Choosing the right Oil by mudoc123


When selecting any paint, it’s important to know your choices. We will quickly run through the three
main paints available on the Australian market and outline in more detail why oil paint is one of the
most favoured mediums for beginners.

Oil paint is an excellent choice for beginners not only because the paint is easy to use and mix but
also because there is a vast amount of information available on all aspects of oil painting.

There are three kinds of paint that artists use. The favorite three are oil paints, water colours and
acrylics. Each of these are available in a variety of quality levels, consistencies and colours.

Watercolours are inexpensive and easily cleaned being water mixable however many art teachers
advise learning to paint with oils or acrylics first. Watercolour can be very challenging for beginners
due to the complexity of rules and methods of application including quite sophisticated brushwork,
masking and colour selection. Mixing colours and blending is also not suitable for the beginner

Acrylics dry quickly, and can easily be cleaned with soap and water, but mixing acrylic colours can
be difficult for the beginner due to the fact that acrylic paints dry to a slightly different shade to that
when they are wet.

Oil paints have traditionally been recommended by most teachers as the easiest and quickest way
for a beginner to become proficient; comfortable and effective while learning many techniques
relating to colours; mixing; brushwork; mediums and canvas to use and most importantly choice of
what to paint.

In my opinion in recent years oil paints have acquired an unfair reputation due to toxicity issues,
difficulty of cleaning, and in extreme cases containing lead-based substances. In most cases these
issues are grossly exaggerated or even incorrect. With the recent development of water mixable
paints many of these issues would seem to be eliminated, however it must be recognized the choice
of colours with water mixable paints is somewhat more limited than with traditional linseed-based
oil paints and appear to be somewhat more expensive than student quality traditional Linseed base
oil paints.

For this article we will discuss in general oil paints as an excellent choice for the beginner.

A quick history lesson

Oil paints are made up of a pigment mixed in an oil base. In the age of Michelangelo and DaVinci
artists ground and mixed pigments by hand, and added it to commonly available oils. These oils
included food products such as poppy seed oil.

In the last century, linseed oil became the standard base for premixed oil paints. These store well,
sometimes for many years, and are sold in soft tubes at most art supply stores. Indeed, oil paint
has reached the point where it is almost as cheap as acrylic paints.

Special mediums and oils are required to thin these kinds of paints. Linseed oil is one of the most
common painting mediums for modern oil painters. Water mixed paints of course can be thinned,
cleaned and drying times can be altered in much the same way as traditional linseed-based oil will.
However the pigments used are different in many cases and, unlike most oils, are not classified by
series numbers which will be covered in more detail in another section.
In all fairness it must be stated that with the exception of water mixed oils, many oil paints do
have a strong odour and a mild toxicity and require a solvent such as turpentine often called
Turps for cleaning. A very recent development has many odour free and solvent free cleaners
available even for traditional oil paints. I encourage their use to avoid any risk of toxic

Popular oil paints

When people discuss which oil paint is best to buy, they are almost invariably referring to the
kind that require the traditional turpentine for cleanup.

These paints come in a wide range of quality, colours and prices usually based on the quality of
pigment used in the paint. An expensive pigments such as cobalt blue, which is a pigment that
requires to be very finely ground therefore providing better coverage with less paint but which
will invariably cost much more. The quality of the pigments used is normally specified as a
series. E.G. Series 1, Series 2, 3,4,5 etc.

Many beginners make the mistake of buying the best oil paint that money can get them in the
mistaken belief that this will improve their painting. This is not the case. I strongly recommend
buying a basic and therefore cheap set of oil paints to learn, as in many cases you’ll be
practicing strokes, shapes, colour mixing etc. without actually making a finished product. And I
have seen many many beautiful paintings made with some of the cheaper brands of oil paint.

In fact spending money on better brushes, tutoring or classes will result in much more
significant improvement in your painting than even the best oil paints. These cheaper oil paints
are often referred to as student quality or student grade, but generally they have the same
buttery texture and the consistency with the same long drying time as the expensive oil paints.
The major difference as mentioned earlier is the quality of the pigments which is the major
issue in that the cheaper brands have colours such as cadmium yellow hue. This is the quickest
and easiest way to ascertain the quality level of any brand oil paint. Even the world-famous
brands like Winsor and Newton make student grade oil paints and clearly state the quality,
consistency and light fastness is not much different to the professional grade paint. The main
limitation of using hues is that they do not reliably mix with other colours to get a consistent
resulting colour. While learning this aspect of painting (mixing colours for a new colour) is a
very important lesson the results with the cheaper oil paints are good enough for a beginner’s

If you are planning to paint the scene at a specific time of day such as sunset or sunrise then
you will typically paint for a few hours and then the light will change as the sun moves. The
slow drying time of oil paint makes it the perfect way to return at the same time day after day
until the painting is complete. Even more important for beginners, when you make mistakes it
can easily be corrected even some time after the paint has been applied by simply wiping it off
the canvas. This gives you the flexibility, not available with acrylics and watercolour of making
mistakes without the stress of being unable to undo them.

Note: if you like your painting to dry faster however there are products in the medium-range
that you can mix into oil paint to increase the drying time or indeed slow down the drying time.
Mediums are also available to thin the paint and/or change it’s consistency.
WARNING: If you push the drying time too much the surface of the painting may crack as it

Grades of paint and colour choices

When you have learnt the basics of oil painting using a cheaper student quality oil paint as
recommended, it is then time to move to a better quality oil paint. These are often listed as
artist grade or professional grade oil paint. With the better quality oil paints it is usually
feasible to mix different grades, qualities, as well as different brands without any concerns.
However the exception is water mixable oils which cannot be mixed with others.
As mentioned earlier, the cheaper oil paints often referred to as student grade or student
quality do not use the better quality pigments. As also mentioned the term “hue” tends to
indicate the pigment used is artificial and not a naturally occurring colour. Hue colours don’t
always mix together well and often result in a very muddy colour if overdone. As my teacher
would often explain to me red and blue that always make purple, it seems to depend upon the
quality of the pigment in the paint and hue colours can be notoriously unreliable results if
overused or over mixed.

Conversely, when you start using the better grades of paint, colours mix more easily, more
predictably and the results are more consistent. The use of a colour mixing chart will invariably
get you the results you want. For this reason, some art teachers recommend starting with
better quality paints, however my feeling is this should only be with those colours that are
called primary and are used to make or mix other colours. I believe it is quite legitimate to use
the cheaper colours where large amounts of colour will be used and come straight from the

In all fairness once you get serious and wish to make a complete painting of either a portrait or
landscape from nature, you will probably have to purchase some high-quality primary colours
particularly in the higher series range. I have often found Acrylic paints and student oils are
unlikely to capture the colours you see in nature.

Toxicity - Solvents - Poisons

Most people find once they have learnt the basics and can take advantage of the superior
colours and extended line drying time available with oil paint they are very happy with the
results. Some people say it’s difficult to return to acrylics once they have used oils. I
personally disagree with that because each type of paint has its advantages and it greatly
helps with the artist’s creativity to learn how to use the advantages of each paint. For instance
the fast drying time of acrylics is a distinct advantage when painting away from the studio in
the real world.

However some advocates have difficulty with the toxic nature and strong odour of some of the
solvents used with oil paints. Some artists can even become allergic to some of the solvent
products and develop long-term health issues. Many manufacturers have developed alternative
solvents including odourless turpentine and, of coarse the water mixable or water-soluble oil
paints. These days it is not difficult to avoid toxicity and the odours traditionally associated
with oil paint.

Water Mixable paints

During the last 15 to 20 years manufacturers have developed water-soluble oil paints made
with much the same pigments as their more popular oil paints, but with a different oil base.

Because the base is different the odour is often lighter and is definitely more pleasant than
traditional oil paints and generally nontoxic. These newer paints can also be cleaned and
thinned with water and therefore have almost no possibility of toxic infection or allergic

My experience however indicates they don’t always remain as fresh in the tube for as long as
traditional oil paint, and you would do well to check them by squeezing the tube gently to
ensure it has not gone hard. Some colours, especially whites should be used within a few
months of opening the tube.

For many people, the water mixable paints are the best solution to avoid the problems
associated with traditional oil paint toxicity. They cost about the same, some brands are
student grade and some are artist grade and generally the pigments are almost identical to
traditional oil paints.
Choosing your Oil Paint

We will be developing in a follow-up article a list of recommended specific colour selections
based on the subjects of your paintings e.g. Landscape; portrait; abstract; realist; etc.

There are many excellent books that can give you a guide to colour selection, and there will
be no shortage of friends to give you the wrong advice. I suggest you either get a good
teacher, join a common interest group of artists, or ensure the art supply shop you use can
give you unbiased advice without pushing a specific brand on you regardless of your need.

Many oil paint manufacturers sell small sampler sets or kits and these can offer a good basic
mix of colours for a good price. I would strongly recommend buy these sampler kits from two
or three sources and give them a try, you can then choose a paint with at least some
semblance of knowledge about what you are buying, and a general confidence that the
product does meet your needs before spending significant funds getting a full set of colours

When you’re buying brushes be sure you choose those that are specifically intended for oil
paint if you’ll be cleaning them with turpentine. Otherwise the solvents in turpentine can
dissolve the adhesive that holds the bristles in place. In addition some brushes intended for
watercolours and indeed acrylics may be too soft to use with oils. Rely upon your art supply
shop for advice on brushes and indeed the mediums you will be using to clean, thin and slow
the drive of your oil paint.

The other consideration is what you paint on. Many beginners played on a board such as
Masonite or MDF which they prime with a white acrylic undercoat while learning and have no
difficulty with this. But, when you get serious the best surface is undoubtedly a cotton duck
canvas or if you can justify the small extra cost of linen this is the best available. These can
be purchased as boards, stretched canvas on a frame and in a variety of sizes and shapes -
but more of this topic in a future issue.

No matter which oil paint you choose, once you have become familiar with it’s workability and
colour I am sure you’ll be glad that you have chosen them to learn with. Oil paints have been
chosen medium for all the great painters throughout history.

Next topic is choosing what colours you need to start with !

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