Oil painting, how to get started a beginners guide

It’s an interesting fact, that while oil painting has long been considered by beginners, a complicated medium to use, it’s actually one of the easiest. It’s true, there are a few things to know about oil painting before you start, but once you know the basic oil painting rules, painting in oils for beginners is not nearly as complicated as it might seem!

evolve oil painting how to

The Rules of Oil Painting Explained

Fat Over Lean in Oil Painting

(Not to be confused with thick over thin)

This prevents your painting from cracking over time. Put simply, fat over lean in oil painting means that the ratio of oil, to paint, should be the same as, or fatter (more oil content) with each layer. Oil paint straight from a tube is already mixed with oil, so in order to make it ‘fatter,’ it can be mixed with more oil and therefore it will have a slower drying time.

To make paint ‘leaner, you can mix with thinners, such as turpentine. This will speed up the drying time. It’s important not to over-thin, as this will compromise the flexibility of the paint.

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Oil painting Mediums for Beginners

Oil painting mediums, for beginners, needn’t be complicated. There are lots of ready mixed oil painting mediums out there. Since ready mixed oil painting mediums contain oil, the simplest approach for beginners is to use the same medium throughout the painting, slightly increasing the amount with each layer.

If you are using oil alone, you should not use more than 25% in a mixture.

Thick Over Thin Oil Painting

Thick over thin oil painting is a different thing than fat over lean. If you think about it, thick paint will dry more slowly than thin paint. You need to make sure that the upper oil painting layers dry more slowly than the lower layers, otherwise, your painting may crack.

Slow Drying Over Fast

Some pigments dry more slowly than others, so for the same reasons as above, it’s important to bear this in mind throughout the oil painting process. You can find some really useful information on, which pigments dry fast and which dry more slowly, here

Work dark to light with oil paint

Unlike watercolors where you would work from light to dark, with oil paint it is the complete opposite. Start with your darkest tones and work your way up to the lightest. Trying to darken a light color is much more difficult than trying to lighten a dark color.

Beginner Oil Painting Supplies

Best oil paints

The first thing to consider when you are looking for beginner oil painting supplies is which are the best oil paints to choose

When you are starting out, go for a brand name, but student quality, such as Daler Rowney Georgian oils. Don’t bother with budget paints. They won’t give you a true representation of oils and you won’t get a good understanding if you like the medium or not.

If you do want to invest in something of a professional quality, I would highly recommend Gamblin. In fact, I personally don’t buy anything else these days. Gamblin have developed the safest ‘solvent free’ oil paints and mediums, which eliminate that smell, often associated with oil painting and the safety issues that go with it. In my opinion, Gamblin is the safest to use and they are of extremely high quality. You can read more about why, here: https://gamblincolors.com/studio-safety/solvent-free-painting/

oil painting on canvas

Which oil paint colors to choose to get started

Contrary to what you might expect, you really don’t need many oil painting colors.

You can mix an array of tones and colors (even black) with just a basic palette, containing two of each primary color; a mixture of cool and warm, opaque and transparent. You will also want an earth color and a white.

Below is an example of a good, basic color palette:

  • Cadmium Lemon or Cadmium Yellow Light (cool yellow)
  • Indian Yellow
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cerulean Blue or Phthalo Blue
  • Raw Umber
  • Zinc White

But as you gain more confidence at mixing colors, you can experiment until eventually you will develop your own personal palette.

Oil painting mediums for beginners

Oil painting mediums for beginners needn’t be complicated. You don’t need to think about creating your own recipe. You may, or may not want to do this in time, but the simplest way to start, is to buy a ready-made medium such as Neo Megilp, or Galkyd by Gamblin. They all have different purposes; some will dry more quickly, others will retain brushstrokes.

Here is a guide to the various mediums offered by Gamblin explaining what each one does.


You will also need some mineral spirits, to clean your brushes in between colors. I use Gamsol, again by Gamblin. It’s odour free and does not evaporate into the air, making it a safe choice.

gamsol mediums and oil paints

What is the best surface for oil paints?

Choosing the right surface very much depends on your style of painting. If you intend to use thick, impasto strokes, then a canvas with more tooth (a rougher surface) would be a good choice. However, if you prefer to work in fine detail, a smoother canvas would be a better choice.

When you start, it is a good idea to go for something in the middle. Cotton is an affordable surface and perfect for students. Linen is of a superior quality to cotton, however this is reflected in the price. Whatever you choose, don’t worry about how to prepare a canvas for oil painting; go for a ready primed surface, certainly to begin with.

oil painting canvas

Oil painting paper

You don’t need to spend a lot when you are starting out. Can you oil paint on paper? Yes, you can buy paper made for oil painting. But I personally wouldn’t recommend it; like some watercolor paper, it will buckle and that can make the painting process a frustrating one.

Oil painting palette

glass palette for oil painting

Ideally your oil painting palette should have a very smooth surface, either white or a mid-tone, such as a neutral grey. It will also need to be large enough to mix plenty of color.

You don’t have to spend a lot on a fancy palette. You can even use a plain white dinner plate, or a smooth white tile if you can find one big enough!

I had my own palette made at a local glaziers. It’s a piece of toughened glass, with polished edges and it has been sprayed a neutral grey on the back. The beauty of it is, that even if I accidentally forget to wipe it clean after a painting session, I can use a flat blade and a little soapy water to scrape it back to as new.

TIP: Don’t use a plastic palette, It will stain almost instantly.

Oil painting brushes

This is largely down to your style of oil painting. If you enjoy using thick, impasto strokes, then you might be best with a few hog brushes. Or, if like me, you like painting fine detail, then perhaps a more flexible brush would be best. I enjoy the Ivory Range, by Rosemary brushes.

Start with a couple each of filberts, flats and rounds in varying sizes. You can add to your collection over time.

You might even prefer to use a palette knife instead of a brush! These are also very handy tools to use when you are mixing your paint.

Easels for oil painting

You don’t have to invest in a fancy easel for oil painting to begin with. A simple, table top easel is very handy to use, and I still use mine now when I’m painting on smaller canvases. If you do prefer an easel, there are lots of choices, depending on whether you are painting small, large, outdoors, or in a small space or in a studio.

Oil painting techniques and methods

You now have all you need to start on your oil painting journey. Remember, the key to getting started, is to keep it simple and basic to begin with.

The next step is to learn basic oil painting techniques. You might decide to join a local art class to begin with, but nowadays it’s often easier to learn at your own pace, online. That said, there are so many online oil painting classes, it’s hard to know which to choose.

Many beginners will turn to YouTube. And this is okay, but you need to know you are learning from someone who is giving you the right information. If you are serious about painting and you want to find the best online painting classes, then it’s important to do your research. Think first of all about what style you lean towards. I have always personally leaned towards realism, so it would have been pointless for ‘beginner me’ to have joined an online abstract painting course!

If you are serious about learning to paint in oils to a professional standard, then I would highly recommend the Evolve Program. You can find out more here.

realism oil painting class

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