Learn How to Oil Paint

Where to Begin:

Learning how to oil paint, may seem like a daunting task at first. However, the art lessons and instruction provided here will be a practical guide to help you get started in the craft of oil painting and hopefully take away some of that apprehension you may have in pursuing this wonderful andcrank easel versatile medium.

It would be nice if there was a simple solution to unlock the secrets of painting. Sorry to say, no such thing exists. Secrets imply something hidden, but these so called secrets have already been unlocked and available for all to learn. Painting is essentially a craft that consists of the following fundamentals and the better one understands them the better work a person can produce.

Fundamentals of Oil Painting

  1. Knowing the tools of the trade. Understanding what your art supplies and materials are used for and how to use them.

  2. Knowing how to artistically analyze the subject you wish to paint.

  3. Knowing and understanding the variety of paint techniques or in simpler terms, the methods of applying paint to achieve different effects.

  4. Paint, paint, paint! You will develop your skills as you practice and apply what you learn.

Expressing Yourself with Paint vs. Technical Know How

Some in the realm of art stress creativity and expressing oneself rather than an understanding of the above artistic painting principles, feeling it's a hindrance to self expression and not necessary. This simply is an erroneous idea.

To illustrate: Suppose you were handed all the trade tools of an auto mechanic and told to overhaul an automobile engine, yet you know nothing about car engines? How successful would you be? It's similar to painting. You might acquire all the brushes and paints needed to complete a painting, and then be told to go express yourself and create your masterpiece all the while you might be scratching your head wondering how to mix a particular shade of green or what brush to use to get the effect you want.

In reality, knowing the fundamentals along with practice, allows you to better express yourself with paint and to produce better work.

Learn How to Oil Paint: The Basicscollection of art supplies

The following is a general guide of what you will need to know in order to start oil painting.

Getting Started With Art Supplies

Obviously, to get started in oil painting, you need art supplies. I've provided a shopping list for you with my recommendations for a customized basic set. This list is what is suggested to my students enrolled in my art classes at Hobby Lobby. Please click the following link: Oil Painting Art Supply List. (The file is in PDF format) Simply print the list out and take it with you to your nearest art supply store or online art supply retailer. I encourage you to read my additional blog post on How to Choose a Color Palette. There's also a link to a review regarding some of the major brands of paint.

Some thoughts to consider when buying art supplies:

No two artists seem to agree on what materials to purchase, each having their own opinions and preferences based on their individual experience. However, the materials you use will ultimately have an impact upon your painting experience. Imagine if you will, the tools used in someone's trade, such as a carpenter. If the worked was performed using poor materials or equipment, how do you think it would impact the quality of the finished work as well as the enjoyment of the work experience itself? Both would suffer and it invites frustration. Therefore with this in mind, a general rule of thumb is to buy the best art materials you can reasonably afford.

Art materials can be grouped into two categories. Professional grade and student grade with variances in quality and price even in these categories. The first noticeable difference is generally the cost, with the artist or professional grade being higher in price. The second noticeable difference is the quality. Student grade brands are obviously designed for economy and lack some of the working properties of the professional grade. My opinion is that a few high quality materials are better than a large quantity of low grade materials. Working with poor art supplies only frustrates the painting process. However, I will say that price doesn't necessarily equal value. For example, I use a few brushes that are on the low end price wise and the quality isn't always consistent. (sometimes brush hairs fall out) Despite this occasional drawback, they are priceless to me in the effects I can achieve with them. When they work, they work well.

Also, I do not use just one brand of paint as I like certain qualities of pigment in differing brands. Some of the brand names of artist grade paint I use include: Rembrandt, Winsor & Newton and Schminke Mussini Oils, with a sprinkling of other colors in differing brands.

How to Mix Colors

mixing color

One of the first challenges for art students is in mixing color. Understanding it and how it behaves is a fascinating subject and whole books have been written on color theory alone. There's so much on the subject from how our eyes see it to the psychology of color, not to mention how pigments react in mixture, that it can become rather confusing in a hurry and even frustrating when you just want to know how to mix a particular shade of green. However, it begins with analysis.
There are three main areas to analyze in mixing color and they are: Hue, Intensity and Value. (you may hover over each item below for a screen tip)


Primary Colors

To mix a color you first identify its Hue or basic description. This is done by using the color wheel as a reference. The triad color wheel will be the most familiar color wheel to you. color wheelThe first step in mixing color is to classify the color. There are six main groups from which to choose. Yellow, Blue, Red, Orange, Green and Violet. The remaining colors are variations of Orange, Green and Violet with a shift towards one of the primary colors.

The Primary Colors are: Yellow, Blue and Red. These are considered primary because all other colors are derived from these when you mix two primaries together. However, to mix a full spectrum of vivid color using only three pigments you would have to use pigments more visually accurate than what is represented on the triad color wheel. cmyk color wheelIn printing inks, these colors are labeled, yellow, cyan and magenta. A close approximation in oil paint is: Cadmium Yellow Light, Phthalocyanine Blue and Permanent Rose or Quinacridone Rose.  The color wheel on the left shows the yellow, cyan and magenta primary arrangement. But, for simplification we will stick to the triad color wheel.

Secondary Colors

The Secondary Colors are: Orange, Violet and Green. These mixtures are achieved when you add two of the primaries together.

  • Yellow + Red = Orange
  • Red + Blue = Violet
  • Yellow + Blue = Green)


Tertiary Colors

The Tertiary Colors are: Yellow Green, Blue Green, Yellow Orange, Red Orange, Red Violet and Blue Violet. These mixtures are derivatives of the secondary colors and are achieved by mixing more of the primary colors.

  • Green + Yellow = Yellow Green
  • Green + Blue = Blue Green
  • Violet + Blue = Blue Violet
  • Violet + Red = Red Violet
  • Orange + Yellow = Yellow Orange
  • Orange + Red = Red Orange.

All together these represent the twelve Hues or colors on the Triad Color Wheel.


 Intensity or Chroma

The next step in analyzing color is determining its intensity. In other words, is the color you're looking at vivid or dull when comparing it to it's spectrum color? If it's duller, then it's considered to be of lower intensity. If the color is very bright and vivid, then it's of a high intensity. To lower a color's intensity you add it's compliment (which is opposite on the color wheel) in small amounts until you've achieved the right degree of dulling so to speak. Since you are mixing opposites, it also means you're mixing a warm color with a cool color. Any color that is of a lower intensity contains all three primaries in the mixture. For example. Yellow+Blue=Green which contains 2 primaries. The primary color left over is Red. Thus, red is the complimentary color of green and vice versa. Let's take one more example, the primary color yellow. What is it's compliment? Well, what are the other primaries? Blue and Red. What do you get when you mix these? Violet. That's the compliment of yellow and when violet is mixed with yellow it will dull it's intensity and vice versa.


The value of a color refers to its relative lightness or darkness on a scale from white to black. This is seen represented by the gray scale illustrations.
grayscaleblue value scale

To lighten a colors value also known as a tint, add white. To darken or lower the value also known as a shade, add black. In some cases however it's better to use a related darker oil paint such as when you want to darken a yellow. If you were to add black to darken a yellow, the mixture would have an olive green appearance. Adding related colors to darken, such as Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna followed by Burnt Umber will keep the mixture in the yellow family. Other times, simply adding more pigment will suffice as some colors are already dark as they come out of the tube.

Now let's put what you've learned so far into practice with the following.

How to Mix a Color

Raw Sienna Color SwatchOur target color to mix is the oil paint named Raw Sienna with the addition of white added on the right side to give a lighter value as seen in the illustration. What if you didn't have Raw Sienna but you did have the three primaries, plus white and black? Can a color be mixed to resemble Raw Sienna? Yes. Remember the first step?

Identify its Hue or basic description

Color WheelOn the color wheel which Hue does Raw Sienna come closest to? By process of elimination the answer becomes Orange. In this example I will mix Cadmium Yellow Light with Permanent Rose to give me an Orange Hue.Orange mixture made from Cadmium Yellow Light and Permanent Rose

Obviously in comparing Raw Sienna with Orange, the mixture is too vibrant, so the intensity needs to be lowered.

This is where the Intensity or Chroma which is the second element of analysis comes into play. Remember how to lower a color's intensity? The answer: Add it's compliment which is Blue. In this example I mixed Permanent Rose and Phthalo Blue to give me a Blue Hue. Blue mixture made from Permanent Rose and Phthalo Blue

Had I used Phthalo Blue alone, it would make the mixture have a greenish cast. Now, I add a small amount of this "Blue" mixture to Orange. Do you see how the intensity has been lowered and it has become closer to our target color?raw sienna mix with orange and blue However, the color still needs some slight adjustment. The final step is determining it's Value by asking: Is the color mixed so far, lighter or darker than our target color. In this case the mixed color needs to be a fraction darker, so I have added a tiny amount of black. raw sienna mixture using 3 primaries and a touch of blackNow my mixed color matches the target color! I also added a bit of white to give me a tint on the right.

Below is a chart representing the above information. Using artistic terms, the color Raw Sienna would be described as an orange of low intensity and dark value.

color mixing with three primaries, white and black using the paint Raw Sienna as a target color to mixOnce you learn the thought process behind analyzing and mixing color you will find that there are other ways to mix the same color. Cadmium Orange and Ultramarine Blue could have been used to match the Raw Sienna color without adding black. If in your own mixtures you don't get it quite right, then the old saying, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" holds true. Practice! As you do, you will always be learning, not only about color, but how paint pigments themselves behave in mixtures.

Pigments: What are they?

In simplest of terms, a pigment is a colored material ground into a fine powder, which is then suspended in some type of media that acts as a binder to hold thedry pigments pigment together and giving the resulting paint its adhesion. In oil paints, linseed oil is generally used as the binder, except in lighter colors where poppy oil might be used, since it has less tendency to yellow. Another drying oil used in formulating oil paints is walnut oil.

 Pigments whether natural organic (mineral based), synthetic organic, or inorganic (carbon-based) are what all paints are made of.

Historically, the earliest of pigments were natural minerals, or biologic in nature. (originating from plants, insects) However, in time synthetic pigments were manufactured or modified from naturally occurring materials expanding the range of colors available today.

For the artist there are some important factors to consider regarding pigments when selecting them for use:

  • Lightfastness: Refers to the permanency of color or length of time a pigment retains its original color without change under the ongoing action of daylight. Colors with a low lightfastness rating are considered fugitive in that they do not retain their color over time.
  • Stability: The color must not break down with age, or react chemically in a negative way with other colors or even the atmosphere.
  • Quality: A good paint should consist of more pigment and highly refined oil such as linseed, without the addition of fillers which are used to extend the volume of paint such as used in student grade paints. Colors with high pigment saturation, last longer, are more vibrant and simply perform better.

Examples of Palette Arrangements

The type of palette you choose is a personal decision. There are hand-heldpalette grouping types with a thumb hole for cradling the palette and table top varieties. They can be oval, square, made of wood, plastic, glass or disposable paper palettes. I've used glass (which ended up breaking) and wood palettes, but I prefer using a 12"x16" disposable white paper palette placed into a Masterson Palette Seal (view the suggested art supply list) which helps keep paint fresh between painting sessions. I simply do not like having to clean and scrape dry paint off a palette. With disposable palettes, you tear off a sheet and you have a clean surface ready to go. Plus I like the white surface. A wood palette whether light or dark or a disposable palette that has a gray tone influences the appearance of the color. This is especially true when working with thin transparent paint as in a glaze. However, other artists prefer the toned palette, saying they can judge their values better on a neutral gray surface. This again is a personal decision.

Although no specific rules exist for arranging colors on your palette the arrangement should make sense so that time is not wasted searching for your colors. The following are some suggestions for organizing your palette.

Colors should be placed on the outer edges, leaving the center area for mixing. One logical way is to group your colors according to its family as though you stretched out the color wheel. Therefore you would group all your yellow colors together, oranges, reds, violets, blues, greens and earth colors etc. Additionally, colors can be separated into warm and cool categories. The following illustrations will visually explain these concepts.

Palette Arrangement Example 1

oil painting palette arrangement

Palette Arrangement Example 2

oil painting palette arrangement


Some Common Oil Paints and Their Descriptions

Titanium White
Made from titanium dioxide, this inorganic pigment has a high tinting strength and very good covering power and is considered permanent for artistic purposes. Most colors labeled as titanium also has zinc white added to preserve it's whiteness and enhance its mixing qualities.
Cadmium Pigments Including Yellows, Orange and Reds
This group of inorganic colors have a commonality in that they all have cadmium as a component in their chemical make up. The main pigments in this family of colors are cadmium sulphides and sulfoselenides. Cadmium Yellow(cadmium sulfide) when mixed with selenium becomes increasingly redder as more selenium is mixed producing a range of color from orange to a deep red. These brightly colored oil paints have good permanency and tinting strength. In some paints these pigments are mixed with barium(barite) which acts as a filler in cheaper paint and should be avoided.
Permanent Rose or Quinacridone Rose
Quinacridone pigments are unique and beautiful colors which have the characteristics of excellent lightfastness, vibrant tones, good tinting properties and transparency. Permanent Rose can be considered a primary red as it's neither too yellow or blue and makes excellent violets when mixed with blue.
Alizarin Permanent
Originally Alizarin Crimson, an organic lake pigment was derived from the roots of the madder plant and did not have a good lightfastness. Alizarins of today are made more lightfast by using quinacridone pigments. It's a transparent rich dark red with a slight purplish brown undertone.
Ultramarine Deep
Genuine Ultramarine an inorganic pigment was made from a semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli. It is still made but it is a costly pigment. Other colors having the name ultramarine such as French Ultramarine, Ultramarine Light or Deep is a complex polysulphide of sodium alumino-silicate. It's a beautiful blue which tends fractionally towards red. It's transparent with an average to good tinting strength and versatile in mixtures.
Phthalocyanine Blue and Green
The phthalo pigments are organic and derived from copper salts. The blue is a very strong dark color with a greenish undertone. When mixed with white it becomes a turquoise like blue similar to Cerulean Blue. Cerulean Blue Hue is based off this color. The green is a very deep emerald green and when lightened with white is very similar to Viridian Green. These colors are permanent, transparent and have a high degree of tinting strength. A little goes a long way in mixtures.
Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber
These inorganic colors are natural earth pigments derived from limonite clay containing ferric oxides. Synthetic versions of these pigments are also available on the market today. They are permanent and are useful in many oil painting applications.
Transparent Oxide Red
This variation on the iron oxide manufacturing process produces a beautiful semi-transparent color similar to Burnt Sienna, but with a more luminous quality.
Ivory Black
This and many other blacks are carbon based from various organic and mineral sources. This is sometimes considered an all-purpose black for mixing grays and with other colors and is semi-transparent.
Mars Black or Oxide Black
This is an inorganic synthetic iron oxide, opaque in nature with a warm undertone. It's considered non-toxic, and is safe for underpainting as it dries to a relatively hard and flexible film. Though not as black in appearance as Ivory Black, it has nearly triple the tinting strength.

Oil Painting Demo

My painting method is a layered approach, therefore it is developed in successive stages. After drawing my composition on canvas with thinned paint (ultramarine blue or other non staining pigment) and a brush I begin my block-in using full color mixtures starting with the darkest mass first. By starting this way, I find it easier to judge the value relationships between adjacent areas. Click on the link below to view my step by step progression of one of my paintings photographed in stages.  Update: My previous demo has been removed and hopefully I will get another one available for you. Unfortunately it's format was not mobile friendly and Google doens't like that. Therefore the demo I show here is one posted on my blog. It will give you a basic overview even though it's in my impressionist style. Please use your browsers back button to return to this page.

Oil Painting Demo