Moon Ray Lab

Creative Alchemy

Oil Painting Tools for Beginners

A simple list of everything you need to get started

Have you always wanted to try oil painting but hesitated, thinking it might be too difficult or too expensive?

If so, you’ve landed in the perfect spot.

In this blog post, I’ll dispel any uncertainties. I’ll outline precisely what you need to start painting in oil, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to learn oil painting without breaking the bank.

Let’s dive in and make oil painting enjoyable and budget-friendly!

A. Oil Paints

What I recommend:

  • Titanium White
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Lemon Yellow
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • French Ultramarine
  • Phthalo Blue
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber

Why I recommend this:

Brand:

I mostly use Winsor & Newton or Royal Talens oil paints because they offer great value for the price.

For beginners, I recommend avoiding overly expensive paints. At this stage, you might not notice the difference between excellent and absolutely superb paints. Plus, not all pricey options are worth it.

I also suggest steering clear of very cheap paints. It’s like trying to learn piano on an out-of-tune instrument – frustrating.

Stick with established, reputable brands that you can easily find in your area. They’re your best bet!

Water-mixable oils:

Water-mixable oil paints eliminate the need for toxic solvents when diluting or cleaning up.

As I work from home and have family members with strong allergies, I prefer using water-mixable oil paints.

For beginners, I suggest starting with water-mixable oils. They are simpler to manage, easier to clean up and do not require any toxic solvents. You don’t need to worry about wasting your money either – even if you later decide to transition to traditional oil paints, you can easily mix them together (though the mixture won’t remain water-mixable).

In the long term, artworks created with water-mixable oil paints are IDENTICAL to those made with traditional oil paints.

Here is why.

Basically, oil dries up naturally (via the process known as oxidation), while water evaporates (if you used any at all while painting).

At the end of the day, what is left on the canvas – pigment and binder – is exactly the same, whether you used regular or water-mixable oils, while the process is significantly easier with water-mixables.

COLOURS:

Even though in theory you should be able to get away with the three primary colours plus black and white, the reality is more complicated.

  • First of all, unlike everything you may have heard so far, the primary colours are NOT yellow, red and blue. The true primaries are yellow, magenta and cyan. Shocking, right? I couldn’t believe it, either, yet it’s true.
  • Secondly, in real life there are no perfect cyan, magenta and yellow pigments. Instead, I recommend two yellows, two magentas and two cyan/blues – a cooler and a warmer shade of each.
  • Thirdly, instead of mixing your colours with black out of the tube to darken, I recommend using a combination of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (or Burnt Umber) to mix black. This way you can make your black cooler bluish or warmer brownish shade. Black out of the tube tends to be horribly dull and dirty looking and most professional oil painters prefer to mix black.
  • Finally, some oil paints are transparent and others are opaque. The list above gives a good combination of opaque and transparent paints.

Ultimately, starting with a relatively limited number of colours is much easier for beginners than buying dozens of tubes and getting confused. And it’s easier on the pocket.

B. Brushes

What I recommend:

  • Short Flat, Bristle
  • Short Flat, Synthetic
  • Angular, Synthetic
  • Pointed, Round Synthetic
  • Soft Fan, Synthetic or Sable

Why I recommend this:

BRAND:

I use Rosemary & Co. I believe they offer the best value for money. Just like with oil paints, I suggest you avoid very expensive and very cheap brushes. Choose reputable, well established brands that are available where you live.

SIZES:

The recommended brush sizes are quite small. This is because I suggest that beginners learn to paint on a small scale. Rather than spending a month (or more) trying to paint something grand, you will learn a lot quicker if you spend a month painting several small works, attempting to complete each painting in one or two sittings, spending no more than 3 hours on each painting in total.

In the future, as you progress to work on larger paintings, you’ll need larger brushes.

SHAPES:

Brushes of different shapes can perform different tasks. Starting with a list suggested above is a good way to give yourself a variety of brushstroke options without being overwhelmed.

MATERIAL:

Natural hairs are usually more expensive than synthetics. I find good quality synthetics generally perform better because the hairs are more uniform and produce more reliable results. You may want to buy brushes made of natural hairs when you’re more advanced and know exactly what you’re doing and what effect you’re trying to achieve. For beginners it seems a bit wasteful.

SOFTNESS:

Brushes range from very hard (hog bristles), to medium, and soft. Think toothbrush vs feather.

  • Hard brushes are often used early in the painting process, to “push” paint into the weave of the canvas, especially if you work on coarse canvases that have very uneven surfaces. I use hard brushes for sketching in the first layer (known as “underpainting”).
  • As you progress through the painting, you are more likely to use brushes with medium softness.
  • Soft brushes are typically used for blending and creating gradients, as they tend to gently “glide” over the paint surface, perfect for creating smooth blends.

On the recommended list you have a good combination of hard, medium and soft brushes.

C. Canvases

What I recommend:

  • Real Canvas Pad, OR
  • Professional Cotton Canvas or Professional Linen Canvas, Stretched

Why I recommend this:

MATERIAL:

Most canvases are either cotton or linen. Cotton canvases are more affordable and they have more texture. Linen is usually much smoother. Either is fine, depending on your preferences. Whether cotton or linen, I recommend buying professional-grade canvases though they are expensive.

Even if you don’t like your painting, you can always paint over it. So no canvas is ever wasted.

TYPE OF CANVAS SUPPORT:

These are the advantages of the canvas supports that I recommend:

  • Canvas Pads have loose sheets of real canvas and are perfect for learning. They are flat and don’t take up much space. I recommend leaving approx. 5 cm (2 in) around the edges. This way, if you love the end result, you can buy stretcher bars separately and stretch the loose sheet yourself to create a stretched canvas.
  • Stretched canvas. This is a traditional and the most common way to present your artwork. I recommend this because this is what most buyers and art collectors prefer. It’s also easy to hang without a frame. I recommend buying professional grade excellent quality canvases, even though they may be expensive. If you don’t want to keep your existing artwork, you can always paint over it, so you don’t ever have to throw away a canvas.

There are other types of surfaces to paint on, e.g. canvas glued to a panel, wooden panels etc. but I wouldn’t recommend them generally and especially not to beginners.

THICKNESS

One way to gauge quality of the canvas is by its thickness, measured in grams per square meter (gsm). This shows how heavy each square meter of canvas is. The heavier the better. Go for at least 350 gsm, ideally 400+ gsm.

TEXTURE

Canvas textures range from coarse to extra fine. For beginners I recommend medium or fine weave. Coarse could be a bit too difficult to handle and distracting for beginners and extra fine may be too expensive.

Ultimately the choice of texture fully depends on a personal preference and art style and has nothing to do canvas quality. Even though fine and extra fine canvases typically cost more, this has more to do with the fact that these canvases are usually made of linen, a more expensive material, as it’s difficult to achieve finer textures with cotton.

GROUND / PRIMERS

Canvases are typically covered (aka “primed”) using special grounds (or “primers”). This is to protect the canvas from the paint, improve adhesion and smooth out the surface.

Even if you intend to work in oil I recommend buying universally primed canvases rather than oil-primed. You may find yourself experimenting with different mediums at different stages of your artistic career. You may also decide to use acrylic for your underpainting layer, like many oil painters do. Choosing oil-primed surfaces limits your choices to just one – oil. Universally primed canvases work with any mediums, including oil.

If you buy good quality canvases, they come ready-primed and you can jump straight to painting!

So don’t worry about various gesso’s and grounds yet. There may come a time when you decide to prime your own surfaces, but for beginners I believe time is better spent actually learning to paint.

D. Other tools (completely optional)

Strictly speaking you only need the three things above to start paining – a) paints, b) brushes and c) canvases. However, there are a few items that would make your life easier.

  1. A palette knife for mixing paint.
  2. A palette. You can use an old ceramic plate. If you decide to buy a palette, I recommend glass palette rather than wood, plus a glass scraper. It’s much easier to clean even if oil dries completely on the palette. I use a glass kitchen cutting board.
  3. A bottle of paint thinner. I recommend Gamsol or Zest-It, they are non-toxic alternatives to traditional turpentine and mineral spirits. If you decide to use water-mixable oils, you can use water to thin your paints, although water-mixable thinner would work better.
  4. A bottle of linseed oil. This will help improve the flow of oil paint without thinning it.
  5. Rags and paper towels for cleaning.

To recap, you need paints, brushes and canvases to get started. You may also add a palette knife and two bottles of mediums – a thinner and linseed oil to help with oil flow.

That’s it, you’re ready! Let the fantastic journey begin!

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