What You Need To Know To Create Beginner Oil Paintings

Oil Painting For The Beginner

Basics For The Oil Paint Beginner

I'm sharing everything as I deconstruct how I learned to paint. Use these oil paint beginner tips. This post will cover the following and more:

  1. Gesso Canvas Or Panel
  2. Stretching A Canvas
  3. Underpainting Or Alla Prima
  4. Student Or Artist-Grade Paints
  5. Painting Medium
  6. Varnishing

Gesso Canvas Or Panel

When painting in oil paint, the painting surface needs to be primed before you paint. The easiest way to achieve this is to buy a pre-primed canvas or panel that has been coated with gesso.

Before painting in oil, the surface must be coated with gesso. Gesso is a primer that prepares the surface for painting.

If you don't gesso a canvas, the oil will seep into the fabric's weave. If oil gets onto the bare canvas, the canvas will rot. Therefore, you must gesso a canvas before painting with oil paint.

Gesso creates a protective barrier between the canvas and the oil paint while making the surface less absorbent and ready for paint. Painting panels must be coated with gesso as well.

If you don't want to buy pre-primed canvas or panels, buy gesso and do it yourself.

To gesso canvas, paint a thin layer of acrylic gesso onto the surface of the canvas. Let it dry. Paint a second layer of gesso onto the canvas. Let it dry. Paint a third layer of gesso onto the canvas and let it dry.

Once dry, sand the surface if desired.

Sometimes, you will see artists make an X with gesso across the back of a painting panel. This is done to prevent large wooden panels from warping.

Wood painting panels are also cradled to prevent warping. You will notice many painting panels have a wooden frame attached to the back. This frame supports the panel and prevents the panel from warping.

Oil Painting Beginner Supplies

  • Canvas Or Panel
  • Acrylic Gesso Or Oil-Based Gesso
  • Artist-Grade Paints
  • Variety Of Natural Hair Paintbrushes
  • Painting Palette
  • Linseed Oil
  • Odorless Mineral Spirits Or Turpentine
  • Paint Rags Or Paper Towels
  • Artist Palette Knife Or Paint Trowel

Stretching Canvas

Buy pre-stretched canvas or stretch your own.

If stretching your own canvas for painting, you'll need the following art supplies:

  • Stretcher Bars
  • Staple Gun
  • Canvas Stretching Pliers Or Strong Hands

Buy a pair of canvas stretching pliers if possible. These are pliers that are made especially for stretching canvas.

You can stretch a canvas with regular pliers but it's much easier with the right equipment. Canvas stretching pliers have a wide mouth that grips a larger section of the canvas. This really helps when pulling the canvas tight around the frame.

The frame is often made of wooden bars called stretcher bars. Stretcher bars can be bought in a variety of sizes. Put the stretcher bars together to form the frame on which you will stretch the canvas.

If you have woodworking skills, make your own frame.

To stretch a canvas, cut the canvas about 8 inches wider and longer than your stretcher bars. Start at the center on one side. Pull the canvas around the frame.

Attach the center of each side with one or two staples. Staple on the backside of the stretcher bar if you want the clean look of a gallery-wrapped canvas. Attach the canvas with one or two staples to hold it in place.

Moving to the opposite side, pull the fabric as tight as you can. Wrap the fabric around the stretcher bar frame and place a couple more staples to hold it into place. Move to a third side of the frame, pull the canvas tight, and staple the center. Move to the final side of the frame, pull the canvas tight around the frame, and again, staple the center.

Once all 4 sides have been stretched and stapled, the center of the canvas should be tight and flat. Starting on the first side, begin working out from the center. Pull the canvas tight and staple it as you go. Then go to the opposite side and repeat. Save the corners for last.

Once the canvas is tight and securely stapled, you can fold your corners and staple them into place. Fold your corners neatly to get the look of a gallery-wrapped canvas.

Canvas can be bought on a roll. You can buy pre-primed or natural canvas fabric. Choose the natural or raw canvas if stretching your own. I once bought a large roll of pre-primed canvas and learned an unfortunate lesson.

Pre-primed canvas is hard to stretch. It makes the canvas more rigid. Canvas is a woven fabric. It is not stretchy.

If you pull canvas fabric really hard, it will stretch a little. This slight stretch makes it possible to pull it tightly around the frame. The stretch is what helps you make a really tight flat painting surface.

Pre-primed canvas will hardly stretch at all no matter how hard you pull. I found pre-primed canvas hard to work with and I had just bought a whole roll of it. Don't make the same mistake. Buy natural or raw cotton or linen canvas for stretching canvas. Coat the top canvas with gesso after it is stretched.

Painting Palette

You can make or buy a painter's palette. Consider one of the following:

  • Glass Painting Palette
  • Foil Painting Palette
  • Disposable Paper Painting Palette
  • Wood Painting Palette

Use a piece of tempered glass. Smooth the edges of the glass.

Many artists use a toned palette. They find it easier to mix colors on a grey neutral-colored surface. Sitting the piece of glass on top of a piece of toned paper will provide a neutral background for color mixing.

I like to use a 1/8" thick piece of plywood as a palette. I wrap the plywood with a new piece of aluminum foil each time I paint. This is an easy way to create a disposable palette.

Disposable paper palettes are available at many art supply stores. Simply tear off the used sheet when you're done painting to reveal a clean piece below. The pages of a paper painter's palette are coated to prevent oil from absorbing into the paper.

Wooden painter's palettes are the traditional choice. Coat a new wood palette with a coat of polyurethane before using.

Regardless of the type of painter's palette you choose, consider placing the palette vertically on your easel next to your painting.

Many people sit the palette on a tabletop top, leaving it horizontal. The artist has to move their head from looking at the painting to looking down at the palette. It's much more efficient to have a vertical palette right next to your painting.

It will reduce head movements. It also puts your paint mixes in a visual line with your subject, allowing you to better analyze colors.

Underpainting Or Alla Prima

The first layer of an oil painting is called underpainting. An underpainting for oil paint is often a grisaille layer.

A grisaille layer is painted with one color. This is essentially the drawing layer where you map out your composition and establish the lights and darks. You should let this layer dry before painting the next layer.

Alla Prima means to paint all in one sitting. You can skip the underpainting when painting Alla Prima.

Research both of these methods and determine which one will suit you best.

Can you draw out the composition before painting?

I was taught to draw out the painting composition with paint and a paintbrush. We weren't allowed to use charcoal or any other medium to draw on the canvas before painting.

Paintbrushes For Oil Painting

Natural hair bristles are the best for oil painting. You can find some nice alternatives. Have a variety of paintbrushes available. Keep your paintbrushes clean. Clean paintbrushes or switch to a different brush between colors to prevent colors from becoming muddy.

I like to paint with a round paintbrush. Paintbrushes come in flat, round, filbert, etc.

Drawing with a paintbrush.

Drawing with a paintbrush can be challenging. It's easier if you dip your brush into some odorless mineral spirits or turpentine before picking up any paint.

Load only a small amount of paint onto the brush. Rub the paintbrush against a paint rag to remove any excess, then draw a few lines and repeat. The mistake we make is trying to draw with too much paint. You can easily find yourself pushing around paint instead of leaving fine lines.

I like to draw with a flat paintbrush.

Drawing with charcoal under a painting.

You can lightly draw out your composition with charcoal prior to painting. Vine charcoal is a nice choice because it goes on light.

If you want to transfer a drawing to your canvas, coat the back of the drawing with a light layer of charcoal or Pan Pastel. Place the drawing over your canvas. Lightly trace over the drawing with a pencil. The pressure from the point of the pencil will transfer the charcoal or Pan Pastel to your canvas or panel.

Student Or Artist-Grade Oil Paints

Students often buy student-grade paint because it's cheaper. Don't do it. Use artist-grade paints from the very beginning.

There's nothing wrong with student-grade paints, they simply take a lot of medium to make them workable. So you'll have the additional expense of purchasing painting mediums and sealing in habits that you'll have to break later on.

I was taught to paint with student-grade paints and painting medium.

Student-grade paint comes out of the tube in a stiff snake of paint. You have to add a painting medium to it just to spread it across your painting.

Artist-grade paints come out of the tube creamy. They can be used alone without a painting medium. Add a couple of drops of linseed oil as necessary to improve the fluidity.

As an artist, the one thing I'm short on is time. I want to maximize my creative time. Stopping to relearn something slows you down. It creates a temporary setback to our progress.

When I switched to artist-grade paints, I already had painting habits. I'd been doing things the same way for years. I was used to painting with a painting medium. I was used to adding a certain amount to my paint. I was used to how this made the paint flow.

Everything you do repeatedly becomes a habit. You no longer have to think about what you're doing.

Change to a different method and suddenly, you have to think about everything. It really slows you down.

Do something today that your older artist will thank you for.

Learn with the best materials.

Paint with a limited palette. Choose fewer paint colors and don't buy painting mediums. The cost should balance itself out.

Painting Medium

I assumed that you had to use a painting medium if painting in oils. Almost all painting mediums are toxic.

When I had my daughter, I became concerned about the toxicity of my art supplies. It was only after some extensive research that I realized painting medium is optional.

You don't even need it. The longest-lasting oil paintings are said to be painted with paint only.

Skip painting medium. Use linseed oil instead. It's safe, natural, economical, and a time-tested choice.


Oil painting should be varnished but not right away. Many artists suggest waiting a year or two before varnishing.

Gamblin has a nice option that can be used much sooner. Use Gamblin's Gamvar for easy varnishing. Once your painting is fully dry, just brush a light coat of Gamvar across the surface and let it dry. I suggest you refer to the manufacturer's website for the best use and recommendations.

How To Start An Oil Painting For Beginners

Paint Layer 1 - Draw Out Your Art Composition

Draw out your art composition on your canvas or panel. Mix a small amount of solvent into your paint for this first layer or dip the very tip of your brush into solvent before loading paint onto your paintbrush.

Common solvents used in oil painting are odorless mineral spirits or turpentine. Another option is Spike Lavender Oil. If painting an underpainting, let this layer dry before painting the next layer.

Adding solvent to the first layer makes this layer "lean". There is a rule in oil painting called the "Fat Over Lean Rule". Following this rule will keep your paint from cracking.

Fat means oil. Fat over lean means that the 1st layers should contain very little oil. Each layer after that can contain a bit more oil. The upper layers or last layers that you paint should contain the most oil. The layer with the most oil is the fattest layer.

Make your first layers thin. Use less paint and spread it to a thin layer.

Paint Layer 2 - Start Adding Color

When painting the second layer, begin adding color. Paint larger shapes, avoid painting details. Details should be painted later, in the upper layers. The second oil paint layer is for blocking the overall color of each section.

If painting a vase, consider the highlights one section, the shadows one section, the mid-tones another section.

Try to match colors to the subject as close as possible. You want to use the next layers to build up depth, not for making corrections. You will spin your wheels and waste time making too many corrections. Spend the extra time that it takes to nail things down early on.

Your upper layers are not for making corrections. Your upper paint layers are for creating depth. They are for refining the details. Make your corrections in the first layers of your painting. Work these first layers until they feel just right. This was hard for me to grasp because I was impatient. Eventually, my older self started realizing how much time I was spending making corrections. Don't make the same mistake with your time.

Mixing Oil Paint Colors

When mixing oil paint, try to get the color that you desire by mixing 2-3 paint colors or less. More than 3 paint colors mixed together will begin to get muddy. This is also why your underpainting should be dry before painting the next layer. If it's not dry, the underpainting color will muddy up your next layer as it will mix into your paint colors.

Write down the colors you have used to mix oil paint color for this layer. You will need to remix these same colors later on. If it's been a while, you may forget the exact paint colors you used. For example, I was working on a series of 4 paintings at a time. I would paint a layer then move on to the next painting, then the next, and so on. By the time I circled back to the first painting, I couldn't remember which blue I used.

There are many blue paint colors available. You may have 5 blue paint colors in your paint drawer. After some time, it's difficult to remember which paint color you used. Some are obvious, others have subtle differences. I wasted a good hour or two remixing and comparing until I found the right one. Don't waste your creative time.

If you're painting Alla Prima, carefully consider your color choices from the very beginning. Again, colors will become muddy if you mix too many together. Move slowly and deliberately rather than waste time making corrections later on.

If your lights are warm in color temperature, consider making your shadows cool in color temperature. If a subject is lit by warm yellow sunlight, the lights will contain yellow. Therefore, your shadows are likely to contain blue, purple, or violet.

Unless working in the Alla Prima method, let each paint layer dry before painting the next layer. Oil paint dries faster in a warm environment. Sit your oil painting in a sunlit window all day to speed up the drying time.

Paint Layer 3 - Layers Add Depth

When painting your 3rd oil paint layer, paint with the same paint mixes from layer 2. You're not changing the color, you are building depth by painting another layer of the same color. Then you are creating depth by slightly modifying that color as you move across the form.

Feel free to use slightly more oil in this layer. Remember the "fat over lean" rule. If you used only a drop or two of linseed oil in the previous layer, you can mix a few more drops into the paint for this layer. Keep it minimal and use only what you need.

This paint layer can be painted with slightly thicker paint. Paint thin layers first, then thicker paint in the next layers, saving the thickest paint for the top layers.

Paint Layer 4+ - Add Details Or Glazing

The upper and final layers of your oil painting can contain the most oil. This means that you can glaze in these layers.

Glazing is an oil painting technique where transparent layers are used to adjust the colors or shade a section of a painting. Glazing is optional, but not required.

Refine the details in these upper or final layers.

Immediate Feedback

Stop occasionally and take the time to give yourself immediate feedback. Look at your work in a mirror or take a photograph of it. Your brain grows accustomed to any mistakes you've made. You'll think it looks correct.

Reversing the image in a mirror or taking a photograph somehow overrides this. Check your work often using these methods to catch errors early.

Oil Paint Drying & Varnishing

Once your oil painting is finished, set it aside and let it dry fully. Once fully dry, you can varnish with products like Gamblin's Gamvar. Simply paint a thin layer across the surface of your oil painting and let it dry.

Don't shake the varnish before applying. Shaking can cause bubbles to appear in the varnish. Paint the varnish on with slow strokes of the paintbrush, again to avoid making bubbles. If dust is a concern, you can lay the painting flat, varnish it, then cover it with an empty box until dry. The box should prevent dust from settling into the wet varnish.

The final paint layer should contain your thickest paint. Paint thick layers on top of thin layers.

Use Thick Paint For Highlights - Thin Paint For Shadows

The thickest paint should be your highlights. The thinnest paint should be your shadows. Leave the shadow layers thin. Make highlights thick.

Thick paint will leave brushstrokes. The texture of the brushstrokes will catch the light and therefore stand, especially when lit beautifully in a gallery setting.

Alla Prima

If working in Alla Prima, you will only create one paint layer. The painting is created all at once, in one session, in one paint layer. This method is popular for Plein Air painting or painting outside.

Art Studio Safety

Some oil paint colors are toxic. Do not get oil paint onto your skin. Do not create the habit of holding your paintbrush with your mouth.

Keep all art supplies out of the reach of children.

If you choose to use solvents, be sure to work in a well-ventilated area. Do not leave the lid off a solvent. Solvents put off harmful fumes.

Dispose of all linseed oil rags in a metal can full of water with a tight-fitting lid. Linseed oil-soaked rags can spontaneously combust resulting in fire.


Oil painting for the beginner can seem overwhelming. There are many ways that you can simplify the process and learn faster.

Although painters need to know how to stretch and gesso a canvas, buying a pre-primed canvas or painting panel will save time and get you painting faster. Simply understand that all painting surfaces must be primed with gesso before oil painting. You can use acrylic gesso or oil-based gesso.

Choose between the traditional method of painting and underpainting grisaille or learn to paint Alla Prima. Do your research and choose which method suits you.

Buy artist-grade paints even if you have to buy fewer colors. You can paint with a limited palette. Fewer colors reduce the number of decisions, therefore making it easier for a beginner. Consider using the Zorn palette for example.

Painting medium is optional. Use a few drops of linseed oil when necessary in place of the painting medium.

Don't varnish your painting until it is fully dry.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones