HomeArt ArticlesSkills and TechniquesA Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting on Canvas

A Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting on Canvas

Oil painting is a six hundred year old tradition, which has a rich history. The chemistry of oil painting was used to capture more realistic images in the Renaissance, and has been used largely since. Oil paintings are often what comes to mind when people hear the word "art". There are many different types of paint but oil has a unique look, creating more texture, subtlety and depth than other counterparts. If you are choosing to paint with oil-based paints, you should know that this medium requires longer drying times, and typically involves using multiple layers to create depth. Where acrylics or other types of paints may dry in a day, oil paintings usually are created over the course of weeks or months. As a result oil paintings usually have more color versatility and softer lines.

Selecting a Canvas

Having the right material to paint on is as important as the paint itself. There are many different types of canvases, including linen, cotton, or blend of fibers. Other surfaces can be used of course, including wood panels or thick canvas papers, but a stretched, primed canvas is often recommended for beginners. Typically, new oil painters purchase stretched canvas, however, artists can always purchase rolled unstretched canvas and then stretch it themselves. The appeal for this is to be able to create an unusual or uniquely sized canvas, and also to possibly save money on materials if buying in bulk. A lot of preference resides with the artist.

Brushes and Paint Colors

There are also many different sizes and shapes of paint brushes. The different shapes include flat, round, filbert and blender brushes, and are all used for different techniques. Harder, stiffer brushes are often recommended for oil, such as synthetic or horse hair. It is recommended to have at least three brushes, with three different sizes. For a beginner, black, white and primary colors should be purchased, and for more advanced work, tertiary colors like orange or violet should be bought. The majority of colors will be created by mixing. Note that if you are pregnant, or have small children, you should be cautious as some paints or materials may have toxic vapors, or can be fatal to ingest. If you do have small children or cannot breathe in fumes, consider some other paint options.

Other Supplies

There are other items that may be useful to have, such as latex gloves, an easel, a palette and a palette knife. The palette knife is used to mix paint, scrape off paint, and can even be used as a tool to paint directly on the canvas. Beautiful unstructured paintings can be created with only the palette knife, so it is definitely a good tool for you to have on hand. Other materials are also needed such as varnish, white gesso, turpentine, and other cleaning items. Gather all of those materials along with a few rags and you should be able to clean properly after painting. Be wary of clothes and carpets, as it can be difficult to remove the stain.

Preparing the Canvas

Canvases are typically primed with gesso. This is to ensure that before you begin, you will have a smooth, white surface that paint can bind to evenly. Using a wide brush, one can smooth over the white acrylic gesso. A few coats are usually used. Cleanup can be done with soap and water. Note, however, some experts believe that priming this way may lead to cracking, but using gesso is a general practice used by most oil painters.


Sketching is certainly not required for any painting, but when doing less abstract pieces such as figures or landscapes, it is sometimes helpful for painters to map out their canvas first. Managing proportions and scale can be easier after sketching. Again, it is not required. Do not be discouraged if you are not great at sketching. Many famous artists like Leonardo Da Vinci would sketch out their plans for a painting, and then create a different painting on top of it.

Putting Down Multiple Coats

Many artists typically go from lean to fat. The first layers should be "leaner", and subsequent layers should become "fatter". In other words, the first layers need to be the most diluted with turpentine and varnish, and as layers are added less paint thinner should be used. Over time your painting will evolve as layers build on themselves. Beyond that, there are plenty of different techniques that one can develop with practice.


Patience is the most important step here. Depending on oil in the paint, drying times can be between two to ten days. Make sure to keep your painting in a dust-free area with regular temperature and humidity. Whereas other paints like acrylic can dry within a few hours, chemically, oil delays the drying process.

Cleaning Up

You should learn about the proper ways to clean up ahead of time to avoid messes. Only use soap or natural products to clean up your hands and face. Utilize best practices when cleaning up brushes and materials. Be wary if you need to remove stains from clothes or remove stains from carpet.

Applying Varnish

As a last step, utilizing a separate, clean brush, a last coat of varnish is added to keep colors vibrant and to create a protective layer over the paint. Varnish is typically a clear coating, and does not harm the paint. In the past, however, varnish had a yellowish tint due to its natural sources and some artists were against putting on varnish as the final step. Again, be careful when using varnish as it is flammable and it creates harmful vapors.

Painting Care

Be sure to take care of your paintings when drying and after they have been completed. Keep your painting away from dirt, heat and humidity. Exposing the painting to the elements can lead to blistering, peeling or cracking. Finally, have fun choosing a place to hang up your painting in your home.

About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, and avid reader. She written on contemporary and classical art in various print publications, and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school.

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