Need some inspiration for what to paint? Oil paint is an incredibly versatile medium that has been around for centuries. That means that there’s an abundance of established approaches, techniques and styles to choose from. Many of these are accessible to beginners and the rest just takes a bit of practice.
In this guide, find eleven easy oil painting ideas, with step-by-step tutorials on how to try them for yourself. You’ll be creating awesome artworks in no time!
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Oil painting ideas for complete beginners
Paint a cherry
If you are a complete beginner at painting, it can be a good idea to start small, with relatively easy subjects to practice applying paint to the canvas. Get a small canvas, panel or even some oil paper and a small set of paints, artist Lena Danya uses Gamblin in this tutorial. She uses colours cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, titanium white, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, burnt umber and cadmium yellow light. You don’t need amazing reference photos to make an oil painting, you can get creative by going to the grocery store to get cherries or other fruits to make a still life set up.
Paint an apple
Another fruit themed video, Paint Coach shows viewers that if you can paint an apple, you can paint anything. An apple is an easy subject to paint, but it gives artists lessons in accurately rendering light, values and form.
Landscape oil painting ideas
Create landscape oil sketches
Oil is a slow drying and transparent medium. Use the slow drying nature of the paint to your advantage to blend oil on the canvas for longer. The blending technique is conducive to creating sky gradients and fluffy clouds.
Get a soft goat mop brush to blend elements in the sky. The transparency of the paint can be used to create the illusion of detail—as demonstrated in this Youtube tutorial by Stuart Davies. He creates highlights in the undulating hills by wiping away sections of paint with a stiff brush. This gives the impression of light reflecting on grass textures. Stiff hog or synthetic hog brushes in flat and fan shapes are great for this technique.
To create bright, blue skies, mix either Ultramarine or Cobalt with Titanium white. Natural, grass coloured greens can be made with Burnt Umber, Lemon Yellow, Phthalo Blue and Magenta (to neutralise the mix).
Painting landscape sketches is a brilliant way to plan compositions and improve skills quickly. Work on oil paper and try and use the largest brush you can for the section you are painting. This way, you will avoid focussing on details too heavily. If you like the sketches you make, you can always frame them.
Paint a landscape using the alla prima method
The alla prima method, which is also referred to as ‘wet on wet’ is a fast and immediate way of painting with oils. It’s the technique used by Bob Ross! Instead of waiting for oil paint to dry between layers, apply paint on top of wet paint.
It makes sense to layer thicker paint on top of thinner paint (i.e. paint that has been thinned with solvent). You can create texture with thick paint—get a stiff fan brush and build up texture of the leaves on trees. Get a palette knife and create angled rock shapes.
This time-lapse painting demonstration is also full of great tips, such as how to paint the sky lighter towards the horizon. The artist demonstrates how to create atmosphere and depth in a painting. He also shows painters how to layer with oils effectively.
Paint a misty forest scene
In this class by Sarah Mckendry create an atmospheric misty forest. Build your skills by learning brushwork techniques, how to blend mist and create depth. Misty forests exude feelings of serenity; follow the class project to create your very own forest oil painting scene to hang on your wall.
Easy oil painting ideas: create texture with the impasto technique
Create textured palette knife paintings like Van Gogh with the impasto technique. This technique is beginner friendly and encourages artists to be expressive with their paint application. The resulting effect appears loose and painterly.
To try the impasto technique for yourself, get some palette knives or stiff brushes. Optionally thicken the paint with a medium like Cold Wax. The cold wax medium not only thickens paint allowing you to retain brush marks and texture on the canvas, it also makes paint appear more matte and increases volume. By using cold wax you will save more of your tube paint.
To create an impasto artwork, you can start with a drawing first on canvas, so that you can establish your composition. Then block in the basic shapes and colours. You can leave layers to dry before applying more paint, or paint wet on wet. Save the details and brightest highlights for last, using a smaller palette knife. Experiment with this technique and see what kind of results you get.
For a comprehensive course on how to use oil paint with cold wax to create impasto texture, take this class by Denise Love. Learn how to prep your paper, mix paints and create seven of your own dreamy landscape paintings.
Ocean oil painting ideas
Painting the ocean is a relaxing experience. The ocean is a magnificent and changeable subject—create striking atmospheres in your artworks depending on the weather conditions and perspective. Paint moody, stormy seascapes, or tranquil tropical beaches. The sea can be quite a complex subject to capture realistically, as there are lots of smooth colour and tonal transitions involved. So you will have to blend the oil paint to create this soft appearance. Add a medium like linseed oil to the paint to make it runnier and easier to blend. Get a mop brush to blend the sky and sea elements.
Ultramarine is a blue that leans towards purple, it’s perfect for painting deep water. Phthalo blue and lemon yellow can be mixed to make bright turquoise, use this for warm, shallow water and translucent waves.
Paint a wave with oils
Create movement and dynamism with a turquoise blue ocean wave. In this beginner’s tutorial, Lena Danya shows artists how to create an accurate underpainting from a grid. She also demonstrates how to create the abstract, natural shapes and forms found in the reflections and foam on the water. To create turquoise blue, you can mix phthalo and lemon yellow. However, there are other pigments you can mix together to create similar colours, such as Radiant Turquoise by Gamblin and white.
Paint a transparent tropical wave, and follow along with our video tutorial. The key to creating a realistic looking seascape here, is mixing transitional shades for the sky and blending with a goat mop brush. You only need a few colours for this tutorial—ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, lemon yellow, burnt umber and titanium white. To create the realistic soft edges in the water, try painting wet on wet. This way the colours will blend into one another.
Oil portrait tutorials
Daria Callie shares some helpful oil painting tips, including how to mix skin tones from a limited palette of Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Ultramarine, Burnt Umber and Titanium White.
Painting portraits accurately is a fairly complex task. Rendering the details in the skin and mixing colours to match your reference is a challenge. In this tutorial learn how to paint from a reference photo and focus on values (the relative lightness or darkness of a colour) when painting.
As oil paint is slow drying, it might be helpful to first study your reference, with all the colour and tonal transitions, then mix colours to match your reference. Having all the colours mixed on your palette before you start painting will mean that you can get into the flow of putting colour onto the canvas with no interruptions. If you’re struggling with accurate colour mixing, read our tutorial on how to mix colours with oil paint.
Artist Matt Talbert creates texture in this oil portrait using the impasto technique. He builds form and refines features by sculpting the paint. Applying texture like this a wonderful way to experiment with brushwork, to create a range of shapes and textures. It also gives the artwork a lively feel. Both of these videos provide tips on how to approach portrait painting, but executing portraits to this level will take practice. If you’re a beginner, focus on creating a drawing practice to improve your skills and spend time mixing and matching colours.
Paint clouds with oils
Create a glowing cloudscape with this oil painting tutorial. You don’t need too many supplies or colours to create a cloud painting. To blend paint for sky gradients and the edges of the clouds, use a clean soft brush like a goat mop. To achieve bright, clean mixes, use highly pigmented colours like those from Michael Harding, Gamblin, or Schmincke.
Paint a sunset with oils
Take this painting lesson and observe how the artist uses a limited palette to create a striking sunset. Try painting on a small canvas or oil paper to practice composition and applying colour. If you have your own reference photo to use, you don’t have to follow it to a tee. As this artist demonstrates, take some artistic license and increase the saturation of the colours in some areas, or swap some of the elements around. To paint alla prima (wet on wet) as this artist is doing, get a relatively stiff brush like the Princeton Catalyst Polytip brush to move thick paint around.
Easy abstract oil painting ideas
There are numerous abstract oil painting techniques you can use to create texture. In this demonstration, Marina Kravchuk applies modelling paste with a palette knife to a canvas. Waits for it to dry, then applies thin layers of oil paint on top. Play around with this technique by creating structure with a thick modelling paste before applying any colour.
Alternatively, you could add a medium like cold wax to your colour then build texture on the canvas. Use a variety of tools like palette knives, catalyst wedges and stiff brushes to create different marks. Pile paint on the surface, scrape sections away, flick paint using a splatter brush or mask areas with painters tape to leave whitespace. Get creative and experiment. If you want to improve your abstract painting skills, check out our abstract oil painting tutorial.
Still life oil painting ideas
Find different objects from around your house and create your very own set up. Popular still life subjects include fruit, flowers, crockery, vases. But you really could paint anything. Play around with the lighting and the back drop until you’re happy—creating your still life set up is almost as fun as the painting part.
Painting from objects and subjects in front of you is a great way to practise your observation skills. Observe colours as they appear in life, as opposed to in a photo or on a screen. If you’re a beginner, you could start with a simple composition, like the pear painting in this tutorial. Work your way up to painting more complex arrangements.
This still life oil painting lesson by Maria Morris shows artists how to create a small, fun, bright still life.
Paint en plein air
What’s more inspiring than nature and the great outdoors? Find the perfect spot near you to set up an easel and start painting. Get a plein air easel, wait for some good weather and take your canvas outside. Capturing the light before it changes is a challenge, so practise working quickly. Smaller panels are great for capturing scenes quickly. For some more tips on how to paint outdoors, read our plein air painting tutorial.
Use oil painting sticks
Oil paint sticks are like a cross between oil paint and pastel. They’re wax coated and can be held like a pencil. Use them to draw onto the canvas. Sennelier oil sticks are made from high quality pigments bound in vegetable oil. They’re intensely vibrant and make clean colour mixes. You can mould colour applied to the canvas—start by drawing it on with the stick, then get a stiff brush and a little solvent or linseed oil and brush the colour across the surface. Oil sticks are great for artists who feel comfortable drawing but want to experiment with oil paint. They have the same drying time and working properties as regular oil. find a more in depth guide on oil paint sticks here.
Experiment with the multi-layered approach
The more you work on a painting with layers of detail, the more realistic it will start to appear. Working on dry layers creates separation between elements and therefore adds depth to an artwork.
Start by creating an underpainting
You could start with a tonal underpainting to establish the light and dark areas of your subject before applying colour. The underpainting acts to deepen colours in the darkest shadows of the painting when consecutive layers are applied.
Some oil pigments are translucent and you can use the glazing technique to increase the transparency of paint. The underpainting will shine through in some areas of the finished painting if transparent layers of glaze are applied on top. Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber are all pigments that are suited to using with the underpainting technique.
Create an oil glaze
To create a glaze, increase the transparency of paint with a medium like linseed oil and use soft brushes. Apply paint on top of dried layers and use the transparency to alter colour profiles, increase saturation or colour contrasts.
If too many layers of glazes are added, the painting can begin to look quite dark, so apply the glazes gradually and step back and analyse your painting as a whole every now and then. You don’t have to apply a glaze colour to the entirety of a painting, it might be that you want to emphasise a small shadow, enhance the colour of the eyes or lips, or increase the warmth of skin tones. Glaze layers will take a while to dry (1-3 days) therefore this technique takes time and patience. This is a more advanced technique, but many artists are inspired to work in this way.
Easy oil painting ideas: Pin it!
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