Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Oil paints are my favourite medium, but it took me a long time to get started with them. Like many beginners in oils, I thought that one needs a lot of expensive materials to get started, that the materials are toxic and hazardous, and that the techniques are very difficult to master.
A few years on, I am painting almost exclusively in oils and have fallen in love with their luscious, rich colours and textures. In this blog, I will share with you what materials I use and will give some insights into the environmental aspects.
This is the first stumbling block for many artists wanting to explore oils. Luckily I had a good teacher in my early days who helped demystify some of the materials, but I have also done a lot of my own research since. Here's what I came to after a few years of trial and error:
Paints in every medium are basically made up of pigment, and a binder. In the case of oil paints, the binder is often linseed oil or another nut oil. This makes the paint rich and luscious, and slow to dry. Paint is where you can get very expensive - the professional artist's varieties contain a relatively high amount of pigment. But many paint brands offer a student or studio quality, which is a step lower and a lot less money!
I like to be economic with my paints, and because I use a lot of it, I buy large tubes. This is the most inexpensive way to go with oils, as the smaller tubes are relatively expensive and you go through them very quickly. My favourite oil colour is Daler Rowney Georgian, which is available in 225ml tubes. They last me a long time and the quality is great. I also buy smaller tubes to take out with me in the field, but these are my defaults.
Solvents and mediums
This is where people often get confused when starting with oils, and you can indeed make this very complicated. Basically, where a watercolourist uses water to dilute their paints, an oil painter uses medium. A common medium that I use is linseed oil, which makes the paint more runny, without breaking it down or diluting the colour. It is great for those first washes of colour, that need to be thin ('lean') and versatile. Other mediums can be used to alter different properties of the paint - for example liquin speeds up the drying time, while other mediums make the paint more glossy or more thick, etc. I don't often bother with any other mediums as I'm pretty happy with just my paints and linseed oil. Linseed oil can be picked up from any hardware store, as it's also used to treat wooden furniture, although art stores offer oils which are less chemically treated.
As a solvent, turpentine is often used. This breaks down the paint, so it's good for cleaning brushes or for scrubbing down semi-dried layers on your painting. I don't use turpentine, as I don't like the smell and it's not very good for the environment. Instead, I use Zest-It, which is a non-toxic alternative made from citrus peels. It is a bit more expensive, but so much nicer to work in as my studio is a small enclosed space and I'd be driven out by the smell otherwise!
I use zest-it mixed with linseed oil in a clean jar as a way to thin my paints when I'm working, and zest-it on it's own when I'm cleaning my brushes.
Brushes and palette knifes
Brushes really don't have to be expensive. In fact, I often prefer the cheaper varieties as I tend to ruin them anyway. Oil paint is pretty tough on your brushes, so there's no need to buy the best of the best here. My favourite brushes actually came from Lidl, and are synthetic acrylic brushes. These are the ones pictured below, they are pretty close to the end of their life-cycle. The other brushes I like to use are Winsor & Newton's acrylic brushes, which I pick up from the stationer's. Oil painting brushes tend to have stiffer, coarse hairs, like hog's hair. I prefer the smoother acrylic-type brushes as they allow me to work more thinly. The large brushes I often pick up from the hardware store.
Another fun tool to use is the palette knife. It is pretty essential for mixing colours on your palette, but I like to use it as a painting tool too. It tends to leave more texture and variety and you can build up your layers quite thickly working with a palette knife. Painting with palette knife is a similar feeling to buttering toast!
I like to use a large palette to lay out my colours and have plenty of space for mixing. But here, there is really no need to buy an expensive art-store one, as (surprise!) it will get covered in paint anyway and I often find them too small. Any slab of primed wood will do, but I prefer to use glass sheets for my palettes. My favourite palette is actually an image frame that I picked up from the charity shop, so you can be creative in where you source yours! The reason I use glass is that it's easy to scrape off dried layers of paint with a glass scraper between each session. I don't like to let the paint build up as it becomes very hard to see what colour you're mixing. Good palette practice is key to avoiding muddy paintings, so I'm quite good at cleaning mine between sessions!
This speaks for itself, but you want to make sure that you have a lot of them! I like to cut up old clothing for rags, as a way to recycle and to avoid using endless paper towels. Rags are used to wipe my brushes when I want to change colour and of course at the end of each session. I sometimes use rags in my painting, when I want to wipe off paint or just add a nice blended texture over a large area.
Now what to actually paint on? There are a lot of options here, and if you're starting out with oils I would suggest going for the cheaper canvases. There are budget-stores that stock a range of smaller canvases that are excellent for experimenting with. Going cheap to begin with means that you won't feel too precious about your paintings and what you are using for materials. More experienced artists often prefer to buy rolls of canvas and wooden stretcher bars to stretch their own, but I find this a bit too labour-intensive for my own practice. Recently I have taken to painting on wooden panel - which is a lot smoother to work on than canvas. If you would like to experiment using panel, I would suggest getting some hardboard from the hardware store, cut to a size that you like to work on. Hardboard is not great if you want your painting to last for 10+ years as it tends to soak up moisture, but again is a great surface to practice on without feeling too delicate. I like to use plywood panels as they are more durable. Using a wooden surface means that you do need to prime or gesso your board. This creates a barrier between the paint and the board, so that oils don't leach into the wood and there is no discolouring.
A few notes here - as I thought for a long time that oil painting is very harmful for the environment. In fact, it used to be in the days that actual pigments were used. Pigments often contained heavy metal, like zinc or lead, which are hazardous even in small quantities. Nowadays, paints are often made using cheaper synthetic pigments, indicated on the label with the word "Hue". Eg Cadmium Red Hue indicates that a synthetic pigment is used rather than actual cadmium. Paints nowadays are largely non-toxic, except for some reason Titanium White, which still has one of those triangular warning signs on it's label. I am still on the look-out for a non-toxic white oil paint, so give me a shout if you find one!
I hope this was helpful, and offered you a nice peek over my shoulder into my painting process. Let me know by sending me an email if you have any questions or would like to share any tips or insights you might have about oil paints!