Oil painting on a budget

Oil Painting on a Budget: How to Get Started

It is totally possible to learn oil painting on a budget. Just like any new hobby, there will be initial costs, but there are ways to be economical about it.

The biggest expense from the outset will be the paint. Then you’ll also want to get a few other inexpensive essentials. 

This tutorial will point you in the right direction so you can make more refined choices from the outset. I’ll show you how to choose fewer materials that you will get the maximum use out of. I’ll also give you some pointers on how to preserve your materials so that they last longer.

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Start with only a few colours

This is the longest section in the guide, but stay with me. It’s important if you’re a beginner to learn a bit about the properties of different pigments you will use and how they interact with one another. I’ll recommend which colours to get and give you some basics on how to mix them too.

You can create a wide range of colours with your oil paint from just a few tubes. Doing this will encourage you to learn how to mix accurately more quickly. Plus, you will spend less money by reducing the amount of colours in your palette.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly you will be able to match colours from your reference and make the tones you intend to make. If you start with the right colours and take some time to learn how to mix it’s a skill that can be learned relatively fast. I have some in-depth tutorials on this coming soon, so watch this space.

The colours I recommend getting are forms of the primaries (red, blue and yellow). Then you will need white and a dark shade to create tonal variations—to create highlights and shadows.

Buy from quality brands

I would recommend buying from manufacturers that make their paint with quality pigments and binders. There are few of these brands that can be fairly reasonable to buy from. A good example is Winsor & Newton and Sennelier. You can also get colours from expensive brands that are less expensive to make. This will be reflected in the cost and are often given series numbers of 1 or 2. 

By getting quality paint, you’ll be able to mix the cleanest colours, the tones and hues will appear more vibrant and the paint will stretch much further on your canvas. This will in time save you money.

Which colours do you need?

In pigment form, there are specific variations of primaries that are able to create the widest spectrum of colours. In fact, you would be able to mix almost every colour on the spectrum from just three. The pigment codes of the colours that most closely match with the primaries in pigment form are PB15 (cyan blue), PY128 (yellow), PV19 (magenta red).

These pigments will be sold under different marketing names, but if you want to go with Winsor & Newton’s range, here are the primaries:

  • Winsor Blue (PB15): mix with magenta to make vivid violets, or mix with yellow to make bright turquoise and green.
  • Permanent Magenta (PV19): This is cool in tone and leans towards purple in its pure form but it can be mixed with yellow to create vibrant oranges.
  • Transparent Yellow (PY128): primary yellow that creates clean mixtures. This colour has strong tinting properties. 

You will also need a form of white, and a dark colour to create lighter and shadowed areas in your painting. I advise against incorporating black in your paint mixtures. It can sap the life out of colour mixtures when not used correctly. I advise instead on getting Burnt Umber, which is a warm, transparent dark earth colour. It can be mixed with blue and magenta (or ultramarine blue) to make a deep black. With this pigment you can make harmonious neutral colour mixes.

  • Titanium White: an opaque white with a dense consistency
  • Burnt Umber: a transparent earth colour used to darken and neutralise colours.

If you choose to start with this palette, it should cost you no more than around £50 ($65).

Extra colours

By using a limited palette such as this, there will be gaps in the potential range of colours you’ll be able to make. For example a deep crimson, or a rounded warm and opaque yellow. For this reason, you can balance your palette by getting warm or cool versions of the primaries and filling these gaps. You can create what is called a split palette. Here are the colours I suggest:

  • Ultramarine Blue: A blue that leans towards red on the colour wheel. Mix with burnt umber to make black, or with reds to make an array of purples.
  • Cadmium Yellow: A deep, rounded, opaque yellow that makes bright oranges when mixed with Cadmium Red. Cadmium Yellow can be expensive unless you get the ‘hue’ imitation colour. To cut costs even more you could choose Hansa Yellow instead, which is also a primary yellow but more transparent and slightly brighter than Cadmium.
  • Cadmium Red: An opaque red that can create fiery oranges when mixed with warm yellow. The colour could be described as a fire engine red—if someone were to ask you to visualise the colour ‘bright red’ this is probably what you’d imagine. Genuine cadmium pigments can be expensive, so if you don’t want to get the Cadmium Red Hue, Pyrrol Red is a good primary red substitute that usually costs less, depending on which brand you buy it from. Pyrrol Red has a high tinting strength, so you will only need a small amount when mixing into colours.

The cost of the paint may seem like a lot at first, but tubes really last. My oil paint tubes which are all around 37ml have lasted over a year since I bought them. I use them regularly, as I paint almost daily.

You don’t need lots of different materials

oil painting on a budget: supplies

There are so many luxurious materials you can buy for oil painting, but lots of these aren’t necessary.

You can get by interchanging just a few different brushes for example, in several shapes and sizes. You don’t need to buy ultra expensive oil painting surfaces either and you can paint without using an easel.

Cheap but quality materials


Get a couple of different sized round brushes and a flat brush. You’ll want to start with brushes that have relatively stiff fibres. This is so they can move thick paint more easily and work it into the texture of your surface.

Product pick: Winsor & Newton Hog Bristle Brushes


Wooden palettes are reasonable to buy. Wood palettes are usually hand held. They can be tricky to clean if you let paint dry on them, so make sure to wipe the paint off with a paper towel after use. 

Product pick: handheld oval wooden palette

Tempered glass palettes are best for oil painting because they’re easiest to clean. Here is the cheapest glass palette you can get.

Palette knives

You’ll need a couple of palette knives to mix your paint on your palette—they’re pretty essential as mixing with brushes is much slower, messier and it can cause lots of paint to build up in the bristles.

Product pick: RGM Traditional Palette Knives

Cheap surfaces

One way to reduce spending on surfaces is to buy canvas or panels that come primed already. This means you won’t have to spend the extra time and money on gesso. 

You can buy panels that come primed, like Gessobord from Ampersand. The panels that are uncradled are cheaper. If you buy raw wood or canvas that in unprimed, you will have to prepare the surface yourself.

Painting on paper is the most cost effective way to start painting. Buy a pad with multiple sheets for less than $10. If you’re still a beginner you won’t feel as bad making mistakes.

Product picks: gessobord, oil paper

Cut the cost of cleaning up

There’s another thing you don’t need for oil painting—solvent. Many artists use odourless mineral spirits or turpentine to remove paint from their brushes, however you can just swap this for the cheaper alternative, brush soap.

I stopped using solvent to clean brushes a while ago. Mainly because using solvent is bad for your health and the air quality in the studio. However, it’s also much cheaper to use soap instead. Brush soaps usually contain a mixture of different oils (olive oil is a common component). 

My brushes are in a much better condition since I switched to using soap, the bristles are more springy and the colour holding abilities are better. So there’s another plus to this: brushes last longer when using soap to clean instead of solvent. Meaning you’ll have to replace them less regularly.

This is a brush soap I recommend: Da Vinci Brush Soap

Start painting small

Smaller surfaces are much cheaper to buy than larger surfaces. You can buy uncradled wooden panels that come primed and ready to paint onto for around $5. 

A positive about starting small is that it’s much easier to be accurate with your drawings, plus you’ll use less paint.

It’s quite satisfying painting small because works can be completed at relative speed. Where a large painting can take months, smaller paintings can take less than a day. Working at speed means you get to use more varied techniques at a faster pace, as you learn how to paint slightly different subject matters and mix new palettes of colours.

As your skills progress as an artist you could work your way up to practising painting at a larger scale.

Of course, this tip is only a suggestion, as you should paint at a size that you feel comfortable painting at. If small paintings don’t excite you, start larger! Cotton canvases like these are the cheapest to buy at a larger scale.

How to paint without an easel

Don’t have an easel? Don’t worry. 

A large studio easel can cost a lot of money. Thankfully, there are some economical options. 

Firstly, there are actually some pretty reasonably priced easels out there. Look for table top easels—that require a table or desk to be propped up and brought to eye level. These can cost less than $20 new.

Product pick: table top easel

Keep an eye out for sales, or even on second hand sites like eBay or Gumtree.

However, you don’t need an easel. There are many advantages to having one, but it’s also quite a large commitment paying that outright. If you’re working small or on paper, it may actually feel better having your surface flat on a table.

There are makeshift ways of propping your painting surface up without an easel too. For example, you could fix a batten to the wall and hang the surface while you paint.

Mediums aren’t necessary

Another thing that you could cut out entirely while you’re first getting to grips with oil painting are mediums. Mediums themselves are relatively inexpensive to buy, but the costs of all these inexpensive materials does add up.

Mediums are used to alter the working properties of paint. They can change the consistency, viscosity, texture, drying time and surface sheen of paint. For example, oils such as linseed oil can be added to your paint mix to slow drying time and make paint more fluid. Solvents are also commonly used by oil painters in the first layers of their paintings to speed up drying times. 

However, it’s possible to paint straight from the tube if you want to give mediums a miss. Many successful artists paint with no extra mediums. It really comes down to personal preference.

On the flip side, it is useful to consider that by adding a medium, you are essentially extending the body of the paint. This means that your tubes will last longer because you’re adding extra fluid to the colour in your paintings. If you find that you enjoy oil painting enough to stick at it, it’s good to get some mediums as this could cut costs long term. Here are some mediums I recommend:

Linseed oil: mix with turpentine to create your own medium

Liquin: an alkyd medium that can be added to oil paint to increase the body and drying time

Learn how to use less paint

Oil paint straight from the tube can last for days on a palette. Sometimes you can make it last over a week. 

Drying oil dries by oxidisation, so when it is exposed to air it will begin to skin over and eventually become hard all the way through. The cold slows the rate of oxidisation.

To stop oil paint from drying out, I put my colours that I’ve squeezed from the tube onto the palette into an airtight container and into the fridge overnight. I usually wipe away colours I’ve mixed over the course of a painting session and leave the paint squeezed straight from the tube around the edge of the palette ready to mix a new set of colours the next day. 

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