Many people shy away from oil painting before trying it because it seems intimidating. I cannot argue with that; oil paint can be a tough medium to work with, but with the right tools and knowledge, anyone can do it. Oil paint is a beautiful medium, and the buttery glosses, thin luminescent glazes, and rich colors just cannot be achieved with any other painting medium in my opinion. Here are a few things to know before painting with oils:
1) Know what you’re working with:
Before using oil paint, it is important to know what it is. Oil paint is a mixture of pigment and linseed oil; therefore it should never come in contact with water, which will ruin your paint. The western world credits the discovery of oil paint to Jan van Eyck, a Flemish painter of the early 15th century; however there is evidence to suggest that oil paint was discovered much earlier in the eastern world.
2) Prep your surface:
Before painting your surface (the most common surfaces are stretched canvas or wood panel), the area must be prepped with gesso paint, which is an acrylic medium. If the surface is not prepped with gesso, the oil paint will be absorbed into the surface rather than resting on top of the surface. Not to say that it is necessarily ‘wrong’ to paint on an unprepped surface, in fact, Jackson Pollock never prepped his canvases before dripping paint onto them. It truly depends on what you want your final product to look like. Remember: in art rules are sometimes meant to be broken, prepping the surface is merely the traditional way to begin an oil painting. When prepping the surface with gesso, it is important to use a large brush or paint roller for larger surfaces, such as the ones you can find at the hardware store. Using a larger tool to cover more surface area at once helps achieve a smooth surface to apply the oil paint. I usually find it helpful to paint on two thin layers of gesso, making sure the first layer is dry before applying a second layer, to make sure there is a solid barrier between my canvas and the oil paint. I have a specific brush that I use for gesso and nothing else. Because gesso is an acrylic medium, it does not mix with oil paint, and using the same brush to paint with oil and acrylic mediums will cause cross contamination between the two paints and mess up your brush as well as the paint that has been cross contaminated.
3) Choose your mediums:
When your gesso is completely dry, you can begin prepping your paint! Not to say that you can't simply apply pure paint to the canvas, a technique called ala prima, however in order to achieve more rich luminescent colors, the technique of glazing must be applied. Glazing is the process of layering diluted layers of paint over each other, working from broad shapes and getting more detailed with each layer. To make a glaze, the oil paint must be mixed with other substances. There are two types: oil based and solvent based. Turpentine, a solvent, is extremely thin and very toxic, so when using turpentine it is important to be in an extremely well-ventilated area. If the smell of turpentine bothers you, mineral spirits or odorless turpentine is available (but still toxic, so keep the area ventilated). All of these are available at your local hardware store for a very reasonable price, in fact it seems almost insane how marked up turpentine is at art stores, but be aware that the turpentine/mineral spirits at the art store are more pure than the ones at the hardware store and are specifically meant for painting with fine oils.
The other components are oil based. To name just a few: linseed oil, stand oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, japan dryer and alkyd painting medium. Depending on the properties of the oil, they are good for different things. Some, such as japan dryer and alkyd painting medium, will speed up the drying process. Linseed oil and stand oil are thicker and improve the buttery texture of the paint, making blending easier, but they take longer to dry. Linseed oil is known to yellow over time, and therefore walnut oil is sometimes preferred, but walnut oil goes rancid faster. To truly know the effects of each oil, it is mandatory to use them for yourself and experience how they work.
4) Mix it all up
In order to create a glaze, a ratio of paint, thinner, and oil medium must be combined to dilute the paint. This ratio is undefined and can only be determined through practice. Something to help along the way is the principal of ‘lean to fat’. This means that ‘lean’ paint must be applied in the under layers of the painting, and after each layer, the paint can get ‘fatter’ and ‘fatter’. Lean paint has more turpentine thinner and less oil medium mixed in it, and fatter paint has less turpentine thinner and more oil medium. This principal is important because if one was to paint fat layers underneath lean layers, the fat layers will dry slower, and cause the lean layers on top to crack as the layers underneath dried.
Now, here is my advice on mixing the three: First of all, I like to put my paint on disposable paper palettes. This is because oil paint is extremely hard to clean off of a plastic palette and the paper palettes can be thrown away, are reasonably priced and quite large, so I can still mix a large amount of paint. To mix in the oil and the turpentine, I first put down my paints, approximating how much I will need (which is a skill in itself), next I take one of my more absorbent brushes, dip it in turpentine, and drip the turpentine onto the paint until I am satisfied with the amount. Sometimes this takes a while, but pouring turpentine onto the palette can be problematic. Next, I carefully pour a little oil next to my pile of paint. Now you can mix! But never use a paint brush to do this. Unless you like ruining paint brushes, always use a palette knife to mix. It seems obvious, but it is easy to get lazy and use your paint brush. Just know that a bunch of paint will get stuck in the base of your bristles and you don’t want that to happen because it is impossible to clean out and your bristles will get crusty.
5) Unleash your inner artist
Now that you’ve mixed your paint, it is time to apply it to the canvas! This is where you can get creative and experimental! Try out different types of mark making, experiment with your color palette, use all shapes and sizes of paint brushes, use a carrot! (I would advise against using your fingers with oil paint though)
P.S. If you ever get some oil paint on your clothes; immediately put some turpentine on a paper towel and get to dabbing, works like a charm.