How to Start an Oil Painting

How to Start an Oil Painting: 5 Methods

There are several different ways to start an oil painting. When staring at a blank canvas, it can feel like there are endless possibilities. Laying down the first lines can feel like the hardest part of the painting, before you get into that wonderful flow state of moving paint freely around your surface.

If you’re a beginner oil painter, you may not realise that there are established methods to starting an oil painting, that will help you compose your masterpiece with confidence and success.

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Start with lean paint

Before we get into the different methods of starting a painting, it’s important to note that there is an order for which paint should be layered on the canvas. This layering method is called fat over lean. Lean paint is paint that has been thinned with solvent, fat paint is oil rich. In essence, always layer paint that has a higher oil content over paint with less oil content. This could mean that you start with tube paint and layer paint with added linseed oil on top. Or it could mean that you mix paint with a solvent like turpentine for your first layer, then layer tube paint over that. 

Starting with leaner paint means that you won’t run into any preventable problems with your oil painting, such as paint appearing chalky on the surface, paint not adhering properly, or even paint cracking.

Start an oil painting with an imprimatura (toned ground)

How to tone a canvas

Many artists choose to start by covering the white ground of the canvas with an imprimatura, which is a transparent stain of colour. This coloured ground can be used to cover the stark white of the canvas and establish a mid tone.

Many artists find it easier to determine dark and light value relationships better when working on a toned ground. A mistake beginners often make when painting is using highly contrasting and disparate colours and tones in paintings. By starting on a mid toned colour, artists will naturally be more subtle in mixing highlight and shadow tones, then gradually increasing the contrast in consecutive layers. 

Another benefit of working on a toned ground, is that if the pigment used appears throughout the image, you can leave it unchanged, for the toned ground to shine through in the finished painting. 

To choose a colour for imprimatura, look at the information on the paint tube. Those that work best are fast drying, transparent and tend to be neutral in tone. Earth colours like burnt umber, burnt sienna and raw umber work brilliantly. Thin the paint with solvent like turpentine and cover the surface with a large brush

Create an underpainting

Start an oil painting with the underpainting technique

Underpainting is a technique used by the old masters and many artists still use it today. An underpainting is essentially a monochromatic painting where shadows and highlights are established before colour layers are added. You could create your underpainting over your dry toned ground if you choose, or paint straight over the white canvas.

Choose a dark, transparent pigment with a good tonal range like burnt umber, mars brown, burnt sienna or raw umber. Then use titanium white for the opaque highlights. 

Thin the paint with a little solvent to increase the fluidity and drying time. Start by sketching where the darkest shadows are. Use a paper towel or lint free cloth to lift colour from the canvas to reveal mid tone and lighter areas. Then establish the lightest highlights by painting with titanium white. If you’re completing the underpainting over a white canvas, leave the highlights unpainted.

By starting with a tonal underpainting, you could choose to apply transparent glazes on top to alter the colour profiles of your artwork. This method of painting, with an underpainting and glazes is difficult to master, but can provide incredibly luminous results.

Start with a drawing

start an oil painting with a drawing

For ultimate precision, start with a drawing. Map out the structure of the image before you commit to applying paint. There are several methods of creating a drawing, use the grid method or transfer method to ensure accuracy.

Grid method

The grid method of drawing is where you create a grid on a reference drawing or photo, then a grid on a canvas with the same proportions. Use the lines of the grid as reference points to draw your subject accurately. You could choose to scale up your drawing, or keep it the same size, depending on the size of the surface you’ve chosen.

Create a grid on Photoshop, or use a ruler and pencil to draw it over a drawing or printed photo.

Establish reference points

Another way to start an oil painting is to draw in reference points on your artwork. You could do this with pencil, or with thinned oil paint. 

Draw in the most important landmarks of the painting, like the horizon line and mark the locations of the main elements. If you’re painting a portrait, start by marking out the size of the head, then the placement of the features.

You may choose to paint in these reference points with thinned paint, if so, use loose brushwork to define the placement of your subjects, establishing the composition of the painting from the first stage. A good tip, if you’re unsure about what makes an effective composition, is to create some small composition sketches or thumbnails in a sketchbook first.

Start an oil painting by blocking in 

blocking in technique

The ‘blocking in’ technique is a popular way of starting a painting. You can block out colours over a drawing, or even over a toned canvas. To carry out this method, mix colours as you see them in your reference. You don’t need to worry about the colours of the highlights or details until later layers of the painting. 

Start with the broad colours and tones that form a base upon which you can layer details. For example, if you are painting the sky, you could create a gradient of medium blue at the top, to lighter blue nearer the horizon, but omit details like smaller clouds or birds that you would paint later. Or if you were painting a tree, you may block in a transparent layer of burnt umber for the trunk, but leave out details of the bark for the next layer of your painting. 

Leave your block colours to dry, then in your next painting session, mould the shapes, refine the details, add in highlights, deepen shadows. This technique feels intuitive to use and is beginner friendly.

What supplies do you need to start an oil painting?

There’s no definitive list, or supplies that are completely necessary, but there are a few materials that work best to use in the first stage of an oil painting.

  • A surface such as oil paper, canvas, or wooden panel. Ensure that the surface is primed with gesso already, or apply gesso yourself.
  • Larger, stiffer brushes work better for the first stage of the painting, as unless you’re completing a detailed underpainting, you won’t need to focus on smaller details until later stages. Stiff brushes such as hog or synthetic fibres will move thicker oil paint further across the canvas.
  • Use solvent such as oil of spike lavender, turpentine or Gamsol in the first stage. Solvent makes paint more fluid and makes it dry faster.
  • For toning a canvas, or underpainting, fast drying transparent earth colours work brilliantly. 

Progressing with your painting: The next steps

The next step could be to wait for your first layer to dry. This way you can create a completely separate layer of colour, so pigments won’t mix into one another. By waiting for previous layers to dry, you can create hard edges and disparate shapes that don’t blend into one another.

There are lots of techniques to choose from to progress with your painting. Create runny transparent glazes to alter colours and increase contrast of the previous layers. Or paint with opaque pigments to bring highlights forwards and render solid details. Experiment with the impasto technique, whereby paint is thickened with a medium like cold wax to create wonderful textures. 

In the first stage of your painting, especially if you are blocking in, you will find the best way to start is with mid tone colours, then gradually deepen the shadows and add bright highlights as you paint consecutive layers. For this reason, your painting may only start to look like it’s taking form in the final layers where everything starts to come together. 

If you paint in multiple layers, waiting for paint to dry between each, paintings can end up taking a long time to complete. This can be a drawback for some artists who prefer to work more quickly. If this is the case for you, try practising the alla prima technique, otherwise known as painting wet on wet. It’s a difficult technique to master, but it involves completing the painting before the first layer starts to dry. This means it’s often completed in just one or two sittings.


Learn how to start an oil painting with a composition sketch in Artists’ Network’s blog. Search Skillshare for oil painting courses and watch how other artists start their paintings.

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