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A Beginners’ Guide to Oil Painting: 10 Tips To Get Started – Art Academy Direct
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A Beginners’ Guide to Oil Painting: 10 Tips To Get Started


1. Start Small

Get started with a small artwork, before going big. This will get you familiar with the way the materials work. Also you can experiment with different techniques. The types of surfaces available are: canvas, canvas board, wooden panels, oil paper or a canvas pad. If you're starting off and experimenting, oil paper or the canvas paper pad would be the most cost effective option.


2. Set up your Work Space

Select your work space in a well ventilated room. Set up all your materials including your: oil paints, mediums and solvents, brushes, palette, metal dipper, container to wash your brushes and a cloth.



3. Sketch it out

You can start with a light sketch either using a pencil or a soft pastel pencil. Another option is applying a thin underpainting using a mix of oil paint and turpentine. The turpentine will speed up the drying time, allowing you add more layers of paint without waiting.


4. Select your Brushes

Choose the right brushes for you. There are the professional range and the student range of brushes. In the professional range you can choose between soft haired brushes or bristle hog hair. Bristle brushes are considered the most commonly used for oil painting. As oil paints are more viscous, the hog hairs are sturdy enough to move the paint, without losing its shape.

If you want to read more about how brushes are made, take a look at our previous blog.

5. Prime your Surface

Depending on the surface you've chosen, apply a layer of gesso to prevent the oil seeping into the surface. Furthermore, this protects the surface from the acids found in the paint. Some canvases are already pre-primed so you can skip this step. You can add another layer or two, to get a smooth surface.

6. Colour Mixing

Get familiar with mixing your colours. If you're starting out, you can start with a limited colour palette of red, blue, yellow, white, black, burnt umber and possibly magenta. This will give you the opportunity to get familiar with mixing your own colours. When you feel confident, you can introduce the secondary colours.

7. Understand Oil Paint Medium and Solvents

Mediums and solvents are used to alter the consistency, drying time and the finish of your oil paint. Here are the mediums and solvents commonly used when painting with oil paint:

  • Linseed Oil - This is a drying oil, which through a chemical reaction with oxygen, caused it to polmerize, encasing the pigment and helps to maintain the colour vibrancy and paint flexibility for years to come. Linseed oil slows down the drying time to allow better blending.
  • Liquin - This is an alkyd resin medium. This speeds up the drying time. It creates a silky consistency to the paint, with a glossy finish. This does not effect the colour of your paint when mixed.
  • Turpentine - This is a solvent, also known as a diluent. It speeds up the drying time as it dilutes the paint and evaporates off of it. It can also be used to clean your brushes, however white spirit is a more economical option.
  • Oil Painting Medium - It’s a medium for oil painting, which a mix of linseed oil and odourless thinner. It increases the fluidity of colour and facilitates drying. Ecological product of pale yellow, almost odourless, suitable for use in enclosed or poorly ventilated areas
  • Citrus Essence - This is made with the pure essence of citrus, this 100% natural solvent is liquid and colourless. The citrus essence is a medium for oil painting that does not alter the tones and viscosity of the colours. It is suitable to be used in closed rooms thanks to the characteristic pleasant citrus scent.
  • Siccative Oil - This is a fast drying medium which is mixed with oil paints to achieve more rapid drying time.
  • White Spirit - This is used to wash your brushes. It is suggested to not mix white spirit into your paint, as it mattifies and dulls the vibrancy of the paint.
  • Amongst other mediums are Odourless Mineral Spirit which is made from the distillation of petroleum and is a good odourless alternative to turpentine. Fragonard Gel Medium stands out from the colourless medium by having more body. It makes the colour more fluid without losing its reactivity. It enhances the adhesion of paint layers and accelerates the drying time of the colour.

8. The Fat over Lean Rule

The fat over lean rule helps you create a painting that is flexible, avoiding cracking as the years pass due to better adhering to the surface. The basis of the rule is the the bottom layer should be leaner, with fattier layers above. Lean paint means oil paint that is mixed with a thinner such as turpentine. This makes the paint less 'fatty', making it wetter and runnier, and dries quicker. The above fatty layer means oil paint with a high oil content, by adding an oil medium like linseed oil. With this method, it would mean that the bottom layer dries much quicker than the above layer, and helps that each new layer is more flexible than the ones before.

10. Varnish

Varnishing is an essential final step in the oil painting process. It will not only make your painting look better, but also protect it for decades.

Varnishing will give the painting a unified surface quality. In some cases, once your painting is fully dried, you will notice different surface qualities, some areas more glossy than others. This is due to oil colours naturally drying with different surface qualities due to the differences in the pigments and the binder. Once the varnish is apply, the surface of the paint layer will become unified.

You will need to choose your varnish finish - matt, satin or gloss. Gloss varnish will nicely saturate the dry paint layer, creating more depth in the painting. Matt will give the paint layers a direct appearance, lightening some of the dark areas. Satin will give you an in between quality, creating more depth without too much gloss. You can also choose different applications: by brush, spray or airbrush. 

Besides the aesthetic value of varnishing your painting, unvarnished paintings are vulnerable to aging. It is suggested to purchase a varnish which protects against UV damage. It is suggested to wait 6 to 12 months before varnishing your finished oil painting.