Our guide to oil painting
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to oil painting

First published date October 29 2013 Amended date October 29 2013

If you think your knowledge of oil painting is zero, then you'd be wrong. Because who isn't familiar with the most famous oil of all time, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci? Even if your grasp of enigmatic smiles and lifelike portraits isn't quite there yet, painting with oils can be an interesting, entertaining and highly rewarding hobby to take up. So whether you are a complete novice at oil painting - and art in general - or have some experience of working in oils, there are a wide range of courses on offer to suit.


Still life, figure painting or landscape?

A career in oil painting is a rare one, so most oil painting courses are there for the sheer pleasure of putting brush to canvas. But never say never, and who knows, you could be the next David Hockney or Claude Monet in the making!

Complete beginners will enjoy one of the several short courses offered across the UK which start with the real basics: the practicalities of choosing equipment, composition and colour mixing. You may study more closely the work of contemporary artists and old masters for inspiration and tackle all sorts of subject matters including the human figure, landscape and still life. Other courses focus on methods and materials giving you the opportunity to make your own paint. This is a really interesting aspect of the subject allowing you to make your own oil paint from ground pigment and use it to explore different techniques such as 'alla prima', underpainting, layering, palette knife and glazes. You will also investigate different mediums and varnishes and learn about colour palettes and experiment with colour mixing.

Those of you with some experience in oil painting could try an improvers’ or a mixed ability course or even one that covers other types of painting too to build skills and confidence. Some materials might be provided, although you might need to bring your own brushes. Do check with each course before you begin.


Painterly prose...some fun facts about oil painting

• Oil paints are really versatile and can be used thickly in impasto or super thinly in glazes. They can be opaque or transparent

• Different types of oils are used to create oil paints including linseed oil, poppyseed oil, walnut oil and safflower oil. Each type of oil creates a different look and dries at a different time

• Traditional oil painting techniques often begin with the artist sketching the subject on to canvas with charcoal or thinned paint. Avoid using a black oil paint for underpainting or sketching as it dries much slower than other colours

• One of the basic rules of oil painting is 'fat over lean' which means that every additional layer of paint should contain more oil than the layer below to allow proper drying

• Oil paint is said to have been first used in Afghanistan to paint shields for tournaments, both for decoration and added durability. It did not become popular as an art form though until 15th century Europe when Renaissance artists like Jan van Eyck used oil paints. In fact van Eyck is often credited with inventing oil painting

• Other types of media are often used alongside oil paint including resins, waxes and varnishes. These help with the translucency, sheen and density of the paint

• Paint brushes are the traditional method of transferring paint to the surface although palette knifes and rags are also used

• Modern-day oil paints are water-soluble and can be used to replace traditional oils. These modern versions contain an emulsifier so the paints can be thinned with water rather than a solvent; it also speeds drying times to around 1-3 days compared with traditional oils which can take up to three weeks to dry thoroughly


Four famous oil painters

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is best known as a painter and his world-famous, legendary works include the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But he wasn't just a super-talented artist he was also an inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, writer and musician.


Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)'s oil paintings have adorned many student bedrooms up and down the country for years (poster reproductions that is!). This Austrian symbolist painter focused heavily on the female body for his work; his oil on canvas 'The Kiss' is decorated with layers of gold leaf for a striking, evocative effect and is considered Klimt's most popular masterpiece.


Claude Monet (1840-1926) French impressionist painter, Monet, is known for his beautiful landscape oil paintings and series paintings devoted to a single theme such as water lilies. He was mentored by Eugene Boudin who taught Monet oil painting techniques and how to paint outdoors (en plein air).


David Hockney (1937) is an English painter who was an important contributor to the Pop art movement of the 1960s. One of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, Hockney works in a variety of medium including oils.


By Lara Sargent

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