‘Oiling Out’ A Painting: How to Restore Dulled Colours

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Oiling out is a technique used in oil painting to restore the colour and finish of a painting before varnishing. 

Oiling out a painting will give it a unified surface, where each section appears to have the same soft lustre and attractive surface appearance.

It’s a relatively easy step and you should already have the materials you need to complete the process.

I’ll walk you through how to take measures to prevent the need for this step, how to spot a painting that needs oiling out and how to go about oiling out a painting.

When should you oil out a painting?

If your oil painting has become dull in areas, you may have fallen victim to a phenomenon called ‘sinking in’, whereby the oil in the paint is absorbed and essentially lost to previous layers of the painting.

This cause of this could be that:

  • The surface you are painting on is absorbent. It could be that the primer you’ve used is acting as a porous layer, soaking up the oil in your paint. 
  • You have thinned the paint in previous layers causing it to soak up all the oil in the top layers, 
  • You’re not using enough medium in the top layers of your painting.
  • Paints that have varying drying speeds can cause some areas to become more absorbent than others.

How to prevent ‘sinking in’ in an oil painting

You can of course take preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen. The first would be to check which primer you’re using. Many gesso formulations on the market are unfortunately very absorbent. Reevaluating the way you prepare a surface for painting can have a dramatic impact on your results and also how you feel about your painting throughout the process.

Michael Harding has a solution to this—he’s created a formulation for an acrylic primer that is non-absorbent, but it still provides a strong bond to the layers of paint with a decent ‘tooth’. It doesn’t suck any of the oil out of your paint, making your paints remain as vibrant on the canvas as they look on the palette. 

If you want to test it out for yourself, I do recommend it—there’s no other primer that acts in the same way. Buy it here.

The second way to prevent your paint from sinking in is to not overuse paint thinner when mixing it into your mediums. If you use lots of solvent in your painting, and build it up in consecutive layers, your painting will quickly take on a chalky and dull appearance, and this will likely suck the oil from top layers of your paint when you do eventually increase the oil content of your paint mixture, following the fat over lean rule.

There are mediums you can use to prevent colours from sinking in as well. Linseed oil mixed with a little damar resin prevents pigment from being absorbed by previous layers of the painting. It also provides better adhesion for later layers of paint and prevents oil beading on the surface. The old masters would have mixed damar resin into their paint for the properties it provides. Chelsea Classical Studios premix their own Fat Medium, which is a mix of cold pressed linseed and damar resin thinned with oil of spike lavender.

How to oil out a painting

Sinking in is very common in oil painting. Even if you take the preventative measures outlined above, it can still happen. Luckily it’s easily fixed. Here is a method to bring out the colours and restore the vibrancy in your painting.

Supplies you need

Steps to oil out a painting

  1. As soon as your painting is touch dry from your previous painting session, take note of areas that appear dull and have lost their vibrancy. These are the areas that should be treated.
  2. Soak one lint-free cloth in a little oil. 
  3. Rub the dull areas of the painting in oil.
  4. Use another cloth to soak up any excess oil.
  5. Leave to dry for around four days. The oil may still be a little sticky in areas after this time, if it is, wait longer until it’s dry to the touch.
  6. If the painting has any further dry areas you can see, just repeat the process until the painting has an overall sheen. 
  7. Wait another few days for the oil to become touch dry—your painting should have a new lease of life.
  8. Don’t leave oil soaked cloths lying around as they can be a fire hazard. It’s best to get rid of the oil straight away. You can soak them in warm soapy water, dish soap should work just fine. 

Finally

If you’re just beginning on your oil painting journey and you’re not quite sure what supplies to get, start with this beginner’s guide. It’ll teach you about all the tools and materials you need to start oil painting and give you valuable advice on how to use the materials to get the best results.

If you’re interested in checking out my paintings, including the one in the feature image, you can see them on my website.

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