Oil paint is such a versatile medium, whatever your skill level. One of the main attractions is its flexibility. Oils can be applied in a huge variety of ways, from thin transparent glazes to thick opaque impasto.
The technique you adopt for a particular situation may well come down to trial and error at first, but it can help if you have some knowledge of the different processes and how to achieve them.
Picnic at Henley, oil on board, (15x23cm) by Christine Pybus
‘Oil painting has no limits or boundaries, which makes it such an exciting medium; the sheer depth and vibrancy of colour is unsurpassed by any other medium,’ says Alan Bickley.
Start exploring a whole host of oil painting techniques with the following top advice from Alan and Christine Pybus. Click on any of the links below to jump to each section.
How to apply oil paint
Advanced oil painting techniques
First steps: how do I begin an oil painting?
Learning the scaling up method is ideal if you have a small sketch or drawing you wish to develop into an oil painting.
Start by drawing out a grid of equal-sized squares on your sketch or painting (or use a transparent overlay). Your larger support must be of the same proportion when scaled up, ie, a 10x12in canvas will scale up proportionally to 20x24in, then square this up in the same way and transfer your work over using a thin charcoal stick.
Lichfield Cathedral, original plein-air sketch, (25x30cm) with grid added.
Lichfield Cathedral, (40x48cm). The scaled-up drawing in charcoal, with some initial blocking-in.
Top tip for scaling up:
Don’t use graphite pencil or marker pens, they can bleed through the surface of the painting in time, particularly if you’re painting with thin layers.
‘Establishing the foundation of an oil painting is a two-part process,’ says Christine. ‘The idea that you can work and overwork wet oil paint is a myth; as in watercolour, it’ll only create mud. So, for a fresh and sparkling painting, think of a jigsaw’.
- Initially, roughly put brushmarks next to each other, just shapes and colours, as you would with jigsaw pieces.
- Don’t finish or blend them, but cover the entire surface first. It’s not until the entire surface is covered that you can gauge what’s too dark or light then adjust those areas.
- After establishing the loose foundation of the painting you can then carry on refining the painting by blending or adding as much detail as you wish.
- Decide at the outset what your subject is – for instance, the figure in Christine’s sketch below
- Keep that subject off centre and, ideally, around a third of the way in, also at a third from either the bottom or top. In this way, the viewer looks at the subject first then off into the distance, as opposed to each eye being dragged off in different directions.
- Decide which direction the light is coming from. In the sketch it is coming from the left and hence the cloud shadows are to the right.
Always remember that:
- Warmer colour and, in particular the reds, will appear to come forward; the cooler blues and purples will recede.
- Darker, larger and stronger marks are used in the foreground, while smaller softer ones appear in the distance.
An initial composition sketch, showing the light source and a figure placed with the rule of thirds in mind.
Top tip for composition:
Always be aware of your centre lines!
‘Everything has perspective,’ says Christine. ‘It is, in fact, a very useful tool, because it gives you a framework for filling in all those huge, daunting empty spaces that you will inevitably stare at in horror.
‘Think about a clock face, and either imagine or even suggest lines, all working to one point in front of you at eye level (usually the horizon). Work some of your brushmarks towards that point as opposed to from side to side, and use larger marks in the foreground, as suggested by the lines, and smaller ones in the background. Paint large, bold clouds at the top, and smaller and softer ones as they approach the horizon’.
A Late June Evening, Newholm, oil on board, (26x30cm)
Although this is essentially a sky study, those tiny yachts not only suggest the scale of the distant cliffs, but also that there’s a fresh breeze blowing.
Top tip for perspective:
Perspective can be complex once you start to paint architecture, but having a basic and simple grasp of it will greatly enhance your paintings.
Tonal values will occur naturally in a painting, but the secret of a successful painting is to further exploit these values to help create an illusion of depth – as though we’re looking at a three-dimensional image, when we know that it’s actually a flat plane.
What is value?
Value is the relative lightness and darkness of a specific colour. It’s worth bearing in mind that simply relying on strong colours alone is not necessarily the way to achieve a strong visual artwork. Tonal values are not shades of grey – many of us get confused here. All colours have a value and with the help of a tonal scale, such as the one shown below, it should be simple enough to establish these values.
A value finder
Tone or value refers to how light or dark a colour is, from black at one end of the scale to white at the other and the mid-tones in between. Colour can have an infinite number of different tones.
It’s important to have tonal contrast and balance; paintings that have little contrast by just relying on mid-tones can often look flat and without life.
Discover more on tone and value with Alan’s step-by-step demonstration to paint a view of Staithes Harbour.
Top tips for mastering tonal value:
Remember that tone and colour are two different things. Tone in the context of a painting is how light or dark a colour is, rather than the actual colour.
If you photograph a finished painting and convert it digitally to greyscale, you will be able to see how successful you’ve been in mastering tonal value. Selective use of these values will go a long way to creating visual impact in your work.
Chiaroscuro, which is basically the use of clear, strong tonal contrasts of both light and dark, will achieve the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface, generally using a single light source with strong shadows, giving a clear contrast. Interiors with figures will feature prominently in chiaroscuro, as will still life. It’s a useful way to learn about value and tone at its widest spectrum of light and dark. Caravaggio is one of the most notable painters who used this method and it’s worth having a look at his work.
Colour mixing is not so complicated, is it? Let’s face it, there are only three primary colours – red, yellow and blue – but each of them has a huge range of tones. Blue for instance runs from the warmer ultramarine shades to the sharper, cooler cerulean.
Mixed together to form secondary colours, red and yellow make orange, red and blue, purple and blue and yellow, green. You can then, of course, dependent on your range of paints and, combined with whites and creams, produce an infinite variety of colours.
You could also spend days, even weeks mixing mind-numbingly boring test patches, which in truth you are unlikely ever to refer to in future and particularly when in the middle of painting. As an alternative try painting a series of small landscapes or seascapes using just a few brushmarks. This will both introduce you to colour mixing and to making brushmarks.
For more advice, see Christine’s demonstration exercise below.
Top tip for colour mixing:
It's worth making notes of successful colour combinations, such as an autumn grass that you like or a rich summer sky colour.
How do I apply my oil paint? Six techniques for applying your paint
Fat-over-lean is about the various drying times of oil pigments, making sure that the upper layers of paint don’t dry faster than the lower ones. The basic principle to follow when painting in layers is to build these up progressively, starting by first thinning your paint with turpentine (if needed) in the early underpainting stages, and gradually adding linseed oil or similar as you progress. The final layers can be applied thickly if that’s your style of painting. If you don’t follow this rule, the paint could crack and even flake off at a later date.
This direct painting technique is, in essence, a variation of painting alla prima and can be quite an expressive way of painting. Essentially it involves painting layers of wet paint directly into previous layers of wet paint and, more often than not, is completed in a single session. ‘I find this approach useful when I’m painting on location and need to complete it in one sitting,’ says Alan.
Top tip for painting wet-on-wet:
Caution is needed when using this technique; if you overwork it by laying too much paint on initially, you can easily end up with a canvas of muddy colours as they mix together.
This oil painting technique is primarily suited to studio painting as it involves periods of drying time between layers. Wet-on-dry allows for more time to plan and adjust colour and tonal balance, or even make small adjustments to the composition as you proceed. It’s a useful technique, particularly if you’re a relative newcomer to oil painting, as there is no pressure to complete a painting in one session.
Top tip for painting wet-on-dry:
It's useful to have at least a couple of paintings in progress at any one time so you can keep busy during the drying periods.
‘In the studio I tend to build up a painting using thin layers in the early stages and I don’t necessarily wait for each stage to dry completely before working on top of it,’ says Alan. ‘I generally start off by covering the white canvas with a thin wash of diluted paint – often a warm or cool neutral grey or perhaps raw or burnt sienna. It all depends on the mood I want to establish’.
Adopting the same principles as the fat-over-lean technique, start by using paint thinned with refined turpentine, gradually adding a small amount of linseed oil as you progress.
Paintings need good tonal balance to be successful, an overly saturated painting of colour doesn’t often work.
You can see how Alan has put these techniques into practice in his demonstration, My Studio Table.
Impasto is a really creative and expressive technique that’s so well suited to the qualities of oil paint. Simply put, it’s a heavily bodied build-up of paint which will create textures of various depths and is often applied using a stiff hog bristle brush or a painting knife.
Alan recommends that you ‘start with a rough-surfaced canvas, or create your own with the addition of a few coats of heavy gesso; I like to add some chalk or even sand to stiffen it up a little. Gamblin cold wax can be added to your paint to give it some body, which is how I achieved those high ridges in A Secluded Cove (see below)’.
A Secluded Cove, oil on board, 113/4x91/2in (30x24cm)
The rock structures were drawn on a heavily gessoed board, which gave me a fairly uneven surface to start with. This was followed by blocking in the darkest tones using just a spot of turps to thin the paint. Heavier layers of paint were subsequently applied with a hog bristle brush, keeping the background quite flat and increasing my visible brushstrokes as I reached the foreground rocks and beach. A small amount of Gamblin cold wax was mixed into the final layers and a painting knife was used to spread out some areas of thick paint on the rocks.
Sgraffito is a simple technique that involves scraping or scratching off paint to reveal the layer underneath, which can be of a contrasting colour but not necessarily.
Any instrument can be used for this; the end of a brush works well, or the edge of a small pear-shaped painting knife for example.
Sgraffito is particularly useful for ‘dragging out’ small tree branches or distant tree trunks, for instance.
Explore oil painting techniques for added interest
Scumbling is a dry and broken application of paint that involves dragging fairly dry and sticky paint over an existing layer of (preferably) dry colour thus leaving the lower area of colour exposed.
Things to note when scumbling:
- Complementary colours work particularly well for scumbling.
- You can add your paint to a piece of absorbent material such as unwaxed cardboard, this way any surplus oils will leach out to give a drier consistency of paint that will drag over the surface and break up far more easily.
- It’s generally more effective optically if you scumble a lighter colour over a darker one, and a warm colour over cool, although this doesn’t have to be the case.
Using a large flat brush lightly drag your loaded brush across the area to be scumbled, keeping it fairly flat to the canvas.
Using a painting knife will also give you some interesting textures.
This close-up shows how scumbling can be used for sky and land
Top tip for scumbling:
You can thicken your oil paint with a pinch or two of chalk dust if you find that it’s too wet.
Glazing is a method of adding a thin layer of transparent paint over a dry layer; optical mixing occurs and the colours appear to have more luminosity and depth, and also reflect light.
Alan says, ‘Waiting for the layers to dry can be a little time-consuming but the intensity of colour that is created by this process can’t be achieved by mixing colours on your palette. You need to use a soft brush and my choice in general is a Jackson’s Black Hog, which has soft bristles and is perfect for the job’.
A selection of glazing mediums
What should I use for glazing?
Linseed oil is too thick for glazing, so opt for one of the many purpose-made mediums that are available:
- Winsor & Newton Blending & Glazing medium will give you good transparency
- Gamblin Neo Megilp oil painting medium, which gives a satin gloss finish.
You can apply numerous separate layers to achieve your desired colour and luminosity.
Work on just the specific areas that are required – these can either be large or quite small passages in your painting that you feel would benefit from glazing.
An example of glazing
In Lichfield Cathedral (below) you can see the luminosity and subtle colour changes that glazing can achieve.
Lichfield Cathedral, plein-air oil sketch on board, (30x24cm)
Here you can see the difference between the original, unglazed sketch (above) and after glazing (below)
Lichfield Cathedral, after glazing
You can follow Alan’s step-by-step demonstration to paint Lichfield Cathedral.
We introduced the basics of knife painting in part one of our oil painting series, now we share ways of using this expressive direct application technique that is sure to bring out the best of your creativity. By using a painting knife you can develop a whole new range of styles and add inspirational mark making to your repertoire.
What is a painting knife and what should I buy?
- A painting knife is a great tool for adding heavy impasto and texture.
- A painting knife generally has a cranked handle, palette knives don’t and are designed to mix paint.
- Different sizes and shapes will give different effects, so buy a small selection to experiment with.
Top tip for choosing a painting knife:
Choose a metal knife that has a flexible spring to it – you will only get this in a quality branded metal knife. Avoid the plastic ones.
When should I use a painting knife?
- It’s not essential that you complete a whole painting using a knife, although this can be great fun.
- Use knives for areas that need a bit of ‘beefing up’, perhaps a cloud structure or just to add a few layers of texture to a foreground.
- Knives aren’t good for detail, but with practice some useful effects can be obtained.
- Don’t layer the paint on too thickly or it may start to crack in the future.
- You can use a knife to add broken colour over a drier layer (scumbling), leaving interesting underpainting to show through.
- The finished work will (or should have) a lively, spontaneous and fresh look with clean vibrant colours.
Valletta Harbour, oil on board,(40.5x51cm)
This was painted using a selection of painting knives in two studio sessions, working from Alan's plein-air sketchbook studies.
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Top tip for knife painting:
Knife painting isn’t about detail, it’s a way of applying paint in way that is different from a brush, and it may help those artists who want to loosen up their painting – too much detail can often be the artist’s Achilles heel!
One of the many benefits of painting with oils is that you have the ability to correct problematic passages of work as you progress.
The easiest and quickest method to correct mistakes is to scrape off any excess paint with a painting or palette knife, which will generally leave a ghost image underneath that can be left or removed entirely with white spirit.
For larger areas that have become too difficult to work over, and which could include the bulk of your painting, the top layer can be removed with a process known as tonking. To do this, place a sheet of absorbent paper, such a newsprint, over the work and gently rub the surface of the paper – you should find that a whole layer of top paint lifts off.
Try something different!
Fiona Phipps shares great ways of using tonking in your mixed media work.
Top tip for making corrections:
If you follow the tried and tested methods of building up a painting using either the direct or indirect approach, none of this should be necessary, but inevitably issues will occur at some point, but which can be easily addressed with little or no detriment to your painting. Just remember to correct any mistakes you may make by scraping the paint off, rather than adding more paint.