Sitting with a group of musicians who use technical jargon to describe their work can be a tornado of confused, beautiful language if you’ve never learned to play music. When interacting with oil painters, the same situation might arise: you’re suddenly in a conversation where they’re debating the finer points of colors, discussing the advantages of canvas against linen, or providing handmade gesso recipes, brush recommendations, and a technique known as “wet-on-wet.” The quantity of terminology that comes with oil painting can be intimidating at first, but if you take the time to learn the phrases and best practices, you’ll be well on your way to using it.
However, don’t anticipate Old Master realism from your first few works if you’re just starting out. Whether you’re a beginner painter or a seasoned pro who prefers acrylics or watercolors, learning the characteristics of oil paint––most notably its lengthy drying period and rigorous layering rules––will take some time. It’s better to set low expectations for yourself, like with any media, and provide opportunities for exploration and discovery.
We chatted with two painters who also teach painting and prepared five ideas for familiarizing yourself with the medium to aid bright-eyed artists keen to try oils.
1. Safely painting
It’s crucial to think about where you’re going to paint before you start. Toxic vapors from several mediums, like turpentine, can cause dizziness, fainting, and, over time, pulmonary difficulties. Turpentine is also extremely flammable, and rags that have absorbed the substance can self-ignite if not disposed of correctly. It is critical that you work in a well-ventilated area with easy access to a safe disposal method. If you don’t have access to such a location, consider painting with acrylics, which may readily mimic the properties of oil paints with the use of special mediums.
Because oil paint pigments typically include toxic substances that can be absorbed through the skin, you should wear gloves and protective clothes when working with it. Many skilled artists may set aside particular items of clothing for work and gradually build a studio wardrobe. Furthermore, while artists typically buy latex gloves in bulk, if you have a latex allergy, nitrile gloves can be substituted. Finally, if you’re working with loose pigments, be sure you’re wearing a respirator. These procedures may seem insignificant or obvious, but they can help you avoid persistent hazardous exposure and long-term health problems.
2. Know Your Materials
After you’ve established your safety procedures, you may begin to experiment with other materials and tools to see which ones you prefer. An artist who is just getting started with oil paint will typically need brushes, rags, a palette, surfaces to paint on (usually referred to as supports), a primer, turpentine, a medium, and a few jars of paint.
To go along with your brushes and paint, invest in a palette knife to mix your colors with—doing so with a brush could cause your bristles to break down over time. Many artists purchase a huge piece of glass for their palette, but Valentin points out that if you have a spare piece of glass lying around, you may utilize it by simply covering its edges with duct tape.
Many artists use an acrylic gesso, a thick white primer, to prepare a canvas or other supports, but rabbit-skin glue, which dries clear, can also be used. You’ll also need a solvent to dilute your paint, such as turpentine, and most artists maintain a variety of oil-based media on hand. Linseed oil, for example, is a medium that can be used in a variety of ways.