection will undoubtedly grow. Continue seeking out brushes when they're on sale,
and when they speak to you. Fan and angle shaped brushes are fun to experiment with
and can add an some interesting effects to your work. If you start working on larger
pieces, you might consider adding much wider brushes (like the kind that you would
paint a house with) they can help you easily add washes or block in large areas of canvas.
Easel - Rule number 1 applies here, NEVER pay full price for an easel - additionally,
don't buy an easel before you've painted anything, knowing how you paint will aid in
Color wheel - there are many colors wheels found online, but I prefer to have one that i
can physically hold and play with. This will assist with the correct combinations for
specific colors, and to help you understand how complementary and tertiary colors can be
A storage box like a tackle or tool box – “real” art boxes tend to be on the pricy side, I'd
highly recommend a plastic toolbox or tackle box.
Preparing the Painting Surface
Since you're probably using a pre-primed canvas I won't go into stretching or priming just
yet so there's not much prep work to do. Just make sure that there aren't any dimples,
scratches, etc. in the surface of your canvas before you start. Also, before painting any
canvas, I like to predrill holes in the back support for eye hooks and attach hanger wire -
this allows me to hang the picture shortly after painting it to keep it out of the way as it
When painting, it's good to have a plan, sketch or block out your painting using a
charcoal pencil, using lighter strokes where you're going to lay down lighter paint. If
you're painting from a picture or a well known work of art, you can either block out a
grid on the canvas and sketch between the lines, or use tracing paper or projector to help
duplicate the image before painting.
Note: I wouldn't recommend painting a copy of a painting for profit, but for your own
personal use it should be ok.
If your at a loss for something to paint, try searching Google images or inspiration or
eBay for "ebsq". EBSQ is a group of self representing artists on eBay covering every
style and taste out there.
An Introduction to Oil Painting
If you're still at a loss for something to paint, pick three colors and start moving them
around on the canvas, something is bound to happen. Either the piece will "work" or it
wont, but in the end all you'll be out is some time and paint.
There's a bit of an art in mixing paint, it's best to start slowly with small amounts. With a
palette knife move a bit of paint from one blob in your palette to a mixing area, then
move a bit of another color. Slowly mix the two together until you achieve the desired
results. Remember that darker colors should be mixed in smaller quantities with lighter
colors as they will quickly overpower them.
Here is a quick guide of color mixing basics:
Yellow + Red = Orange
Red + Green = Brown
Red + Blue = Purple
Yellow + Green = Blue
Yellow + Blue = Green
Don't be afraid to experiment, and remember to work in small quantities just incase you
end up with a mistake batch of baby puke green.
Once you've prepped your canvas, and your palette of colors, it's time to begin painting.
Unfortunately, there's not much specifically that I can tell you in this department.
Basically it's putting paint on canvas. In part, it all depends on what you want to paint. I
prefer painting big bold graphics with lots of texture, some abstract, some not. Some
people prefer painting landscapes, if that's for you consider a Bob Ross kit - aside from
having great hair he was also a great teacher, his kits allow just about anyone to paint
mountains and "happy" trees.
You will have to find your own voice and inspiration. In know that sounds a bit cheesy
but think of writing a story, I can teach you all the foundations of grammar (actually, I
wouldn’t be a very good grammar teacher, mine is all over the place). Experiment with
different brushes and strokes, or put the brushes aside and just use palette knifes - the
possibilities are endless.
An Introduction to Oil Painting
Out of all of the painting supplies, brushes are the only thing that can potentially last
forever. High quality brushes are expensive but if cared for properly can provide you
with years of use. You can also extend the life of cheaper brushes by caring for them
Brushes should be cleaned immediately after painting. Due to the slow drying properties
of oils, you might be tempted to let them sit for a day or two before cleaning, but can
reshape the brush and can make it more difficult to clean. Letting them soak in cleaner is
not a viable option either as that can cause the bristles to bend under the weight of the
brush. Depending on which type of oil paint you use, the cleanup method with vary
slightly. Remember, water soluble oils are much easier to clean than traditional oils,
however it's still not a fun task. I've always said that if I ever become a world famous
artist, I'll hire someone just to clean my brushes. There are three main steps in brush
cleaning; pre-cleaning, cleaning, and drying.
Pre-cleaning is the same for both traditional and water soluble oils, the idea here is to
remove as much extra paint from the brush as possible. Using newspaper or scrap paper,
fold around the bristle end of the brush, squeeze as tightly as possible and pull the brush
on through. You should end up with paint on the paper, repeat as needed. Try to clean as
much paint off as possible, play close attention to the ferrule - the metal part of the brush.
When you've removed as much paint as possible, it's time to move on to cleaning.
Cleaning brushes varies depending on the type of paint that you're using - traditional or
Cleaning Traditional Oils
To clean brushed used with traditional oils, use paint thinner or mineral spirits - mineral
spirits doesn't smell as bad as thinner. Pour a bit of thinner or spirits in a small container,
and dip the brush in, swirl it around and scrub the bottom of the container a bit to loosen
any paint. Take the brush out of the cleaner and repeat the newspaper squeeze technique
repeat until you've removed as much paint as possible.
Once your brush bristles begin to turn back to their natural color, it's time to move on to
soap and water. Put some liquid soap in the palm of your hand and the brush in the other.
Begin to "paint" the soap back and forth with the brush, working up a nice lather. The
soap will bubble and turn color, once it does, rinse and repeat until the soap doesn't
change color anymore. Rinse all of the soap out of the brush and use a fresh piece of
newspaper to squeeze out any remaining water. You can now move on to the drying
Cleaning Water Soluble Oils
Cleaning is much easier over traditional oils, simply use soap and water. Years ago I
bought several bars of soap that was made specifically for cleaning oil paints; it works
An Introduction to Oil Painting
very well on brushes used with water soluble oils. I've heard that using baby oil on the
brushes first before soap and water works well too, but I've never tried it.
To clean a brush used with water soluble oils, put some liquid soap in the palm of your
hand and the brush in the other. Begin to "paint" the soap back and forth with the brush,
working up a nice lather. The soap will bubble and turn color, once it does, rinse and
repeat until the soap doesn't change color anymore. Rinse all of the soap out of the brush
and use a fresh piece of newspaper to squeeze out any remaining water. You can now
move on to the drying process.
After you've cleaned your brush, it's time to start drying it. Begin by reshaping the
bristles of the brush to they're normal form. Then lay the brush on its side to dry making
sure that nothing is touching the bristles. You might be tempted to put the brush in a cup,
bristle end up - do not do this. Moisture from the bristles can move down to the furlle,
and can cause swelling and the bristles to loosen - even on very expensive brushes.
Finishing a Painting
Once you're finished painting, it's time to let the piece dry. If you put a hanging wire on
the back of the canvas before painting, AND you don't have any paint that's crept around
to the back, feel free to go ahead and hang the painting on the wall. Hang it well out of
the way where it's not going to get bumped while it continues to dry.
If you didn't put a piece of hanging wife on the back of the canvas before painting, just
keep the painting flat and out of the way while it dries. Do not store in direct sunlight nor
complete darkness. After the painting has dried over a reasonable amount of time
(minimum 6 months) you can apply a varnish to the painting to protect it. Do not rush the
drying time, applying the varnish too early will result in cracking. Even though the
surface of a painting appears dry it is still "wet" underneath.
Never store oil paintings under glass, oils can take years to dry truly dry - even after
you're finished, they're still breathing.
If you're planning on gifting a painting to someone, there's a few things that you might
consider. I usually put felt dots that are sticky on one side on the back of the painting on
the corners that will touch the wall. This helps prevent the painting from marring the
wall and also helps it "grip" the wall to hang straight. Additionally, I usually include the
appropriate size hanging hook and nail in a small bag taped to the hanging wire. This
allows the recipient of the painting to hang it on the wall as soon as they find a hammer.
It's also a small personal touch that will help set your paintings out from the rest.
An Introduction to Oil Painting
Freezing Paint - If you decide that you need a break from painting, either for a few hours
or a few days, consider freezing your pallet. First cover your pallet with something, if
you're using a small wax covered paper plate as a palette, use an turn an identical one
over and tape down the sides, then put it in the freezer. This is especially handy if you've
mixed a pallet of colors that you might not be able to easily remix. Although both
traditional and water soluble oils dry over a long period of time, you don't want a film to
develop over your palette when taking a break.
Mixed Media - You might consider painting with several different mediums - water
paint, acrylic, etc. In oil painting there's a rule of always "fat" over "lean". "Fat" paint
has more oil in it, "Lean" paint has less oil like acrylics, or water paints. You can always
paint oils over acrylics and watercolors, but never paint acrylics over oils. The acrylic on
top will dry quickly while the oils underneath will take much longer to dry and crack the
I hope that this guide has answered some questions and sparked some interest into the
world of painting - if you have any other questions please don't hesitate to contact me.