Oil Painting Basics of Durability

Here you'll find the oil painting basics for the material side your your work. Tubes of oil paint are just raw ingredients - they're meant to be prepared further for each layer. It's the primer, and the right way of layering that makes a painting last. Here are some guidelines on priming, layering and using medium - their purpose is to prevent your painting from cracking, peeling or going brittle.

The tricky thing is: oil painting problems don't show right away - when, then usually after one or more years. But when you form a few good habits your paintings will last.

Oil painting by Rembrandt

Rembrandt, selfportrait

Oil painting basics: four rules

Before we talk about art, let's talk about habits that keep our paintings safe. For other beginner oil painting tips, click here.
The old masters' paintings lasted so long, because they carefully layered their materials. Oil paint is just a raw ingredient. While you work, you prepare it for the layer you're going to make. A few simple rules make your paintings time-resistent. And not sticking to these rules makes your oil painting go brittle, cracking or peeling within a few years after finishing them. Here are the material oil painting basics:

  • paint fat over lean
  • paint thick over thin
  • always use fresh paint
  • Take a suitable painting ground, and layer your paints in the way the painting ground was designed for. Check here for painting boards and primed canvases).

Here you'll find an oil painting e-book that has detailed info on both modern and classical painting supplies, and also on making durable oil paintings. I also have free oil painting recipe sheets available, for people who subscribe to this website.

Mending acrylic gesso

Acrylic gesso is a controversial thing in modern oil painting techniques - experts agree that acrylics and oil paint only form a mechanical bond, not a chemical one. Whether or not this is an issue is point of discussion. I've met a well-known expert who said that oil paint is bound to come loose from acrylic gesso - not immediately, after 40 to 50 years. He recommended mixing home-made caseine through the gesso, to help the oil form a chemical union with the primer.

In a way, the acrylic gesso issue is less urgent than the other rules mentioned above because the effects show relatively late. But if you want to be sure (and do the job right), adding caseine is an option. In the free recipe sheets below, you'll find a recipe for it. And if you make your own, it can be a colored primer.

Free recipe sheets for oil painting techniques

Free recipe sheets

Here's a list of recipes and products, focused on primers and underpainting. You can download it for free when you subscribe to this website. With these recipes, your paintings will be safe, and you'll also find interesting options for (fast drying) underpainting materials. There's also an e-book (76 pages) which contains more info on a wider range of oil painting products.

subscribe and download your free recipe-sheets

Some more artistic oil painting basics:

Fat over lean

This rule means: you start with lean, raw paint (that’s oil paint right out of the tube). After you let it dry, you can paint on it again, but you have to make your paint a little fatter. For that, you add a little painting medium to your paints. Layering fatter over leaner oilpaint will make the paint hold - and if you paint lean over fat, your paint will peel, crack and fall off not too long after it has dried.

For making your paint fatter, there are painting mediums available. It's important to take a medium that has some fat, but not too much. Linseed oil as a medium is too fat. You can make a painting medium yourself, with dammar varnish and stand-oil. Venetian turpentine can also be used as a medium, but only venetian turps - all other turpentines don't contain fatness. All these ingredients can be ordered at Blick Art Materials. Amounts and proportions are important as well - recipes can be found in this oil painting e-book.

Always take fresh paint

Some people say, you can save your paints on your palette, by protecting it with foil. If you do, when accidently having big leftovers, stick the foil directly on the paint. But it's better to always take fresh paint. Oil paint dries in contact with oxygen and then forms a 'film' (just like on top of your kitchen cabinets). If it has partly dried before painting, it won’t make a good film anymore and cause peeling. Your paint will look OK, but after a year or so it will start to peel off all by itself (I've seen it happen, on a scetch). For this reason, it's better to buy tubes of oil paint (instead of cans or jars). The paint also dries in a half-empty can - even if it's well closed.

Paint thick over thin

You start with thin layers: raw paint, diluted with a little turpentine. As you add layers, they can get thicker (and fatter). If you paint thin layers over thick ones, it may cause cracking. For applying thin glazes, venetian turpentine (eventually mixed with some liquin) is a good medium. Venetian turps are very glossy, liquin has more of a halfshine.

Quick and slow drying times

Oil paint dries slowly, the fatter the slower. Sometimes a slow drying process is just what you need. It allows you to work on a painting for a long time. With fat paints, you can work on the same wet painting for two or three days in a row. A wet paintlayer is called an "open" layer. Do mind, that a paint layer shouldn't be too thick, especially not if you want to work over it later.

If you want your work to dry fast before working on it further, you have to do some planning. This is good when you use classical layering techniques of imprimature and underpainting. You might use some alkyd medium (in the right dosis), or do an underpainting in quick-drying egg- or caseine tempera. If you want to, you can work every day on the same painting, that has dried overnight - by using tempera's, alkyds and thin paint layers. For layering recipes and info on materials, check out my ebook on painting materials.

Drying times depend on:

  • The fatness of your paint, and the thickness of your layer.
  • The kind of painting medium
  • The pigment type (some pigments are very quick, others are slow). In underlayers, work with cremser- or flake white ("foundation white", by Winsor and Newton), available at Blick Art Materials. Pigment info is also in my oilpainting-materials ebook.

Oil and acrylic paint

During the last decades, people often used acrylics for underpainting. That is not be the most durable way of layering - in house painting, we all know you can't paint oil based paint over acrylics. Egg-tempera is better for underpainting in oils. If you still like to work with acrylics or acrylic gesso: add some caseine to the acrylic paint. Caseine will improve the adhering of oils to acrylics. Adding caseine to gesso (acrylic primer) is also a good idea. It helps the oil paint to hold on to the gesso. You can find recipes for egg-tempera, acrylic-caseine paint and acrylic-caseine gesso in this oil painting e-book.

Speeding up drying times

In the old days, siccatives where used to speed up the drying process, but now we have Liquin. Siccatives are dangerous: if you add more than the prescribed 1%, it will completele ruin your painting in time (turning it dark). In that small amount, siccative can't do much really. Besides that, it's hard to define 1% of that little heap of paint on your palette... If you need speed, use Liquin - if possible, no more than 10%. You can order it at the online art supplies store. . One thing: liquin doesn't make your paint fatter, so in succeeding layers you also need to add a little painting medium.

Underpainting can be a good way to speed up the drying process, one can use an underpainting (acrylic with extra caseine added, or make an oily egg-tempera), or add an alkyd resin (Liquin, by Winsor and Newton).

Liquin allows you to work on a dry layer the very next day. It does affect the texture of your paint though: too much use of it equalizes the different qualities of your paints and pigments. Dammar varnish gives a deep brilliant shine, lean oil paint is matte, and liquin gives something in between – a greasy halfshine. But while painting, it makes the paint so great to handle, that it’s sometimes hard to resist. All in all, it’s a great invention, and in the underlayers it really does no harm.

There are many more alternatives to make oil paintings dry quicker: different primers, underpainting materials, and some pigments dry faster than others. Here you'll find an oil painting e-book with all the necessary information and recipes.

You can order all your materials and painting suplies Blick Art Materials - a big company that offers a complete product range, and great prices (they often have extra sales). On big orders (above 200 dollars) you get free shipping.

Other oil painting basics:

Making Fat Paint Matte

Lean oil paint is matte, fat oil paint is very shiny. If you want to make fat paint matte again, use a muller and “grind” a drop of water into it. It does no harm – the paint will hold anyway, and the water will evaporate. Doing that, it creates a structure of microscopic small holes (formed by the water getting away). It will give the paint a very matte look.

By the way, you also get this effect when you use wet brushes….

More advanced oil painting tips

That was about it, in terms of oil painting basics. Check here for some more advanced tips on:

  • canvases and painting boards


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