The Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started with Oil Paints

The Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started with Oil Paints

Oil painting doesn’t have to be confusing or intimidating. Here are some of the basics to get you started with oil painting in a safe and productive fashion!

Selecting Your Supplies

At first, the supplies may seem expensive, but the good news is most of the supplies last for a long time. Under most circumstances, you’ll get years of use out of your tubes of paint and brushes.

As for choosing your supplies, there are a few essentials — such as paints, brushes, a palette — as well as some “nice to have” items. Here’s our guide to stocking up on essential oil painting supplies.

As for surfaces, a pre-made stretched canvas or a canvas board makes a great surface on which to create your picture.

You’ll also need a place to mix paint. This is where a wooden palette, glass palette or pad of palette paper proves helpful. I prefer the palette paper, which you can discard when you are finished and helps you organize your colors.

Essential Oil Painting Techniques for Beginners


Choose a variety of brush styles and sizes when starting out.

Due to the stubborn thickness of the paint, you’ll probably be happiest using rigid bristle brushes such as “hog-hair” or “chunking” brushes. If you try to brush out thick paint with soft, flimsy bristles you’ll get very frustrated!

If you’ve ever painted in acrylics or watercolor, you’ll have to get used to physical demands of brushing out oil paint. It can be quite laborious, especially if used straight out of the tube. This thick, buttery nature of the paint is what makes it so fun to blend into, however.

Thinning Oil Paint

If you’re having trouble managing the thickness of the paint, you can use a thinner to make the paint more viscous and easier to apply.

Because traditional oils are not water soluble, you’ll need to choose an appropriate thinner to mix into your paint. Gamsol or Turpenoid are two of the safer thinners on the market. They’re virtually odorless, which is nice, but also means you can’t smell any of the fumes they may be emitting.

Keep your thinners in glass jars and keep the lids on as much as possible. Work in a well-ventilated area when using thinners. Your thinner can be reused, because the oil paint will simply fall to the bottom of the container after a day or so. Many artists pour their used thinner into a larger jar and let it clarify over time. This form of recycling is great for both your wallet and the environment. Don’t poor thinner down the drain — reuse it!


The thinner is also a crucial part of the process of cleaning your brushes.

Start by using a rag or paper towel to remove as much paint from your brushes as you can. Then give your brushes several baths in thinner, wiping as much paint and thinner off as possible with each bath. Some artists use multiple thinner containers for this process. Finally, head to the sink and clean each brush one at a time.

It’s important that you use a soap that is meant for removing oil. Regular soap usually won’t do a good enough job at removing all of the oil; the next time you paint you’ll find, to your chagrin, rock-hard bristles that don’t perform very well.

Oil Painting Safety Tips

Oils sometimes get a bad reputation for being a health hazard. The majority of paints are perfectly safe to handle because they’re made of simple inert pigments and vegetable oil. Of course, it’s a good ideas to check if the manufacturer recommends any safety precautions.

The one place where you need to take caution is when using of thinners and disposing or storing of used rags and paper towels soaked with thinner. The vegetable oils used to make oil paints have been known to heat up in temperature as they dry. Because of this, a common practice is to assume that your used rags and paper towels could, in theory, spontaneously combust.

Here’s how to stay safe when working with oil paint thinners:

  • Minimize your exposure to thinner and always work in a well-ventilated area while using.
  • Dispose of oil-soaked rags or paper towels properly: Just to be safe, put your used rags or paper towels into a water-filled container and dispose of the entire container.