oil painting supplies for beginners

Oil Painting for Beginners: the Essential Supplies

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I’ve written this as a resource to help beginner painters learn more about oil painting supplies, so feel free to bookmark the page and refer back to it.

Learning to oil paint is an exciting task. However, it can feel like a struggle figuring out what you need to start painting and then how the materials actually work. 

Here you can find out what the essential supplies are and how to use them. 

An art shop haul doesn’t have to break the bank, but I do recommend making an investment in quality materials to get you started on the right foot. This is better than buying the cheapest materials you can find.

Getting quality materials will make your painting process run much smoother, and it’ll make it much more enjoyable too.

Oil Paint

The most important of all your oil painting supplies.

It sounds obvious, but you need to decide on which brand(s) to go for and which colours to buy. The quality of the paint can vary from brand to brand. Plus, choosing colours isn’t as simple as picking just any yellow, red or blue. 

How to look out for quality oil paint—sorting the good from the bad

When you’re starting out, you want value without compromising on quality.

With the following brands, you really can’t go wrong:

Choosing a high quality brand of paint means selecting paint that has a high pigment content and uses fewer fillers to bulk the paint out. You’ll notice that higher quality paint ranges have intense colours that spread much further on the canvas. For this reason, these brands provide more value, as you need to use less of paint to get the amount of colour you need. Quality paints also feel much easier to handle and make cleaner mixes when combined with other colours. 

I’d recommend against getting a starter selection pack of paints. While you usually get a good range, it’ll often be missing an essential primary colour or include colours you won’t use. It’s much more fun to make your own selection pack anyway. As your painting skills progress and you start to find the subjects you like to paint, you can add to your collection.

Choose pigments carefully

Magenta, yellow and cyan are the primary colours in pigment form. However, It’s pretty much impossible to find a ‘true’ primary pigment. The numbers for the pigments that come closest to primaries on the colour wheel are PV19 (magenta), PB15 (cyan) and PY128 (yellow). These pigments will come under various different marketing names, but it is possible to use these three as a limited palette of colours make a wide gamut of hues. In order to create any other colour on the spectrum, it is useful, however, to have a warm and cool version of the primary colours, giving you a palette of six colours.

Most pigments will lean towards another colour slightly when placed on the colour wheel. Other than cyan, blue pigments, for example, will lean towards either red or yellow. Ultramarine has reddish undertones, meaning that if you mix it with a yellow to try and make green, the resulting colour won’t appear a vibrant green, it will look dull and muddy. Mix Ultramarine with Quinacridone Magenta, or a red that has bluish undertones such as Cadmium Red Deep, and you can achieve an intensely vibrant violet. 

Black paint isn’t an essential colour to have as it’s very easy to create harmonious warm and cool greys simply by mixing the contrasting colours already on your palette. It will create the appearance of shadows and the mixes will appear black when seen in the context of the rest of your painting. A pure looking black can be made by mixing Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue.

Cool greys are greys that have more blue in the mix and warm greys and browns have more yellow or red. Use a transparent earth pigment, such as burnt umber to create shadows in the early layers of a painting instead of using black throughout, as black can appear muddy in paint mixtures.

The essential colours you need to start out

Here are the essential colours that you can use to mix to make any colour on the spectrum. These will act as your primaries.

  • Titanium White (this is the most opaque of all whites and therefore has a great covering power). 
  • Burnt Umber (natural dark brown earth pigment that can be used to create shadows).
  • Cadmium Red Light (this has a bias towards yellow).
  • Permanent Rose (this is a marketing name for primary magenta. It’s cool in its purest form, but mixes with yellow to make vibrant oranges).
  • Ultramarine Blue (reddish undertones, to be mixed to make bright purples or neutral greens).
  • Cyan (this is primary cyan, the pigment is phthalocyanine. In mixes it can make vibrant greens).
  • Transparent Yellow (very bright primary yellow).
  • Cadmium Yellow (a rounded, deeper yellow with reddish undertones).

The following are optional colours. They’re not essential to have, but the pigments have distinctive attributes that you wouldn’t get simply from mixing primaries:

  • Burnt Sienna (reddish brown earth pigment. Earth pigments can be used for mid-toned under paintings as they dry quickly.)
  • Yellow Ochre (another earth pigment, with a gold-yellow colour).
  • Viridian Green (blue-green and dark in value, it’s good for using in shadows).
  • Alizarin Crimson (useful for making deep, rich reds and neutralising greens. Make sure you get permanent Alizarin as the pigment does not have a high lightfast rating).
  • Zinc White (is a more translucent white that tints colours without altering the opacity. It doesn’t give colours the ‘chalky’ appearance that titanium white can give).
  • Quinacridone Gold (a beautiful colour to use in golden sunsets or for mixing to make the gold-greens you quite often see in sunny landscapes. You can use it to mix with phthalocyanine blue to make a colour close to sap green).

As you can see, every pigment has its own unique properties and uses. Each pigment will slightly alter in opacity, covering and tint power, lightfastness, oil content and drying speed—but it’s really only by using the paints that you will become familiar with their properties and find your own unique uses for them to suit your art style.

Another thing to note is that brands that make cheap paint ranges often create colours labelled as ‘hues’. This means that they haven’t used a single pigment ground in oil to make a colour, they will have used a combination of other pigments to closely resemble the original pigment. Premixed colours will appear duller when compared to the original pigment, and when they mix with other pigments, the resulting colours won’t be as vibrant as if you had just mixed two pure pigments together. This is why you see such dramatic differences in prices between different ranges of paint (Winton vs Winsor and Newton Artist’s Oil Colour, for example), even if the colours are seemingly the same. Because of the price differences between ranges that make hues versus single pigment paints, many artists opt to buy hues of the colour and can of course produce beautiful results.

Look for paint that has a low series number of either 1 or 2 and has been ground with a single pigment. The low series number just means that the particular colour is inexpensive to make. You will probably want to get hues to substitute paint that have high series numbers, when you’re first starting out, such as Cadmium pigments.

Brushes

Paintbrush types

Get used to applying paint to your surface before you invest in expensive brushes. There are lots of different styles of brushes available to artists, so it’s a good idea to try out different types and see what you like.

Get some synthetic or hog brushes to start with (they’re the cheapest) in a few different sizes and shapes, so you can test them out to feel what’s best for you, then decide if you want to invest in more expensive brushes. This pack of 5 hog brushes by Winsor and Newton are inexpensive and the perfect place to start.

Round brushes are good for details and sharper lines.

Flat brushes work well for covering large areas of the canvas.

Get at least one flat brush made from hog hair, see here. These are stiffer and are therefore useful for working the paint into the weave of the canvas (if you are working on a textured surface).

Filbert brushes are totally optional but I find that these are really effective for blending paint on the canvas. 

Surfaces

There are so many surfaces that are compatible with oil paint, some require more preparation than others. Common surfaces artists use include linen canvas, wooden panel, and even metals like copper and aluminium. 

While you’re honing your skills as a painter, you’ll want inexpensive surfaces to practise on that don’t require too much fuss to prepare for painting. Just start experimenting and find what you love to paint on.

Oil paper is a good option. I use paper to test out colour mixes and compositions for paintings. Of course, if you like how a painting has turned out on paper, you can always frame it!

Canvases are great for when you’re just starting out too. Most manufacturers sell canvases that are relatively inexpensive, pre-stretched and pre-primed. This saves you the extra time it would take to stretch fabric over a frame and prime it yourself. I’ve linked to a cotton canvas; canvases come in linen too, but cotton is a cheaper alternative.

Wood feels amazing to paint on to. I love it because it’s naturally much smoother than canvas, meaning you can achieve finer details in your work. You can paint on many different types of wood. Some panels you see in art stores (like the ones I’ve linked to) have been made especially for painting. Just remember that if your panel is ‘unprimed’ you will need to prime the surface before you apply oil paint.

Gessobord is archival quality, primed hardboard. Artists love these panels—they’re great to take painting outdoors. You don’t need to do any further surface preparation to paint onto it. Plus, if you paint something you really like, you can buy panel frames, or float frames and hang your panel on the wall.

Read more about the different surfaces for oil painters and what kind of effects you can get from using different painting supports.

Prime your surface

If you are working on an unprimed surface, like raw wood, you’ll need a surface primer. A sealer and primer such as gesso will create a hard film between the paint and surface. It allows the paint to bind to the surface more easily and prevents the paint from soaking straight in.

For painting on unprimed wood, I recommend sealing the wood first with Gac 100 (two coats is fine), then applying gesso afterwards.

Here’s a good acrylic based gesso I use.

Paint a layer of gesso onto your surface with a wide flat brush, wait around 45 minutes for it to dry, then sand it with fine-grain sandpaper. Repeat this process twice more. If you want a smoother surface, then add a few extra layers of gesso, repeating the painting and sanding process until your surface is how you want it to be.

For a more thorough walkthrough, read this step-by-step guide on how to prime a surface for oil paint.

Palette

Tempered glass palettes work best for oil, as they are the easiest to clean. They also feel incredibly smooth to mix on. 

Whether you opt for wood or glass, make sure the palette you buy is completely flat, as this will give you more surface area to mix the paint on. Plus, a flat surface is far easier to clean. Oil paint won’t run off the sides, so you won’t need to worry about that!

Also consider how you are going to be painting…

If you’re painting plein air (outdoors) you’ll probably want a palette you can hold easily. Wooden palettes work well for this as they are light and have ergonomic thumb holes to make moving the palette around easy. They can be tricky to clean, but they look pretty iconic. Here’s our product pick.

If you’re painting indoors, have somewhere to lay a palette flat and don’t anticipate that you’ll be moving around much, tempered glass works nicely as a palette. They’re heavier and usually much larger than wooden palettes but they’re so easy to clean. With wooden palettes you’ll usually have to soak them in solvent to remove paint. With glass, you simply scrape dried paint off with a razor scraper, then rub clean with a paper towel. If you want a glass palette, get a purpose made tempered palette instead of using picture glass. It’s much safer and won’t shatter.

Product Picks:

Here’s the glass palette I use (and love)—you can buy it here.

Here’s a cheaper tempered glass palette.

If you want to read about the top rated palettes for oil painters, read our palette guide

Mediums

The topic of mediums for oil painting is so extensive. Here I’ll explain what they are, how they’re used and give an example of the most popular medium used for oil painting.

So what are mediums used for?

Mediums are used in oil painting to alter the drying time, consistency and finish of the paint. By using mediums in painting, you can achieve very different results depending on which one you use.

You can get creative by mixing different mediums to achieve a range of results. For example, you can make the paint glossier, or completely matte. You can give the paint more body to create thick textured works, or you can thin the paint so it runs just like ink. 

Understanding the properties of different mediums will give you mastery of the practice of oil painting. Unique uses of mediums can make your work stand out—identifiable as your own.

Paint thinners such as turpentine are mediums too, but I’ll cover paint thinners in the cleaning up section below. 

You can create your own medium mixes by combining linseed and turpentine in equal parts.

Linseed oil

Buy it here.

Linseed oil comes in many different forms—some manufacturers use cold-pressed linseed oil as a binder (oil that holds together pigment) in tubes of paint you buy. However, refined linseed oil is most often used as a medium. 

The addition of linseed oil makes a painting workable for longer. It’s used to slow the drying time of the paint. Not all paints take the same amount of time to dry, as different pigments are often bound with different amounts of binder. You can add a small amount of linseed oil to the different paints to level out drying times and finish. 

Linseed oil also makes the paint runnier, easier to handle and spread much further on the canvas. It increases the transparency too.

Easels

Painting surfaces need to be propped up vertically for use with oil. This is because oil paint dries slowly and becomes tacky as it’s drying. This means that dust particles will stick to it if you’re working with it laid down. Plus it’s much easier to work with large paintings this way, as you’ll be able to see the whole piece front on.

I’ll run through the different options, what they’re best used for and give some product recommendations.

Table top easel: Smaller and more portable than a floor standing easel, these are great if you have a desk to work at instead of a larger studio space, or if you prefer painting sitting down at a table. I also find that this table top easel is much better for working on smaller pieces. 

Studio easel: This is perfect if you have your own studio space. You can stand while you work, or get a stool to sit down and paint. This easel holds surfaces up to 48″.

Field Easel: For those who love to paint plein air, this pochade box is transportable so you can take it outdoors, and fully collapsible making it easy to carry. It comes with an inbuilt palette and holds canvases up to 15″.

To read more about different types of easels and how to find one to suit your individual art practice, read this easel guide.

Varnishing an oil painting

Varnishing is the final step of the oil painting process. It’s not a necessary step, but it’s one that many artists take to alter the finish of their painting. 

Why varnish an oil painting?

A layer of varnish protects the paint beneath from dust, dirt and most kinds of normal wear and tear. The layer of varnish sits separately from the painting and can be removed with solvent. You can restore an old painting that has been varnished correctly by removing the varnish, along with any dust that has accumulated over the years. You can restore paintings in this way by applying a new layer of varnish and giving it a new lease of life. 

Aside from protecting the painting and giving you the option to restore it to the appearance of its original state years down the line, varnish enhances the form of a painting. It deepens darker values, increases the saturation and gives the surface a lustrous, unified finish.

An explanation of different types of varnish

There are a couple of options when it comes to deciding what to use as a varnish. The first is damar resin. This is thinned with turpentine to make a varnish.

The problem with using damar resin is that you have to wait until the paint has fully cured (which can take up to a year) before applying it.

The second option is Gamvar. This is a synthetic formulation made by the brand Gamblin. It can be applied as soon as the paint is touch-dry and firm, as the varnish layer allows oxygen through to layers below. This means that the layers can oxidise and cure after being varnished. It’s incredibly practical for artists working to deadlines, or for those who just can’t wait to get a painting finished. This is the varnish I prefer to use.

What supplies do you need to varnish an oil painting?

  • Varnish—whichever you choose:
    • Damar resin: This is a spray version that gives a gloss finish
    • Gamvar: It goes on like water, you can use it as soon as your painting is touch dry and it gives the painting a glossy, saturated finish
  • A large flat brush—if you’re not using a spray you’ll need this

In an in-depth article about oil paint varnish, I explain alternative materials you can use as varnish (more traditional methods) and give a step-by-step guide showing you exactly how to varnish a painting. 

Cleaning up and taking care of your materials

Oil paint cannot be thinned, or cleaned from your materials with water. If you want to thin the paint, you will have to use a solvent. 

Solvents can be added to paint and then applied to the painting surface. Make sure you pick an artist-grade solvent, that has been distilled. This way you know it doesn’t contain impurities, otherwise it could leave residue on your painting. Turpentine and oil of spike lavender really are unmatchable in their compatibility with oil paint, so either one of these would be the best option for working into your paintings.

The other use of solvents in oil painting is to clean your materials. Fill a lidded jar with solvent. First make sure it has a lid to prevent you from inhaling fumes while you’re not using it. Then swill your brush in the jar and wipe any paint residue on a paper towel. Repeat this process until no residue is left on the brush.

The most common solvents used in oil painting are:

  • Turpentine (incredibly effective at thinning paint. The fumes are toxic, so ensure to only use it in a ventilated space and handle it with care.)
  • Gamsol (considered to be a studio-safe solvent.)
  • Oil of spike lavender (non-toxic and highly effective thinner that smells of lavender!)

Using solvents on your brushes can dry them out—I always condition my brushes after cleaning. It’s important to look after your brushes to keep them like new for longer. I use the Master’s Brush cleaner which cleans and preserves the brushes. It will remove any extra residue that’s been left in the bristles. The brush conditioner itself will last ages, and more importantly it will make your brushes last a lifetime. 

Paint thinner can be reused time and time again, even if it looks cloudy with paint residue. Just wait a few days for the paint sediment to settle to the bottom of the jar. Then decant into a new jar, filtering the sediment. This brush washer filters out the sediment for you. 

If you’re conscious about the negative health effects that, it’s possible to clean without using solvent all together. 

Have you found the perfect oil painting supplies?

The materials aren’t cheap, but you can find supplies that are fantastic value without scrimping on quality. Take care of your materials and find ways to be less wasteful with the paint—they’ll last a really long time.

Now you know what tools you need to get, start learning about some of the basics of oil painting. Our beginner’s guide to oil painting gives a pretty thorough intro to the medium.

If you want to stock up on some more art supplies, check out the shop

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