‘When I decided to teach myself to paint, I knew it had to be with oils. I now love working in all media, but to begin, I wanted to use the ‘real’ thing,’ says Martin Kinnear. ‘A week later, with canvases smeared in sticky grey mud, I wished that I’d tried something else. I’m glad I stuck with it, however, as no other medium has the creative potential or gallery cachet of oil. Opacity, texture, glowing glazes, permanent colour, delicate washes or thick impasto – oils offer it all.’

Martin working on a piece for his 2016 show, The Painted Garden, oil on board, (5x8ft)

If you’re familiar with watercolour, pastels or acrylics but think oil is too difficult, discover just how easy it is to make the switch to oil painting and add a new medium to your repertoire.

Oil-painting-myths busted

Myth one – oil paints don’t dry

Handled correctly, oils can be workably dry as rapidly as watercolour or acrylic; unfortunately, most new oil painters use them like coloured butter. Like this, oils dry very poorly compared to aqueous media, because they oxidise (dry by a chemical reaction with oxygen) and this is a slow process compared to evaporation.

Managing the drying process is actually very easy, as you will find with the exercises below.

Myth two – oil paints are smelly

In fact, oils don’t have a strong smell, but solvents do. Most untutored painters choose turpentine or white spirit, both of which are volatile and quickly become unpleasant to use. Again, the solution is easy; don’t use volatile solvents. By choosing low volatility solvents, which really have no discernible odour, oils are no more objectionable than acrylic. It’s important not to confuse these with ‘low odour’ spirits, which are often only a little less-worse than white spirit.

Many traditional oil mediums have volatile solvents in them so, again, simply avoid these and use modern mediums, which use odourless solvent.

Myth three – painting with oil is complicated

Oil painting is a jargon-rich medium: ébauche, grisaille, gesso, imprimatura, camaieu, bole and siccative are the kind of terms you have to wade through to read any useful sources on the subject. In fact, oils are very simple to use, and if you strip away the jargon, they are no more complicated than acrylics. The chances are, you are already using most of the key approaches to oils in your current painting anyway!

Oils are suprisingly easy. This watercolourist picked them up in a couple of days as unwittingly she already knew most of the key skills

What makes oil paints different?

All paints are essentially the same, that is to say a pile of coloured dust (pigment), emulsified with a liquid of some kind, which acts as a binder when dry. So, if you are familiar with ultramarine blue in acrylic or watercolour, it’s precisely the same as the ultramarine blue in oils. The only difference is that the binder in oils isn’t gum arabic or an acrylic polymer, but a drying oil, such as linseed, safflower, walnut or poppy. This means that your usual colour mixes will work just as they always have.

So, what is different? The only fundamental difference between oil and other media is the binder, which means:

  • You will have to use solvent for clean-up rather than water
  • Your technique will need adjusting to take advantage of and manage the extended drying time. Put simply, this just means paying more attention to the amount of paint you use, putting that paint on to a proper ground, and working in a less time pressured and disciplined way.

The advantages of painting with oil

  • Better working time - There’s no need to work like mad to complete a passage before your washes start to drag or your blending edges dry. If you manage drying time, it’s a huge advantage to have paint that stays open for as long as you require.
  • Opacity - Contrary to popular belief, most oils are translucent, just like watercolour, but can be built up as thinly or thickly as you wish. This versatility makes it easy to create great range in your work and makes it possible both to transfer and build upon existing watercolour skills.
  • Clarity - No other medium offers the clarity and lustre of oils. Used correctly they create deep colours, which seem to glow. You just can’t match this with acrylic.
  • Toughness - Oil isn’t just a great binder, but encapsulates your paintings in a tough skin, which not only gives your paints a lustre, but avoids all kinds of problems associated with less robust finishes, such as pastel, gouache or watercolour.
  • Cachet - There’s a reason that most major artists painted in oils, and for better or worse doing so will help you to command a higher price in commercial galleries.


If you already use watercolours then you’re already working with a far more demanding medium than oil so you should find them more forgiving.

If acrylic is your thing then you’ll need to be more disciplined, but you’ll get infinitely more luminous colours, a better lustre and never have to struggle with blending again.

What do I need to begin oil painting? A basic oil painting kit

My palette is a piece of MDF and a few inexpensive brushes. Painting with oils is not complicated.

  • Brushes - Choose bristle; it’s higher quality than hog, but still inexpensive.
  • Colours - Just start with familiar colours. If you’re starting from scratch, choose a simple set of titanium white, ivory black, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow.
  • Medium - Choose a simple medium, such as Liquin or Galkyd. Mediums allow you to manage drying time, lustre and make it easier to create glazes.
  • Odour-free mineral spirit such as Gamsol, Sansodor or Shellsol T. If you don’t mind the smell, use white spirit. Don’t use turpentine; it’s expensive, volatile and incompatible with alkyd resin mediums.
  • Surface - Use primed canvases and canvas boards, and avoid oil paper when you’re starting out; the surface is very ‘long’, which makes it difficult to manage drying time. Semi-absorbent primings are best so look for surfaces that don’t feel smooth or slick (cheaper acrylic gesso is often both of these).

Discover even more with our great guide to oil painting!

Oil painting techniques – a simple exercise to get you started