Oil Painting Techniques

Oil paint is the grand old lady of paints. There are dozens of oil painting techniques - every artist develops his/her own methods. However, there are general rules, and learning them provides a solid basis to your own style. General skills enable you to keep developing as an artist.

Oil painting
'light and matter'

Oil paint is just a raw ingredient: the way you use it determines the durability of your painting. But knowing your materials is not just necessary for safety reasons: it also enables you to explore the full range of expression, that you can achieve with this beautiful material. Oil paint has the most clear, crispy and realistic feel about it, and layering makes this effect even stronger. Check here for more on imprimature and underpainting - ancient layering techniques for the realistic painting effect. You can bend these techniques to your own use as well. Check here for a list of list of quality-economy colors, with pigment descriptions. Click here for a more or less complete oil painting guide on materials and techniques, and here for a guide in making oil paint.

Free recipe sheets for oil painting techniques

In these recipe sheets you'll find recipes for both modern and traditional primers and underpainting for different oil painting techniques. You get them for free when you subscribe to this website.

Modern oil painting supplies require much less preparations, but you still need to know how to use them. It's also nice to find good economy products (with the recipes, you'll find a product list as well). For more info about oil painting materials, check out this e-book

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Realism, drawing and color theory

For realism, you basically need two things: some drawing skills, and color theory. Drawing skills help you create good proportions - for example, the size of the head (in relation to the body) tells you if the person is a kid or an adult. Drawing shades is what you need to suggest volume and form. When you also master your colors, you can make anything look natural. Recently I found a great course for learning color theory - on this page about basic color theory you'll find a review. For drawing, it's best to practice as often as you can, preferrably each day. Buy a huge quantity of cheap paper, and do or (or better: five) drawings of your home and relatives each day. Making painting studies in only black and white paint helps to learn about volumes and light.

After doing your first excercises, check these pages on imprimature and underpainting. These are old oil painting techniques, to make colors come alive by means of contrast. Blue sky looks more radiant when it's painted over a warm yellow ochre underpainting, fleshtones come alive on a green background. Also great for realism is blending your paint. It enables you to make smooth gradients.

Realism or abstraction?

Of course realistic and abstract painting are different styles, but there is no real opposition between the two.

Realistic oil painting techniques are immersed with abstract painting aspects and skills, like using color, proportions, gesture,and other compositional aspects. And the best abstract painters were those who had an old fashioned training in realistic oil painting. Realistic painting is a great way to practice your oil painting techniques, and gain real painting skills.

Skills enable you to develop yourself as an artist. You can do without them, and be a very authentic painter. But if you get stuck in your creative processes, skills are something to fall back on. They enable you to move on and try different things.

Artistic freedom

Maybe it's our notion of freedom that needs adjusting. Freedom is not: putting away rules, or to act without knowledge or bounderies. Freedom is, to base your actions on your own decisions, and take responsibility for them. Having the skills to act out your decisions is a help to your artistic freedom, not a hinderance.

Tips and techniques for oil painting subjects

Abstract painting techniques are also 'concrete', but on a different level. When you paint abstract, you describe things as you see them from within, related to your own body. An abstract horizon divides your painting into a "chest" and a "belly" part. Notions like "above" and "below" or "left" and "right" keep their meaning, not matter if you paint realistic or abstract. Click here for tips on

What you see is what you get

Oil paint doesn’t go lighter or darker when it dries: so what you see is what you get. You can use it immediately for direct expression, but there are also advanced methods and underpainting and layering recipes for getting very refined effects (an ancient realistic look, or a modern realistic one, if you want). When you paint like that, you set up a painting in a number of layers, that you roughly plan ahead. To learn this technique, it's good to do some small landscape studies.

evening landscape painting

Fat over lean

This is the basic rule in all oil painting techniques, it prevents your paint from cracking and falling off. In every succeeding layer, you add a little fatness to the paint. There’s no big thinking in this - just a little extra preparation. Click here for the basic rules of oil painting.

In ready-made oil paints, the paint factory usually tries to equalize the opacity and texture of his colors, by adding filling components etc. That really is a shame. When you make your own paints, you can fully take advantage of the specific features of the pigments you use. A good alternative to homeground paints is a brand like Old Holland Paints. Their paints are as pure as possible – just pigments and oil.


Oil paint is very rich in expression and possibilities. It can be very matte AND very shiny, it can be very opaque AND very transparent, depending on the pigments and the kind of medium you use. All these factors define the final look-and-feel of your work. If you’re a beginner, disgard this information and focus on your colors and subject material. But the more you advance, the more you can use these effects, especially when you make your own paint.

What colors do you need

There are different ways to choose - you choose either for chromatics (handy shades for mixing), or for pure pigments. For chroma, check this color mixing guide, and here for info on pigments in oil painting colors.

  • For learning to mix colors: check this list. The regular basic colors (red, yellow and blue) are good if you'll paint more sedate colors and won't need strong greens or pure purples.
  • For working out of direct expression: go into the store and pick the colors that appeal to you most. In this case: don’t buy online – go to a store and open the tubes, if that’s allowed.

Panels, canvases and brushes

Painting grounds are an important component in oil painting techniques. Their influence reaches into the final look of your work.

Oil paint needs to be put on a layer of primer paint on a panel or canvas. Acrylic gesso is much used for that, but oil paint doesn't hold on well to an acrylic material. It can be mended with caseine, check here for recipes. The kind of primer has much influence on the look of the paint, and on drying times. Oil primer makes oil paint come out on its best. Cremser-white or foundation white (lead white oil paint) is the classical material for priming, but it needs long drying times (unless you buy ready-made). On a kaolin ground, oil paint dries quicker, but the first layers won't have gloss or structure. Kaolin is too brittle for canvas (it's used on painting boards). If you put oil paint on paper, the oil will totally eat up the paper within decades. However, there are specially prepared oil painting papers, you get it in blocks or pads. They allow you to practice on cheap material, nut no guarantees for durability are given. It's also no use, putting gesso on paper (the oil will get to the paper anyway).

Oil painting brushes are best to be made of natural hair - pig hair, ox hair, dagger or marter. Cheapest is pig hair (“bristle”), most refined is marter hair. Synthetic brushes look great, but don't last very long in oils. Synthetic brushes are good for acrylic painting techniques The shape and size of brushes determines a lot of your oil painting techniques. Not only fine brushes are great - old ones are great for doing foliage. Check here for more on brush shapes.

Oil Paint, House Paint

Before acrylic and alkyd paints were discovered, all house paints were oil paints - mixed and toned in terms of color, and enriched with resins to make them shine. Every house painter used to master some basic oil painting techniques. You can use artist’s oil colors to paint on your oil based painted woodwork, because they’re of equal material.

But, there is a difference: Compared to house paints, artist’s oil paints and mediums really are raw ingredients. They’re suitable to make your own paint, you adjust them for the purpose you have in mind. Pure oil paint is matte, but if you add a medium, it will be shiny. Artist’s oil painting colors are one-pigmented and have outspoken features.

Artist's oil colors have to be adjusted, mixed, toned, or put into the right proportions and amounts, when putting them visually together. This goes even more for new synthetic pigments. Earth pigments still have a natural tonal range of their own. But you can make it as simple or complicated as you want. Click here if you’re a beginner in oil painting.

Acrylic paints are often used as an underpainting for oils - it doesn't help the durability of your work, but it does allow you quick working. acrylic painting techniques are a good studying alternative to practice your oil painting techniques. In terms of durability, egg tempera paint is better suited for underpainting purposes in oil painting techniques. You can make Egg tempera paint yourself, click here for recipes.

Here's another website on oil painting techniques, with examples on how turn a drawing into an oil painting. It has good tips on portraiture too.

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