Quick Start to Oil Painting

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Never Use Black and Other Important Tips

by Bob Worthy

If you're new to oil painting this short guide should be of some help. You may already be an experienced artist, but new to this particular medium. Most of these comments are about materials and how they can be manipulated, but a few aesthetic suggestions are included, too.

Oil Paint's Good Qualities

Oil paint has a number of advantages *1* over other media, such as tempera, watercolor, and acrylic. When dry, oil paint is very tough, and a little contact with water or dirt isn't likely to damage the piece. Damaged oil paintings can often be repaired. That's very difficult or impossible with water based paint on a paper ground. Acrylic paint is also very tough, but has other disadvantages. Oil paintings hundreds of years old often look like new, or can be cleaned to a nearly new state. Once the paint is dry, you can paint over the dried areas, either covering them up with opaque colors, or painting over with transparent colors ('glazing'). Oil paint is much more flexible in this way than watercolor or tempera. Oil color mixed on your palette will dry to exactly the same color.

In comparison with acrylic paint, oil has the advantage of drying much more slowly, allowing correction and certain kinds of effects, like subtle blending of color areas.

Oil paintings on canvas are very light, portable, and durable.

Problems With Oil Paint

Some of oil paint's good points are also problems for some artists. Oil paint dries slowly. On warm summer days with low humidity, e.g., Montana, medium thickness paint will dry in a few days, at least to the point where it can be painted over. In cool air, higher humidity, it can take weeks.

Oil paint requires cleanup with turpentine, or mineral spirits, which can irritatate eyes or nose, or cause allergic reaction. It's best not to inhale too much turpentine vapor or have too much skin contact. It's also flammable. Be careful and be sensitive to the effect on other people. Fortunately, you don't need to use much turpentine. Primarily turpentine is used in cleanup which would ideally not be at the same location (air space) where you're painting.

Recently come to market are water based oil paints. I have not used these, and so have no opinion one way or the other on their qualities and use.

Oil paints, much less turpentine, may not be allowed on airplanes.

Oil paint formulation has changed over the centuries. Some preparations have not worked out. Paint you buy in the twenty-first century minimizes the problems of growing transparency, darkening, and cracking over 'long' periods of time. If you're worried about how your art will look in 200 years, do some research, and good luck.

Painting Surfaces

Traditionally, primed wood and cloth (cotton and linen), are used as painting supports. The priming is critical. Priming with a chemically neutral paint is important for a number of reasons. The primer fills in the holes in the surface of the support, i.e., fills in between the canvas fibers, or fills in pores in wood. The primer protects the support from any corrosive effects of the paint, and it protects the paint by allowing it to dry (drying is a chemical reaction) without losing the more volatile components into the support. The primer provides better grip for the paint to the surface, binding tightly with the support, and provides a good surface for the oil paint. Finally, the primer is mixed with reflective pigment, which gives it a color, most commonly a bright white. This helps create a bright painting with brilliant colors – if the colors are transparent. See more about primer colors further on. Several coats of primer are usually needed. If your oil paint is absorbed through the primer, you haven't put on enough.
Gesso can with soft brush appropriate for the birch plywood panel in background. One inch deep cradled plywood panel.

Oil paint will adhere to surfaces, particularly wood, which have been sealed with primers or sealers, including acrylic primer, not formulated for art purposes. This isn't the classical preparation. It may not have the long term durability of the traditional materials, but it's something you might try.

Primer for art purposes goes by the generic term 'gesso'. You will want to use a modern gesso because it is a specially formulated acrylic paint for this specific purpose. More on the use of gesso further on.
Gesso being applied to a cradled hardboard panel. Note one inch deep wood framing for the panel.

The support itself is usually canvas or linen stretched across wooden 'stretcher bars', which are much like a window frame. The fabric is then gesso'ed. Linen is a little pricer, but can provide a smoother surface than the rougher textured cotton canvas. The gesso causes the taughtly stapled canvas to shrink to a drum tight surface, which is very pleasing to paint on.

Stretcher bars come in different lengths, with slots cut into the ends. Fitting together four bars into a rectangle makes a stretcher. Even better, they're reusable if you decide to discard the canvas. Stretcher bars have a raised outside edge, i.e., raised towards the front of the canvas. This is so that paint brush pressure towards the edge of the canvas will not leave a little line of heavier paint as it passes over the stretcher below. If you build your own stretchers, check this out first.

As the size of your painting goes up, be sure to buy or build a stretcher that is sturdy enough to handle the forces of manually pulling the canvas tight over the frame, and the additional strong force of the shrinking canvas as the gesso pulls it taught. Over three or four feet on a side you will often want to add a supporting cross bar, and/or braces in the corners. Nothing is more irritating than having the gessoed canvas warp a spindly stretcher.

For large paintings, stretching canvas around plywood panels, gluing on the back, may fit certain circumstances (I've never tried this, hence the lack of further hints). Aluminum stretcher bars are available for heavy duty purposes.

Other readily available surfaces: Paper board with canvas wrapped around and glued is called 'canvas board'. They're cheap, very handy, and also tend to be slightly warped. The warping may or may not be a concern for you; they will flatten in a frame, to some extent. Wood boards of all kinds, including eighth inch or quarter inch plywood are usable. The larger the piece, the thicker the wood, generally speaking. Composition board which is not impregnated with oil (the gesso will not adhere to the oil in the board), is very popular. Appropriately made composition board can be bought in a number of sizes from art suppliers either 'cradled' or 'uncradled'. Cradled means that wood sticks have been glued to the back side of the board to provide stiffness. Uncradled means no stiffeners. Composition board is also very soft, relatively, so that the corners are easily damaged. If you plan on your piece to be unframed (i.e., not in a decorative/protective outer frame), take this in consideration.

All these surfaces need to be clean of oil or other contaminates, and gessoed. It often takes several coats of gesso to completely treat the surface, especially if you spread it on thinly. In any case, make sure you cover the support completely with gesso.

Cleaning Up

A small jar of turpentine used to wash your brushes at the end of the day should be sufficient. Cans of turpentine with wire mesh for agitating the bristles work very well. Use the same turpentine over and over until you can tell it's not cleaning. The paint will settle to the bottom of the jar as sediment. Wipe the excess from the brushes on a rag or paper towel, and discard outside to remove the strong smell from your living space. To really get brushes clean, follow that process by washing them in soap and water. That's not the best thing for your water treatment plant, however. There probably aren't any really good solutions for disposing of the used up turpentine-paint mixture. (See earth911.com ?)

Turpentine will eat through some plastics; do not use plastic jars. Be conservative. Be SAFE.


Brushes are stiff or soft, wide and flat or round. The stiff ones are frequently made of a natural hair, like hog bristle. The soft brushes are made of everything from sable hair to nylon. Flat stiff brushes are very versatile since they can quickly press oil paint into a large surface, or delicately make a tiny dot with one corner. Bristle brushes leave a noticeable texture in the paint, small parallel grooves. See Painting as Sculpture further on.
DSCN0764 annotated scale.png

Flat soft brushes may have a place in your set if you want to leave a very smooth surface, such as in a portrait, or perhaps a dark night sky. They are not very efficient at spreading paint.

I don't use round stiff brushes, but I have a collection of soft rounds of various sizes. Drawing very thin lines or putting in fine details is easiest with a small round.

Oil painting brushes have long handles so that you can stand back from the canvas and see the overall effect of your strokes. They are noticeably longer than watercolor brushes.

Let's assume you're starting with canvases no larger than 16” x 20”. If you want to go larger, then scale up from these suggestions. Start out with just a few brushes. Try using just one or two half inch flat bristle brushes. Add to that one or two medium soft rounds, different sizes. For spreading a lot of color quickly, which is very useful when starting a new painting, get one 1” to 1 1/2” flat bristle brush. If you buy non-gessoed panels or canvas, you'll need a regular 2” house painting brush for latex paint, which has pretty much the same spreading qualities as gesso.

DSCN0767 crop scale.png



You need one palette knife of about 2” for mixing paint on the palette. This is also useful for spreading paint on canvas quickly, scraping paint off the canvas, and painting various effects. The big advantage of using a palette knife instead of brushes is that cleanup is easy, no brushes to clean.


About 12” x 20” is a good size. I like to lay a paper towel over part of the palette to wipe excess paint from my brush. A piece of glass or Plexiglas works well. Tablets of throwaway paper palettes are very handy out of the studio.


There are too many easel possibilities to list. Figure out where you can get good indirect daylight coming in from your left, right, or overhead and fit your setup into that spot. Good light and being able to step back from the painting, preferably with a comfortable chair some distance away, is the important thing. Light directly behind you will reflect off the shiny oil surface.

Incompatible Media

DO NOT try to mix watercolor, gouache, tempera, colored pencils, acrylic, or pastel with oil paint on your canvas. Since a lot of these paints are packaged the same way, look carefully at tubes of paint before you start using them.

I would be skeptical of cattle markers as well because of the inferior quality to standard artist paint.

Compatible Media

Painting over graphite pencil and charcoal works just fine.*2*

You can also paint oil over acrylic, BUT NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. If it works for you, acrylic can be used to block in background areas on your canvas before you start working in oil. It's probably a good idea to let the acrylic dry overnight (thoroughly dry) before applying oil on top. (A light sanding of the dried acrylic would not be a bad idea.) Even so, that can speed things considerably. I have paintings 35 or more years old which show no bad effects painted this way. (See acrylic brand web pages, e.g., Golden, on this subject.)

Starting a Painting

It's best to start with a plan. Plein air *3* painters, sitting in a field, mountaintop, or wherever, make a quick sketch of the main elements in the scene. If you're working more deliberately, whether from a live subject, photo, or out of your head, take time to first do a drawing that fits all the elements of the picture into the canvas. Take into consideration the proportions of your canvas, wide, tall, etc. Draw on the canvas with pencil or paint, and adjust with eraser or rag to fit things together just the way you want them before beginning to apply paint that will be in the finished piece.
Detail of a painting started with a drawing and then a (turpentine) wash in burnt umber.

Especially if painting from life, cover the canvas as soon as you can with a light coat, or wash, of paint of about the right value *4*. In oil painting, a wash is created by diluting a little bit of paint with turpentine and spreading that on the canvas *5*. A big bristle brush is very useful for this. Quickly paint in washes and correct by both (a) wiping paint off with a rag, and (b) adding a little more pigment to the areas that need to be darker. A wash will not obliterate your pencil marks, although it may smear them a bit. You will probably be applying various washes inside penciled in areas anyway, so it's ok if the pencil lines begin to disappear. You are actually drawing with paint and erasing by wiping off.*6*

An underpainting whose drawing is filled in a (turpentine) wash in burnt umber. Background still white gesso.
Detail with transparent color applied over underpainting. rhw 2014.
Finished painting with background applied in opaque color, leaves in transparent viridian, red, brown, and yellow. rhw 2014.

When quickly painting with washes, use these colors only: raw umber for dark cool areas, burnt umber for warmer areas, and perhaps yellow ocher for areas of strong, or saturated, color. These are relatively neutral colors which should not affect your finished painting. If you let your painting sit for a day or two in this state, it will dry quickly because the turpentine has thinned out the oils in the paint. The turpentine itself evaporates pretty quickly, and then the thin oil dries. Meanwhile, working on a painting in a wash state is useful and fun because pigments will bleed into each other easily, an effect you may want to preserve into the final piece, and the picture appears very rapidly while being very easy to change as you better see it come to life.

After a short time, as soon as the turpentine has mostly evaporated, your painting in wash is ready for applying color. That depends on a lot of factors, but especially if you're painting from life, portraits, still life, landscapes, you will probably want to get on with it while the light and weather stay the same. The underlying ochers and umbers will blend in to your overlying paint, but not enough to spoil the colors or values.

Pay most of your attention to values, and the composition of those values. Color matters in most painting, but it is not nearly as important as your dark to light composition. More comments of this kind under Aesthetics.

For carefully producing a well composed painting, try the cartoon method. The 'cartoon' is a value painting, colorless, on top of which you simply paint over with opaque color. This is very much like quickly sketching in your painting in washes, but where you take more time with it. The advantage of this method is that you get the value painting exactly right, without the distractions and errors that applying color produce *7*. Use the same umber colors, with the addition of white as needed. When the cartoon painting is dry, match the same values in the colors you apply on top.

The above advice about neutral washes and value composition is sound, but understand that combinations of color and juxtaposition of one color against another create both problems and brilliant successes in your painting which are too complex to go into here.

Particular Colors and Their Uses


Traditionally gesso is a brilliant white, but it can be tinted to some degree with acrylic colors. Modern gesso is an acrylic paint. (Painting How To books from fifty years back will be talking about different materials.) You can buy gesso in colors from black to white, with terracotta reds and yellows in between. Some of these work really well, especially in plein air, saving time you would be using to cover up all that bright white. You can leave gesso uncovered by paint in your pictures, it is a stable final surface.

Gesso can be applied roughly or smoothly. This will depend on your aesthetic choice. Generally gesso is perfect right out of the can. See instructions on the can for further possibilities.

Linseed oil

You will probably want a small amount of linseed oil. A number of paints are formulated fairly stiff in the tube (cobalt blue always seems dense). Mix the color you want on your palette, and if it is a bit stiff in application, you can add one or two drops of linseed oil to the palette. Mix in thoroughly. A small bottle lasts a long time. (People will tell you not to use linseed oil because it yellows over time. That's probably true, but I have 35 year old paintings where some linseed oil was used, and there seems to be no noticeable change.) Adding linseed oil extends the time the paint needs to dry.


DO NOT USE BLACK. Black, lamp black, ivory black, is extremely dead to the eye, and does not really “work” in most paintings. NEVER use black to darken a color, i.e., reduce its value. Use the black paint to touch up the number on your mailbox, but not in your painting *8*. Good substitutes for 'black' are Burnt Umber plus Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber plus Prussian Blue, Raw Umber plus a dark blue. You probably want to use the same blue to make your darkest color as you are using in adjacent areas of the painting. Adding various amounts of white yields many warm and cool greys. Experiment. Another alternative to black is a pure unmixed dark blue (or some greens, some reds, ...); applied thickly enough it is very dark but continues to add a very heightened sense of color. (But see Basic Training Palette, below, as an eccentric exception.)


There are two common whites, titanium, and zinc. Titanium is the most useful, it is terrifically opaque, a thin coat covers anything. Zinc white is semi-transparent. As a glaze some interesting effects are possible, although it reduces colorfulness. (We no longer have the beautiful 'flake white' because it is a lead compound.)

Opaque vs Transparent

When you first begin painting you probably will not pay any attention to whether a particular color is opaque or transparent. On the color charts in store displays and in art supply catalogs there should be symbols for at least two properties of each color: (1) Permanency, whether the color fades, and (2) Transparency. Transparency is usually shown as an unfilled circle, a half filled circle, or a filled circle, for transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque. When painting quickly, putting on final color, painters tend to mix their colors with white to get the proper value for each part of the painting. This gives a very even and controlled look, and allows a wide range of expression. Opaque colors can be added directly from the tube since they cover the ground; the whole painting has a consistent look.

Transparent colors, and many other colors that are are semi-transparent, are tricky to apply in this setting, unmixed with titanium white, that is. Mixed with white, or other opaque color, they simply work like opaque color. Transparent colors unmixed with opaque colors leave little swirls of concentrated color unless applied very evenly. Unless planned for, this often results in a painting that has many kinds of unintended textures which don't make sense in the overall context of the picture. Painting over dry color areas with transparent color is called 'glazing', and planned glazing can add considerably to the vibrancy of your work.

Indigo, Orange

A couple of interesting transparent colors are indigo and orange. Indigo is a sort of blue that can add shadowing effects, brushed over other color. Orange is interesting as a glaze to 'antique' a finished painting. As a thin outline around significant features, an orange line tends to provide some optical zing that remains mostly unnoticeable *9*.

Basic Training Palette

A palette of black, white, yellow ocher, and mars red is sometimes suggested for serious students. The black and white make a kind of blue, black and yellow ocher make a sort of green, black and red make a purple. All the colors are much muted, but you can make some handsome paintings by restricting your palette this way, and learn considerable craft. (See Black, above.)

Minimal Starting Kit

This is a still life or landscape painting setup. For portraits or other special subjects there might be some particularly useful colors missing from the list below.

Materials List

  1. 2 Flat bristle brushes, half inch
  2. 1 Soft round brush, medium size
  3. 1 palette knife
  4. A few gessoed painting surfaces, twelve inches on one of the sides approximately
  5. An easel of some sort to hold the painting securely *10**
  6. A piece of wood or other surface for a palette
  7. Small can of turpentine *11*
  8. Small bottle of linseed oil
  9. A few clean cotton rags (replace as necessary)
  10. A few 37ml tubes of oil paint (a warm color palette *12*):
    • Titanium White (consider a 150ml tube)
    • Burnt Umber
    • Yellow Ocher
    • Cadmium Red
    • Cadmium Yellow
    • Cerulean Blue *13*
    • Ultramarine Blue

If you can afford it, add these colors:

  • Cadmium Orange
  • Prussian Blue *14*
  • Alizarin Crimson *15*
  • Raw Umber
  • Raw Sienna

Mixing Colors

Blue + Burnt/Raw Umber → Black; Red + Blue → Purple; Blue + Yellow → Green; Red + Yellow → Orange. All of these mixes produce some version of the intended color, but there is no substitute for specific hues, for example transparent orange. Other examples: if you have cadmium red dark, you cannot add white to get cadmium red light; a warm blue cannot turn into a cool blue; opaque colors cannot be made transparent. This is why there is such a variety of colors to choose from. You certainly do not need all of them, but you will find yourself buying specific tubes for specific projects.

Useful Techniques

Sample Color Palette

It is quite useful to make a white gessoed panel into a color mixing reference. With only a few blues and yellows there is already a large number of greens you can mix. These mixes can be hard to remember and reproduce. Make a matrix on your panel with the blues in column on the left, and the yellows (and other colors) across the top. Mix a bit of each blue-yellow combination, call it X, and then half X and half Titanium White (XW). Paint X/XW in the color matrix. This is always a big help to me in choosing the right blue-yellow combination for the greens I have in mind.
Ad hoc palette pairing yellows and blues yielding various greens.


Glazing is painting a thin coat of a transparent color over a dried area of a painting. The area being painted over is often the same basic color as the glaze color. Adding the glaze color will darken the area, but give the area more saturated (intense, luminous) color. Also consider, and experiment with glazes of contrasting colors, such as viridian green over a grey background. Very subtle color experiences can be generated by glazing over very dark backgrounds: e.g., transparent blue over a very dark brown will generate a 'deep' black.

A palette demonstrating a number of transparent colors, mixtures, and glazing over white and grey.

Because the glaze is intended to be a permanent part of the painting, I usually proceed in the following manner: (1) squeeze out or mix a transparent color; (2) add a small amount of linseed oil to help spread the glaze; (3) use a stiff bristle brush to spread the glaze on as evenly as possible, the stiff brush moves the paint around quickly; (4) go back over the area with a soft brush and even the glaze out so that it's a uniform thickness; (5) possibly add more of the original glaze paint 'to taste', or at the edges to give volume *16* to the glazed area, or blend into adjacent areas.

The Daniel Smith product line has Transparent Blender, advertised as the same medium as used for their oil paints. It mixes with other oil paint, thinning the color, but retaining the same buttery spreading behavior as an out of the tube color. This seems to work great for glazing. Linseed oil prolongs the drying time, and also will yellow to some degree over time. Transparent Blender would seem to be a clear win. Other brands have various extenders and driers. Read everything you can about any of these additives, and beware of incompatibilities.

Before getting serious about glazing read all you can on the web about oil paint glaze formulations.

Don't worry about this technique as you begin painting, but at some point, with a dry painting, experiment with glazes to see what they can do for you.

Rough Stuff

On a dry painting, you can use tools to gouge and alter the surface. Scrape paint into the brush stroke grooves, and a turpentine rag to clean off, leaving a different color in the paint grooves. Use sandpaper to take the paint back to an earlier layer, or back down to gesso.

Graphite Pencil

Some artists effectively use pencil in with, and over the top of the oil paint *17*.

Thinning with Turpentine

There are paintings, great ones, with paint drips caused by thinning paint with turpentine and applying quickly. Drippy areas are often part of a beginning composition. If drops or washy effects are attractive and fit in with the overall painting, why feel obliged to paint them out? Sometimes the less you do the better it gets. You are, however, separating pigment from its supporting oil. Longevity of the painting may suffer.

Painting as Sculpture

Oil paintings are low relief sculpture, whether that's your goal or not. The effect of a bristle brush on the paint is going to leave some texture in the form of little grooves. Any brush is apt to push the paint into still higher piles in snowplow fashion, or leave a raised dot when a highlight is dabbed on. If you pile paint on with a palette knife, you can have an even stronger effect. Oil paint, and acrylic art paint, is stiff enough to hold the shape of the piled up paint. That's one of its charms.

Most oil supports aren't perfectly smooth to start with. The canvas or brushed on gesso leave bumps and grooves. The point is that the human eye is extremely good at noticing these minute textures, which can either add or detract from your work.

Usually the sculptural effect is an expected aesthetic property of an oil painting. An oil painting without surface texture seems fake. You have probably noticed that cheap reproductions of oil paintings attempt to preserve this effect by printing on texturized paper. On close inspection, however, the texture does not line up with the paint. (I find this really annoying.)

As a painter, you need to be aware of texture and control it when necessary. When your painting is hung on a wall, light is going to bounce off it from different angles depending on time of day, and artificial light. Areas such as a dark night sky will probably be better off if finished with a smooth soft brush to minimize random light reflections. A white cloud or swirling water may benefit by purposefully scraped and brushed contours. Generally, I think, light areas tolerate or benefit from texture, and dark areas not.

Preserving and Finishing with Varnish

Once your painting is really really really dry (dark paint has turned dull, areas thinned with linseed oil are not shinier than the rest of the painting), at least a month from dry to touch, or preferably a year, put a coat of artists varnish over it. This will bring back the lustrous beauty of your colors, like a stream pebble dipped in water. Be sure to use artists varnish for oil paints *18*. You won't need a large quantity, since it goes on very thinly. Use directly from the bottle. The varnish is fairly thin, so it will run and cause unsightly drips if the painting is vertical. Also varnish dries very quickly, so there isn't time to work mistakes out. This is a job you do very fast. Find a dust free space where you can lay the painting flat. Get a fairly stiff bristle brush and brush the varnish in an even, thin coat. Keep tweezers or something sharp handy to lift out bristles that come out of the brush. By looking at the painting from a low angle you can easily see any spots you miss. Because the varnish is thin, it will spread out smoothly, leaving no brush strokes. Throw the brush away. It's not worth trying to clean them.

Aesthetics and Inspiration

This section is for the beginning artist, as much as beginning oil painter. A lot has happened in oil painting, art in general, in the last century and a half. I'm speaking here to the amateur artist who admires the tradition of painting landscapes, city scenes, animals, portraits, still lifes, and so forth, and who would like to make something good in that tradition.

Why Paint?

At this point in time, oil painting is almost a quaint eccentricity. In an era where millions of reproductions of virtually any image constantly flash around the globe, why produce an artifact in wood, canvas, and paint that is tedious to produce, and reproduces poorly in digital media?Maybe neuroscience will provide an answer to this question some day. Meanwhile the urge to make art is as much a mystery as ever. As an amateur, you only have an obligation to please yourself.


Everything you have looked at in your life, art, advertisement, architecture, vacation photos, road signs, etc., is going to influence what you notice and what you try to represent. It's all derivative. Second, many many artists of all kinds have pushed the boundaries of art very hard in the last century. Few of them were that original. Someone, 50,000 years ago? 100,000 years ago?, made the first line drawing: OK, that was original. Don't worry about it, you have a place here too. *19*


It's difficult as a beginner to get any useful critique. You will find, I believe, that only other artists will be able to provide any useful criticism of your work.

Look at Original Paintings

Go to museums and galleries and see original paintings. Reproductions of artwork are usually pathetic, inadequate, misleading. Even the postcards and posters you buy at the museum are, well, sadly inadequate. Up close, in person, you can learn a lot from analyzing why a painting is successful, or not, and how different effects are created. It's hard to overstate how important this is.

Outsider Art, Folk Art

There is a category of art called Outsider Art. That is, art made by people who are in no way part of the art making and viewing culture. Generally you make outsider art if you are out of the norm mentally, or are very geographically isolated, probably both. Recognition of this genre originated with German psychiatrists in the 1880's. It was a case of new art by the Expressionists influencing how the medical men looked at their patients. See Outsider Art, by Colin Rhodes, Thames and Hudson, 2000. Folk Art is more knowing, but more inhibited. Looking at this art provides a kind of baseline from which to compare and understand the main culture.


The layout of light and dark areas in your painting. Please see any number of texts and the web for hints on good composition. There are special rules for landscape, see, for example, Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, by John Carlson. And see Starting to Paint Portraits by Bernard Dunstan.


Don't paint dull pictures. Your viewers can forgive your inadequate drawing, your eccentric use of color, and your quirky composition. They will not appreciate a picture that does not have something of interest, an unusual point of view, something to intrigue the mind. Your audience should not quite 'get' the picture, or they should be so intrigued by the relationships in the picture that they are drawn back to it again and again. Every viewing should inspire a new discovery. (But, see Level of Detail further on. Don't fill your paintings with useless detail.)


Unless you are looking for some special effect, you want the internal logic of your painting to be consistent. If part of your painting features loose drawing for some features, don't also include lines made with a straight edge. If your foreground subject, a deer, does not include every hair on the deer, you may not paint in every leaf on a tree in the background. If the tablecloth for your still life vase of flowers shows the folds and texture of the cloth, then the vase also has a comparable texture. A strong color in a dominant natural scene (e.g., a red barn wall) has to show up in other parts of your picture, in areas of reflection, and in adjusting the colors of all other objects as they are illuminated by reflected light.

Painting from Photos

Digital photography makes painting from a photo much easier. (1) You can crop the photo to the exact height vs width ratio as your intended canvas. (2) Print the photo and grid both the canvas and the photo with pencil to aid drawing in the contours. (3) Manipulate the image to produce exaggerated light-dark versions of the image to get your composition right. (4) Similarly, reduce the number of colors in the image ('posterize') and print several versions of that. (5) Use all of the manipulated images to improve your understanding of the image.

Level of Detail

When you look at good or great paintings, up close, in person, you may be surprised at how sketchy, vague, and lacking in detail they are at a short distance. Moving back from the painting, everything falls magically into place. Oil painting with a brush is not usually an exercise in detailed portrayal of a scene. Indeed, excessive detail usually sets your teeth on edge unless done to perfection, and it's a common attribute of Outsider and Folk art. The artist attempts to trick your eye into filling in the missing components, while emphasizing various other aspects, composition, line, and color.

Take note of nature. You are unable to see every needle on every tree on a distant hilltop. Find a painterly shorthand for that hilltop of trees. It may be only a few stokes of paint. Painting more than that usually detracts from the picture. Look at paintings you admire, and copy from the best.

The Line, The Edge

Related to composition is the line, and the lines formed by edges of color. Pay attention to what lines are in your picture, branches of trees, the curves in any part of the body of any animal, etc., and take advantage of them as key parts of your painting. One or more lines may be the whole point of your effort. Watch out for unintended tangents, lines that come together from different subjects in your scene, creating unintended figures.

Lines are also formed by an edge where two colors meet. If the areas are the same value, those lines may not be very apparent, or even noticeable. Depending on the colors, however, there can be some strong lines suggested, sometimes by optical illusion.


Color is probably profoundly important to you, or not so much. If the former, then this is likely to be a lifelong quest. In this space all I can offer are a few suggestions.

Mostly taking paint from the tube directly to the canvas results in an uninspiring, “Oh yes, ultramarine blue again”, result. First, understand the overall color scheme of your subject, then select a few key colors that allow approximation of that subject, perhaps a blue, a yellow, a brown. Mix various combinations of those colors. For example your most common blue would be constructed by adding a small proportion of the brown; for a different blue area, the same blue and a bit of the yellow. Mixing a whole bunch of colors together will result in a muddy grey. Selectively combining a limited number of colors, four, five, six, in various ratios results in a color-coherent but interesting palette. Finally, dropping in a feature in an entirely new color, say a yellow highlight in a yellow not used anywhere else in the painting, will probably create a very jarring note.

Most paintings are actually a little dull in color because a lot of painters mix various pigments with white as the main technique to get the value desired. The opaque white considerably dulls the potential of the raw pigment. (See the section on glazing.) All is relative, however, so your painting can still be attractive. A quick painting, a field sketch, say, really has to use this technique. With more time, time for multiple layers, you can amp things up.

Consider the possibilities of painting in pure pigment (a specific color out of the tube), mixing for the unique palette of the painting, but excluding white as much as possible. This method produces much more color saturation. You also need a large selection of tubes of paint since you are omitting using white to adjust the value. This takes a lot of patience, a lot of drying time, and a practiced eye for adding several or many layers of pigment. The results will max out your color possibilities.

Warm vs Cool

Colors are warm or cool, in different relationships to each other. Cadmium red is definitely a warm color, and Viridian is cool. There is a large range of reds, yellows, blues from warm to cool. Seeing warm vs cool is most obvious in landscape, where distances in daylight are cooler than in the foreground. In daylight shadows are cool, bright areas warm; at night, the reverse. Placement of warm vs cool colors in more intimate scenes can create a sense of volume.

Sources and Reading Suggestions

The Age of Insight, by Eric R. Kandel, Random House, 2012.

Ben Nicholson, by Norbert Lynton, Phaidon Press Ltd, 1993.

Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, by John F. Carlson, 1973.

Cybernetics and Painting, a paper by Frank Galuszka, date?, url: http://art.ucsc.edu/cybernetics-and-painting-0.

Outsider Art, by Colin Rhodes, Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, Lawrence Weschler, 1982. Expanded edition, 2009.

Starting to Paint Portraits, by Bernard Dunstan, Watson-Huptill Publications, New York, 1966. Book is just barely available from Amazon. This is a good book on lots of painting topics, but beware that the author is writing about 'pre-modern' materials.

Further Research Needed

How to get rid of used turpentine? Excess paint?

Need references for color composition problems and tricks.


Note 1

Titian, considered by many art historians to be the most innovative portrait painter in European history, adopted these early mannerist ideas and applied them to a new method of painting: oil on canvas. Until the beginning of the sixteenth century, Renaissance art in Italy had focused on fresco and egg tempera paints on wood panel; these paints were water-based, smooth, and quick-drying. Oil paint is radically different: it dries slowly, allowing an artist to work and rework certain areas of a painting. Oils also allow the painter to use viscous and translucent coats of paint, which can be glazed over successive layers of dry paint, permitting the artist to continually revise a painting as well as create depth and texture. Thus, Titian could convey emotion by using translucent layers of paint superimposed on one another and strong brush strokes to emphasize and distort the surface of the painting. As Holland Cotter has pointed out, Titian stopped signing his paintings because his "raw" use of paint, including his scratching of the painted surface, was so distinctive that his work needed no further identification.

The Age of Insight, Eric R. Kandel, Random House, 2012. Page 138.

Note 2

Ben Nicholson, 1894-1982, English painter, is a good example of a major artist who used pencil as a key component, often drawing over portions of the dried oil paint.

Note 3

Plein Air is artspeak for outdoors.

Note 4

“Value” refers to how dark or light an area of paint is. Value does not mean color. To see values better, squint at the scene, the painting, etc., to see which parts are darker and lighter.

Note 5

You don't need to mix a wash in a container. Wet your brush in turpentine, then dab a bit of umber oil paint from the palette. Then directly to canvas.

Note 6

“I think one trouble is that many people think of drawing as meaning exclusively drawing with a lead pencil, with all its concomitant difficulties of line, modelling and so on. But a drawing can be made with any instrument that will make a mark, and one is drawing, in the sense of the definition above, all the time one is painting.” Bernard Dunstan, Starting to Paint Portraits.

Note 7

Every color affects all the other colors in your picture profoundly. Second to your light-dark composition, color areas interact in interesting, and sometimes strange ways, varied by color ('hue'), size of a color area, color saturation, dullness or transparent depth, and no doubt other subtle ways.

Note 8

Of course there are exceptions to never using black, but you have to use it in a sophisticated manner. In photo realist paintings, usually airbrushed acrylics, black is used to mimic that part of a photo which is the very darkest, the ultimate shadow. In that context, black works pretty well. And of course look up Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and other Abstract Expressionists, keeping in mind this is a specialized category.

Note 9

I believe this is something Robert Bechtle did, but cannot find a reference.

Note 10

Aluminum tripod easels can be had fairly cheap, and can be stabilized by use of a couple of boards clamped across two of the legs. The boards and the clamps can hold the canvas.

Note 11

Turpentine from hardware store. Small can. It lasts a long time.

Note 12

See section on warm vs cool colors. This is not so easy to see on-line or in a store, but this first minimum list includes no cool colors, except perhaps Cerulean Blue.

Note 13

Two blues are included in the list because it is very difficult to paint a convincing sky with only one color of blue. In one sky you might very well use four or five blues in some styles of painting. If we lived on Mars, perhaps we'd need to include a number of different reds.

Note 14

Instead of Prussian Blue, there are other cool blues that are similar, such as Daniel Smith's Indianthrone Blue.

Note 15

Alizarin Crimson is a very cool red. Actually, I prefer Daniel Smith's Quinacriadone Red.

Note 16

Creating three dimensional space is a pretty simple trick. Juxtapose three values of a similar color, with the lightest value between two darker areas, to create the illusion of a folded surface with a highlight center wrinkle. Subtly darkening (or lightening) the edges of an area conveys roundness, or non-flatness.

Note 17

E.g., Ben Nicholson, 1894-1982.

Note 18

In fact, there are a number of formulations of artists varnish, including a number for acrylic paint. Make sure the intended application is for oil paintings, e.g., damar varnish.

Note 19

“Painting always changes. It changes from epoch to epoch, from place to place, from artist to artist. While certain improvements are possible, it is in general not improvable. It does not get objectively better. There are new projects, and new gains. There are losses, there are things forgotten. ...” From Cybernetics and Painting, a paper by Frank Galuszka. See references.


Copyright 2016 by Robert Worthy.