How To Use Oil Paint: Make Your Paintings Like A Pro

An oil painting on an easel

Do you want to learn how to use oil paint? Well, you're not alone. Many people are interested in the techniques and materials used for creating this type of art. This article will give you tips and techniques on using paint at home or in a studio setting - including choosing the right tools and supplies for the job!

Before starting your oil painting, it is vital to have all your materials, then find a comfortable and well-ventilated area to paint. Prime your canvas (if not pre-primed), then outline your artwork with a graphite pencil. Underpaint to set the tone of your canvas before doing the actual painting process.  

What You'll Need

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Gather all your tools and supplies

Before starting your oil painting, gather all your supplies and tools as listed above. These supplies and tools need a good investment so you can get the best quality for your oil paintings.

2. Find a comfortable workspace to paint

Find an area to work where you have good ventilation since oil pastels have a nasty smell. If the ventilation is poor, wear a mask to prevent inhaling the fumes. Use protective cream or nitrile gloves to protect yourself from dangerous chemicals from oil paints.

3. Apply primer to your canvas

Priming your canvas prevents the oils in the paint from seeping into the canvas, affecting the quality and archival features of the oil painting. If you buy pre-primed canvas, you may skip this step. However, if your canvas is not pre-primed, apply 2 or more layers of universal gesso.

4. Outline your painting

Make a monochrome outline of your painting using a pencil or black paint. Add linseed oil or solvent to your color to thin it out for the outline.

5. Add the underpainting

Underpainting sets the tone for your canvas. Like underpainting in oil pastels, it improves the vibrancy of your colors. Art teachers recommend using warm paint for underpainting when using cool colors like blue and green. Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, and Burnt Sienna are good choices for warm underpainting.

Reverse this scheme if you use warm colors for your painting and go for Ultramarine blue or grayish-blue to add cool underpainting. Drop some washers, nuts, or bolts into the container to mix the medium, turpentine, and oil paint. 

Apply this mixture in even strokes with a broad brush to cover the canvas. Let the underpainting dry before painting over it. Aside from oil paints, you can also use acrylic paint for underpainting your oils. It helps dry the oil paint faster. 

6. Layer your paints

Build your colors by layering them. If you dilute your oil paints with turpentine, use them for the first layers and apply paint from the tube last, which has more oil. Do this to prevent the paint from cracking because the thinner layer dries faster than the layer with more oil.

Although the oil paints dry and cure well, they need 3-6 months after the last application, so you must master the layering technique for best results.

Why Use Oil Paints?

A wooden box filled with oil paint tubesYou don't need to hurry when working with oil paint.

Oil paints are very forgiving to use because they take a long time to dry, so if you make mistakes, they are easier to correct than when working with water-based painting mediums.

Oil paints are naturally glossy.

Because of the oil content of oil paints, they are naturally glossy, so even if you don't add a gloss varnish after allowing it to dry and cure, gloss won't be an issue.

The colors remain consistent.

Oil paints are very consistent, unlike watercolors, acrylics, or gouache that changes color once dry. With oil paints, you get what you can see. 

Oil paints are easy to handle.

You can choose the consistency you want for your oil paints without compromising their quality. You can thin it with a solvent or medium, mix different colors from your basic colors, and apply as many layers as you want.

Oil paints are safe. 

Though some newbies are apprehensive of using oil paints because of safety issues, there won't be an issue unless you ingest the oil paints. The solvent and mediums are what pose the biggest problem on safety when working with oil paints. Read on below for safe alternatives to turpentine for thinning and cleaning your brushes.

Tips From Professionals

Color swatches from color mixing practice

1. Know your materials

Each supply in your studio has a different function, and understanding each helps you make better oil paintings. Here is a quick rundown of what you need for painting with oils.

  • Oil paint

Oil paint can be a tricky medium to work with since the surface may feel dry, but the paint underneath tells another story. It is, therefore, imperative for artists to remember these two rules: always start with paint diluted with turpentine and leave the thicker layers last.

When doing mixed media, do not layer acrylics over oils. Always start with water-based paints and medium before moving to oil paints. When mixing oil paints, water-mixable oil paints, also called aqua-oils, remove solvents and turpentine from the equation.

However, there are downsides to using water-mixable oil paints. Water evaporates, and the paint will thicken up while painting, and the finish looks matte.

  • Paintbrush

Oil paint brushes need thicker bristles because of the thick consistency of oil paints. Where watercolor paint brushes need to be soft with a good spring and snap, oil paint brushes need to be rigid enough to move the oils on the canvas. Go for natural hog or badger bristles, especially for the paintings’ main parts.

Synthetic brushes are best for detailing and making clear, sharp edges. Invest in excellent brushes, but don't go overboard. You only need at least 4-5 different brushes for underpainting or adding details and lines to your painting.

  • Solvents and Mediums

Mediums improve the consistency and finish of your oil paintings. You can use linseed oil as an excellent medium for oil paints. Since it is also a drying oil, it improves the drying time of your paints. However, limit its use when working with lighter paints to avoid a yellowish tinge to your whites and tints.

Professionals recommend refined linseed oil, drying poppy oil, and liquin as excellent painting mediums. Alkyd medium, made from synthetic resin, is another alternative medium. It accelerates drying time, though it also removes some gloss from your oil paints. 

Aside from cleaning your brushes, turpentine, and other solvents, make your oil paints thin, so they are ideal for applying initial layers. Be careful when handling turpentines and store them away from the reach of children and pets as they can kill. It is a suitable solvent for cleaning your brushes and thinning your oil paints.

We recommend some friendlier oil painter thinners like Gamsol oil, turpenoid, citrus solvent, and lavender spike oil essence.

  • Canvas

When choosing the best canvas for your oil paintings, you may choose between cotton and linen canvas. Cotton canvas has shorter fibers but has good spring and archival properties. On the other hand, linen canvas has longer fibers and a smoother and firmer surface because of its natural oils that prevent the canvas from becoming brittle.

It has less springiness than cotton canvas and is more expensive than cotton canvas. You can choose from stretched canvas, canvas panels, canvas pads, and canvas rolls to form. Stretched canvas has a wooden frame, usually pre-primed with gesso, and comes in different sizes. 

This canvas form is best for professionals and advanced art students as it is more expensive than the two forms. Canvas panels don't have wooden frames and are cheaper than stretched canvas. They are perfect for practice pieces once you're more comfortable with using oil paints.

For newbies, we recommend canvas pads since they are very affordable, and you may use them for various painting mediums. Though they are lighter than watercolor papers, they have a textured surface reminiscent of a canvas. If you're feeling a little crafty or want a larger canvas for your masterpieces, you may wish for a canvas roll

You can choose from different widths and lengths, but it is best to get a double primed canvas. You don't have to worry about which side to paint on! Be sure to get pre-treated wood for the stretcher strips for your canvas. Professional artists recommend Nordic pinewood, white pine, or ponderosa pine, preferably from FSC-certified suppliers.

  • Palette

Glass palettes are one of the best for mixing oil paints because of their smooth surface and are easy to clean. However, we don't recommend it for outdoor painting because of its bulk and brittleness. Acrylic palettes are also good for mixing oil paints because they are lightweight and durable and can withstand working with a palette knife.
  • Palette knife

The palette knife is an exciting tool to use for your oil paintings. Using the palette knife allows you to give texture to your oil painting that paintbrushes can't. Aside from texture, you can add lines, broken colors (depending on the grain of the canvas), clean edges, or apply paint over wet paint without disturbing the lower layers.

It is helpful if you're picking paints to mix and apply on your canvas. You can also scrape off excess paint on your painting or clean the palette with the palette knife.

  • Pencils

Use a graphite pencil to add soft strokes when drawing your outline to avoid strong lines on your canvas. The oil in the oil painting will remove the lines so that you won't see them.

  • Easel

It's not easy to keep a good posture while drawing, especially on a horizontal table. Using an easel gives you an undistorted view of your work and allows you free movement while painting.

  • Rags

Use rags or paper towels to remove the excess paint from your paint brushes. You may also use crumpled, old newspapers or old shirts to clean your paints. Remember to dispose of whatever you use correctly, as oil paints and solvents are highly combustible.

  • Painter's apron

Oil paints are messy, so it is best to protect your clothes with an apron. Use a heavy-duty canvas apron with pockets to stash your mobile phone and brushes before using it. Since oil paint contains toxic chemicals, try to keep it away from your clothes and skin as much as possible, and an apron is an excellent way to do it.

  • Studio brush cleaner

The studio brush cleaner is a convenient and space-saving way to keep your brushes clean. It consists of an outer can with bristles and an inner can with a perforated or wire mesh bottom.

A spiral brush holder attached to the inner can keeps your brushes suspended, so you can soak your brushes in turpentine without damaging the bristles. This setup effectively removes the excess pigments from the brush. Replenish once the solvent becomes too oily.

  • Oil paint cleaner

Brush cleaner is an essential part of any paintbrush arsenal, especially when working with oil paints. It also has a conditioner so your brushes will last a long time. It comes in liquid and soap form.

2. Start with a few colors

As a newbie, it is very tempting to buy a full palette of oil paints. However, professional artists recommend having basic colors - red, yellow, blue, brown, and white. You can make a myriad of other colors from these colors without spending much on colors you won't use frequently.

However, it is best to understand the color theory before jumping to mixing colors. The good thing about this technique is that it let you master color mixing, which you can't master when using a full palette.

3. Practice with your subject

We know this tip sounds frustrating, but constant practice lets you experiment with your style and perfect your subject. Students from well-reputed art schools spend months perfecting a single subject, but the practice lets you see how you progress with your skills.

Over time, you learn to pay attention to details, values, even brush strokes to see how you can improve the look of your painting.

Proper Way of Cleaning Your Paint Brushes

A makeshift brush cleaner jar
A makeshift brush cleaner jar - Image by Florent Farges
  • Remove excess paint 

To make the washing process easier, wipe off the excess paint on your brush on a piece of clean rag. Remove the remaining paint with turpentine or solvent. Dispose of your rags carefully since turpentine or solvent are combustible and may accidentally catch fire. Soak the rag in warm, soapy water and then wash for subsequent use.

  • Wash with warm, soapy water

Add a little mild dishwashing liquid to the brush and rinse the soap off with warm water. Do not touch the bristle longer than is necessary to avoid damaging the bristles.

  • Air dry before storing

Let your brush dry naturally in a well-ventilated area. You may blot out the excess water on a rag, then stand the brushes in a jar or brush holder with the bristles up. Store the brushes in a cool, dry place once fully dry, then use moth protection to protect your brushes from bugs.


Oil paint is a very versatile and forgiving medium. Whether you're looking to create landscapes, portraits, or abstract pieces, oil paint provides depth and dimension to your work. We hope these tips are helpful to get you started with oil paints. Which technique did you find most helpful? Let us know in the comments.

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