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.
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What is oiling out a painting?
Oiling out a painting is the process of applying a small amount of linseed oil to a dry paint film. Artists will take this optional step to revive a dull or dry looking painting before varnish is applied.
The step is necessary if areas of the painting appear dull or chalky looking, as oiling out can provide a more unified appearance to the finished, varnished painting. Oiling out a painting isn’t necessary if precautions are taken to prevent oil paint from sinking into previous layers.
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’. This is where 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. This layer will soak up some of 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. Or opt to buy primed artists surfaces such as canvases and wooden panels. These will have been sprayed evenly with quality gesso, therefore preventing sinking in.
Prevent sinking in using the right gesso
Michael Harding has a solution to this problem. 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.
Reduce solvent use
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.
Use mediums to prevent sinking in
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 for oiling out
Oiling out a painting: in steps
- 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.
- Soak one lint-free cloth in a little oil.
- Rub the dull areas of the painting in oil.
- Use another cloth to soak up any excess oil.
- 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.
- If the painting has any further dry areas you can see, just repeat the process until the painting has an overall sheen.
- Wait another few days for the oil to become touch dry—your painting should have a new lease of life.
- 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.
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.
Oiling out a painting: Pin it!
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8 thoughts on “‘Oiling Out’ A Painting: How to Restore Dulled Colours”
Thank you…..grateful to have found your site and I will be back!
Some sights indicate for oiling out, linseed oil should be diluted with 50% mineral spirits. What effect would this have? Please comment. Thanks.
You can dilute the paint with solvent like mineral spirits to speed up drying time if you choose. However, if you’ve used oil rich layers throughout the painting, it would be better to use pure linseed oil. Check out our guide on the fat over lean rule.
Can you varnish after “oiling out” ab oil on canvas?
Yes absolutely! You can varnish after oiling out. Wait until the painting is touch dry before varnishing with Gamvar. If you’re using damar resin to varnish, you should wait until the painting has cured. We’ve got a tutorial on varnishing oil paintings if you want to learn more.
Thankyou for your article and information on oiling out a painting. My struggle has been epic, as I found a canvas dumped in a dumpster, and started to paint on it with my oil paints, without priming it at all, I know, I was very very foolish. It was supposed to be a fun exercise of painting in oils, but the painting has really developed into a seriously strong piece, which I now really like. However, due to not having primed the canvas, before hand, the oils are soaking right through the canvas, and the colours are dulling out within hours I front of me. Will oiling out work for my situation? Or will the canvas just soak up the linseed oil as well, and I will be left with a painting with dull colours that have been soaked up by the canvas? Is my situation a lost cause?
I’m afraid more oil would soak through to the canvas beneath. I would advise sealing and priming raw canvas with gesso before starting a painting. Check out our tutorial ‘how to prepare a surface for oil painting‘. Most canvases you buy in stores with come with a few layers of primer on them, so they should be ready to paint onto.
Thanks Emily.I’ll be using Gainsborough Damar Gloss Varnish.