Silky buttery texture that dates centuries back and still has lots of artists (me for sure) hooked to its unique qualities – that’s oil paint! If you never tried oils and don’t know where to start, this article is for you!
Many artist learn how to paint in oils in college or professional ateliers, but most of us still receive our initial training in acrylics and then start trying out oils out of curiosity and sort of at our own risk. That was my story. In college, I took a painting class in acrylics thinking that it will be less messy and less stressful, but secretly envied my friends who were taking oil classes. After graduating I still couldn’t leave that though that I want to try oils, because there was something about acrylics that felt too synthetic and rubbery for me. I did tons of research on oil paints and felt completely lost in the sea of choices. Four years ago, I got my first seven oil paints, cheap, but good enough for me to fall in love with oils. Since then my collection of oil paints expanded, mainly out of curiosity of experimenting with different colors and manufacturers, and now I am ready to share some tips on picking your first oil paints which I wish I new when I was picking mine.
A few things to note about oils
Oil paints are made out of simple ingredients (pigment, oil binder, and filler in some cases), but not all are created equal and that is for a reason. We all have different needs and different preferences when it comes to our art practices and therefore can pick different oils to suit those needs. I will provide a little insight into what makes oils different and what to pay attention to, but the final choice is yours to make.
First of all, there’s no need to break your bank when buying your first oils, at first you only need enough to test the waters and see if you like oils or not. But you still want to make sure that you will enjoy your first painting, right? Therefore, I highly recommend to stay away from kids sets and generic brands like Artist’s Loft or US Art Supply. Why? Because they use low quality pigments, that blend into messy colors and don’t last you long because mostly contain fillers rather than pigments. My advice, go to the art store and get just a few tubes of student quality oils from well known manufacturers like Gamblin, Winsor&Newton, Sennelier, etc. These lead manufacturers developed low cost oil paints that still contain good quality ingredients.
What exactly makes student and artist paints different:
- Pigment quality
Student paints are cheaper because they contain less pigment and more filler than artist grade paints, and sometimes pigment substitution (hue) or pigment mix (original pigment plus similar cheaper pigment). Here are two paints by Gamblin: artist paint on the left ($15) and student 1980 paint on the right($6):
In this case, both are Cadmium Yellow Medium oil paints. But lets look at the pigment content (most paints have it on the back):
You can see at the top of the tube that artist paint on the left contains only PY37 (which stands for Pigment Yellow 37, cadmium paint) and on the right we have a mix of two pigments PY37 and PY74. In this case, by buying student oil paint you still receive a good quality pigment, but less of it, and to compensate for that the manufacturer adds similar looking pigment that is cheaper while still retaining very good lightfastness 1 (resistance to fading). You have to know that Cadmium pigments are very long lasting because they have very strong tinting strength. By using just a little bit of it in the mix, you are able to achieve the right color. However, when the student paint has “Hue” after the color name (for ex. Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue) that means that there is no original cadmium pigment and only substitution in which case you will use more of this paint to achieve the right color mix and fading resistance might be compromised too since the properties of the cheaper pigments are not the best. Why would someone buy “Hues”? Because they are cheaper, but it’s a trap. I recommend for the colors that by nature are very strong like Cadmiums and Phthalos to invest a few extra dollars into an original pigment, not hue, because it will last you much longer since you only use a little bit of these colors. I had these two tubes of paint for four years now because of how little of them I actually need for color mixing.
These pigments could get very pricy when you check the artist grade paints because of their complexity and higher pigment percentage, but student paints (like Gamblin 1980) are good alternatives and budget savers and you are actually winning because with strong pigments like Cadmiums and Phthalos you have to be very careful by how much you use, not to overpower the mixture.
- Pigment amount
In many cases, you will notice that even top quality oil paints use the same pigment as the student grade paints. For example, Burnt Umber paint by Old Holland ($10) and Gamblin 1980($4):
You can see that both manufacturers use PBr7 (Pigment Brown 7). So what exactly makes one cost $10 and the other one only $4?
The answer is in the amount of pigment. It won’t be indicated on the tube, but once you try, you will feel how rich and saturated with pigment the artist paint is and how weaker the student paint feels in comparison. Student paint has more filler, which doesn’t do anything bad, but nothing good either. In case with earth colors, like Burnt Umber, they are pretty cheap even from the artist line of paints, so this is your chance to give a professional paint a try and enjoy it’s quality. However, if you don’t feel like spending $10 on one tube just yet (remember that it will last you longer), you can still enjoy an original pigment from a student grade paint because it was made by a well known brand.
To recommend a few good student grade brands
- Gamblin 1980 (by Gamblin)
- Winton (by Winsor & Newton)
- Georgian (by Daler Rowney)
- Richeson oils (by Jack Richeson & Co)
You can use my Blick Affiliate link to shop for oil paints, I get a small commission at no additional charge to you and it helps me to keep this blog running!
Which colors to choose at first
As I mentioned before, I started my oil painting journey with just 7 colors:
- Cadmium yellow medium
- Yellow ocher
- Cadmium red medium
- Phthalo blue
- Burnt umber
- Ivory black
- Titanium white
However, with experience I would now make a few adjustments
- Ultramarine blue instead of Phthalo blue for more natural skies
- Payne’s grey instead of Ivory black for more natural darker shades
You don’t need twenty shades of red to start. Eventually you will want to experiment with different combinations, but in the beginning this limited palette is more than enough. Once you get more comfortable with oils, you can try a different temperature of each color, for example Quinacridone red (cooler tone than Cadmium) for nicer purple mixtures, or Cadmium yellow light or Lemon yellow for bright yellows.
When it comes to white, I always recommend investing into two kinds: big tube of student grade and small tube of artist grade.
You will be using white more than any other paint, therefore I suggest you get a big 150-200ml tube of student grade Titanium White paint. First of all, because student grade paint has less pigment, it will be better for mixing since white paint tends to desaturate other colors and add “milky” tint. But get a small tube of artist paint for the cases when you need a strong highlight or to create a very light shade of color. Artist grade paint has more pigment and will retain it’s lightness better. A small tube of artist Titanium White lasts a long time for me because I only use it for rare bright white highlights that don’t happen often, but when they do happen, I want to be sure my white is white enough.
What are Water Mixable and Alkyd oils?
Water mixable oils are made with the same pigment as regular oils, but use water-soluble binder that lets you thin your paint with water and clean brushes with just water and soap without having to deal with solvents. To many artists this sounds like a god idea, because they do behave just like the regular oils and are produced by many top manufacturers like Winsor & Newton, Daniel Smith, Holbein, Grumbacher, etc., but they require the use of special painting mediums designed for these paints that right now come in a limited variety. I enjoy the feel of traditional mediums and variety of painting oils like linseed oil and poppy oil for transparent glazes that all have different qualities. But that is more advanced stage. So if you prefer easy clean up with just water, then this kind of oil might be right for you.
Alkyd oils are closer in quality to the traditional oils, but use alkyd resin binder to promote faster drying time ( 18-24 hours, unlike traditional oils that can take up to a week to dry). Some artists like to work wet in wet and add details and make changes while the layer underneath is still wet, and for that reason they pick traditional oils. I have to say that traditional oils have a variety of fast drying mediums (like Liquin by Winsor & Newton or Galkyd by Gamblin) which when mixed with the paint help it dry within 24 hours. As of now, traditional paints have a wider variety of color choices and are made by all paint manufacturers which still puts them on top of the most used oil paints list. And if you are an old school one like I am, you will simply like the idea of using the paint that were used for centuries, but it is completely up to you.
This all might sound a bit overwhelming, but all you need to do is just give oils a try and you will learn about your style and preferences along the way. Here are a few things to remember when picking your first oils:
- Choose quality. You will quickly get frustrated with low quality paints from Walmart or craft stores. Rather pick just a few student grade tubes from the art store and you will get the right impression about oil paints, plus they will last you longer which still comes down to saving money.
- Pick original pigments, not hues. Original pigments will help you create the right color combination and learn proper color mixing, since ‘hues’ contain combination of lower quality pigments, they tend to create muddy colors.
- Give a professional paint a try if possible. If you have a few extra dollars, pick up one tube of professional paint, the feel of buttery texture and rich pigmentation will have you hooked to oils in no time.
Here’s a very good book that covers all of the art supplies and their specifications along with lots of tips and useful tutorials, I got this one in college and still like to flip though it’s pages when I need to look up certain art materials
I hope this article was helpful for you. It’s almost impossible to cover all aspects of oils paints in one post, but I will be adding more posts in the future to share all the tips with you. Feel free to leave a tip you have for someone who is just learning oils and doesn’t know what paints to choose or ask me a question and I will be happy to answer 😉