What You Need to Start Oil Painting
Oil painting is one of the oldest and most widely used methods of painting, and because of the number of examples reproduced in books and on display in public art galleries, it has become the most familiar way of painting to us.
Although the beginner may feel somewhat intimidated by the long history of oil painting and the high degree of technical craftsmanship, the flexibility of oil paint lends itself as an ideal medium for the beginner.
Oil paint is pigment that has been ground in an oil-based medium, usually ‘linseed’. The actual pigment is often the same one that is used in watercolour and gouache (body colour or poster paint); it is the preparation that gives it certain unique qualities not present in other paints. Firstly, it tends to impart a richer feeling to the colour. It also makes it a very flexible medium, allowing it to be used in a variety of ways ranging from very thick (called ‘impasto’) to thin paint which is almost the consistency of watercolour. It can be applied in almost any way one wishes — by brush, knives, rags and even fingers. There are also notable examples of the paint having being thrown onto the surface.
The wide range of materials available to the oil painter, most of which are manufactured to a high standard, can be a source of difficulty and confusion for the beginner: where to start? what to choose? how much to spend? Don’t worry, I will outline the main materials available, offering clarity to enable you to make choices based on your knowledge of the products, and as you become experienced, your own personal needs.
Oil paints are produced in two qualities — Artists’ colour and Student’s colour. Artists’ colour is very much more expensive, due to the origin of the pigments themselves: the highest quality is used in Artists’ colours. You will also notice that there is a price variation within the range of the colour; this is because of the rarity of some of the pigments, which affects the cost of manufacture. The texture of the paint is also generally smoother, although this is hardly noticeable to the beginner and does not significantly affect the look of the painting.
Students’ colour is manufactured using synthetic dyes and inexpensive pigments as substitutes for the rarer, more expensive ones. The texture of these paints is also coarser as the pigments are not as finely ground. If you compare Artists’ colours with the Students’ range you will notice a marked difference in strength and brightness, particularly when mixed with white; Artists’ colour will need less to maintain the density of colour.
Having described the basic differences between the two qualities of paint, I think that for the beginner Students’ colours are perfectly adequate (to start with). The last thing you want is to feel inhibited by the cost and wastage of materials, and, at this stage, the difference in results will not be noticeable. However, as you progress and gain confidence you can increase your range by adding Artists’ colours, as the two types of paint mix perfectly well together. This will also help keep initial costs down.
Winsor and Newton’s Winton range offers the ideal standard of oil paint for the beginner. The 37ml size is the most practical for the majority of colours, but because one tends to use far more white than any other colour, it is advisable to buy white in the larger 200ml size. As any experienced oil painter will tell advice you, a tube of titanium white is essential to mixing colours.
Oil painting brushes
There are several types and qualities of brushes on the market for the painter to choose from. The most popular brushes for oil painting are made from the bleached hog’s hair and soft bristles made from sable hair. Hog hair bristles are fairly stiff, hold the paint well and are manufactured in many different shapes. The main types you will need as a beginner are flat, round, and filbert.
Flat: brushes have a square-ended shape that is good for applying dabs of colour. If you use edge, it will give a nice sharp linear mark, useful for drawing.
Round: brushes in the larger sizes are good for covering large areas; smaller ones are ideal for initial drawing in
Filberts: are a cross between a flat and a round, except that the shape tapers to a point.
Sable brushes are usually used for detailed work, or for thin fine glazes, and they are also ideal for the first drawing in. Some artists prefer to execute a whole painting with this type of brush. These brushes are extremely expensive and unless looked after carefully, they will deteriorate in short time. These brushes are not really suited to a rough surface or ground, and will soon show signs of wear if used on one.
Synthetic bristle and hairbrushes, usually made from nylon, are now also available. They come in the same shape as the hog’s hair and sable types but are considerably cheaper and for the most part, are very good and hard-wearing. When choosing your brushes it is very much a personal preference, rather in the way that you build up your range of colours. Some artists will use a great many brushes, others will paint with just a few.
As a beginner, you really need to try various shapes and sizes to enable you to decide what suits your way of working. You may even find that you prefer the synthetic fibre brushes to the more traditional bristle.
The size of the brush is indicated by a number on the handle, the same size numbers do not apply to both hog’s hair and sable brushes, however, so a №1 bristle will not be the same actual size as a №1 in a sable.
Whereas with paints, you can get away with mixing Students’ and Artists’ colours, I feel that brushes should always be the best quality from the start. If cared for properly they will last years and keep their shape.
Personally, I’m a loyal customer of British handmade Rosemary brushes (based in Yorkshire). Their wide array of bristle hairs, brush shapes, choice of a long or short handle, overall quality, and prices are unmatched. Be sure to order a free catalogue from their website before making a purchase. This way you can view the actual size of the brush. I tend to use short handle brushes on small sized pieces or detailed parts of a painting, saving the long handle brushes for larger pieces.
Caring for your brushes is of the upmost importance, not only to your pocket but also to the quality of your painting. Brushes should be thoroughly cleaned at the end of each day’s painting. Wipe the excess oil paint off with a rag or kitchen roll and then rinse with turpentine (white spirit/paint thinner will do for this) until you feel that it is as clean as you can get it. Finally, wash with soap and water by rubbing the brush onto an ordinary household bar of soap and then working up a lather in the palm of your hand. Repeat until the soapsuds show no sign of colour and then rinse with warm water. Gently remove excess water in the brush and always lay your brushes horizontally to dry.
Palette knives serve to main functions: applying the paint to the picture surface and scraping it off. It is possible to paint either a part or the whole of the picture with a knife if you desire a rich, textured surface. It is essential for scraping areas of paint from the surface to enable them to be reworked if necessary. Its use also extends to mixing colour and cleaning the palette. A wide range of shapes and sizes is available; the choice you make is again (rather like your brushes) a matter of preference. However, you certainly would not need more than one to start with. The most practical type for the beginner is the trowel shape or painting knife, recognizable by its cranked handle and more flexible blade.
The first thing to remember about a palette is that it is only the surface on which you set out and mix your paints. There is a wide variety of shapes and sizes available to the artist: you will need to decide at the outset whether you wish to hold the palette or rest it on the table or on some other convenient flat surface.
Most palettes are made to be held, and have a hole for the thumb. The come in two main shapes: kidney shape, sometimes called a studio palette, and rectangular shape. Rectangular ones are usually made smaller and will fit into a paint box. Traditional wooden palettes must be prepared or ‘sealed’ before using. The traditional way of sealing the surface is to rub linseed oil into the wood and repeat the process over a period of two or three days. This will prevent the surface soaking up the oil from the paint. However, a quicker way to seal the surface is to use shellac or button polish, either of which can be painted on, or rubbed in. Paper palettes are very practical when you are in a hurry; by simply tearing off the top layer and disposing of it, you are left with a clean white surface for next time.
It is not essential to have either of the traditional shapes as long as you have a clean smooth surface. As you will find for most of your basic materials, there are cheap alternatives; a piece of hardboard, plywood or perspex (plastic) will suit just as well.
As well as being used to clean your palette and brushes, the function of diluents is to thin or dilute the paint and help it spread over the painting surface. It is essential that the solvent used should evaporate from the paint as it dries. Turpentine is the best solvent and there are two types: distilled turpentine (the more expensive) is pure turpentine made from pine resin and gives off a strong and distinctive although not unpleasant smell; turpentine substitute (or white spirit) is made from petroleum oils. Both can be used safely to thin paint but pure turpentine is best for painting, and white spirit it best for cleaning purposes.
It is worth pointing out that both sorts of turpentine have a strong smell and that some people are either allergic to turpentine products or just cannot stand the smell. Gamblin’s Gamsol (Odourless Mineral Spirits) is my choice of preference — anything else seems to irritate my sensitive eyes.
For cleaning brushes it is useful to have a jar or old tin for the cleaning agent . To make your own turpentine jar, click here.
The subject of mediums is a complex one for beginners for a guide to oil painting mediums, click here. The standard of paint manufacture today is of such high level and consistency that unless you need a specific quality — a very gloss paint, for example, or an absence of brush marks — as a beginner, you need not concern yourself with the problem of what to use at this point. Later you can experiment with different kinds — nearly all the bottles have labels which explain the different attributes of the particular mediums.
There are several types of easel available to the artist: the main point to remember is that the purpose of the easel is to provide a firm and stable support to your picture while you are working, so make sure that you pick the right one for the job. The most versatile is the radial or studio easel, which are manufactured by most of the well-known art suppliers. All are made to a similar pattern, and although fairly expensive will last a lifetime. They will support your smallest picture to a work about 1.75m.
A light sketching easel is ideal for outside work. These are folding and can be easily carried, but obviously the size of the picture they can support is limited. Sketching easels are made in either wood or metal: the metal ones are lighter but slightly expensive.
The table easel is a useful way of supporting a painting, especially if you are working in an area with limited floor space.
In the absence of an easel it is possible to use the back of an old chair as a support for a small painting.
The painting support is the surface on to which you apply your paint. For oil painting, this has to be a non-porous surface and have sufficient tooth to hold the paint. To achieve this the surface of most supports has to be sealed. The most traditional material for painting is canvas, which has been in use as a support since the fifteenth century. As well as its pleasing natural qualities of weave and texture, it has the advantage of being light and easy to carry. There are several different textures or weights of canvas available and what you decide on really does depend on the way you prefer to work. If you paint thinly and with a great deal of detail, then you will find that a smooth-grain canvas will suit you best. On the other hand, a heavier coarse grain will be better for the thicker impasto ways of working. All art suppliers sell ready prepared canvases in a variety of shapes and sizes
For any further advice on oil painting materials and equipment, do not hesitate to contact me on any socials @rhymesandoils