Art Blog

Create Works of Art With 5 Essential Tips for Oil Painting

Hello Craftsy members! My name is Susan Fox, and I’m the newest member of the fine art blogging team. I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned over many years of creating art in a variety of media — I hope you’ll find it interesting and useful. Since I work in traditional oil technique, I wanted begin with just that. This is part one of a two-part series providing you with some essential tips for oil painting.

5 essential tips for oil painting: part one

Morning at Hustai 17x30" oil by Susan Fox

“Morning at Hustai” by Susan Fox

1. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

Just ask yourself, “What’s next?” This was the first piece of advice I got from the artist with whom I studied oil painting for two years. It really got me off the “Oh, no, I’ve blown it!” hook, and I hope it will do the same for you. Fear stops a lot of people from painting, which is such a shame.

The worst that can happen is that you abandon it, or scrape down the parts that aren’t working and paint them again. A painting can be thought of as a series of choices and judgments. Sometimes we make the wrong ones and that’s not only OK, it’s inevitable. In a future post, I’ll be talking about approaches that minimize the need to start over if things start to fall apart.

Canvasboard panels, paint scraper, brushes


2. Don’t make painting any harder than it has to be. 

Buy good quality paint, brushes and supports, not student grade products. Inexpensive paint has a lot of filler, so it takes more to cover an area, which means you won’t be saving as much money as you thought. Cheap brushes don’t hold up and don’t let you control the marks you want to make. If you find that you’re fighting the brush to get the result you want, time to upgrade.

Everyone has different preferences for what feels good to paint on. Try a variety of decent quality canvases or panels and settle on the one that’s right for you.

I use Winsor Newton and Rembrandt paint and Grand Prix Silver Brushes, mostly rounds. My favorite support is gessoed cotton canvas panels from RayMar. An inexpensive alternative is Pintura panels, which is not as sturdy as hardboard since the backing is an acid-free particle board, but the painting surface is quite nice.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned the traditional stretched canvas. I gave those up years ago once plein air painting became popular and good quality panels started to become available. Canvas or linen mounted on panels is less likely to be damaged, and they take up a lot less lateral storage space since they are usually only about a 1/8″ thick instead of 3/4″.

3. Use a mirror.

It’s one of the best ways to catch mistakes. For whatever reason, seeing a painting in reverse can cause problems to jump out. If you’re doing portraits, it’s a great way to check the eyes and other features. For a still life, the relationship between objects. I have an old full-length mirror that I got at a yard sale many years ago. It’s set on my old floor easel, which has wheels, so I can shift it around easily.

The table fan that keeps the air moving around my easel

4. Take care of your health.

Be aware of the air quality in your painting space. There’s no getting around it, painting in traditional oils means odors and fumes. I have an IQ Air HealthPro which has a carbon filter that removes VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) from the air. Near my easel, I also have a small desk fan to keep the air moving.

I don’t want to end up like a local painter who became so sensitive to oil paints and solvents that he had to switch to watercolor. I have never worked in water-based oils, so I am not in a position to say more than that I bought a couple of tubes many years ago, experimented a little and gave them away. However, I understand that there are very good brands out there now that have the feel of “real” oils.

The four colors I use for my limited palette

5. Learn about the freedom to be found within limits.

Start, or experiment, with a limited palette of four colors. I did this for two years and it really changed how I looked at color in relation to my subject. I used Winsor Newton Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow, French Ultramarine and Rembrandt Permanent Red Medium, which was what we used when I took Scott Christensen’s “Ten Day Plein Air Intensive” some years ago.

One of the big advantages is that color harmony happens automatically. It will also open your eyes to the colors “in between” the tube colors you can buy. Little by little, I have added colors for very specific reasons, and in my studio now use a full palette of warms and cools plus, recently, earth tones and some grays. But, I still cut back to maybe a half dozen colors when working on location.

What brushes do you like? Do you use a mirror or other means of checking your drawing? Have you tried using a limited palette? Let me know in the comments!


Margaret Hendricks

Thank you for your sound advice. Glad I will be seeing more of you soon!

Bob Ransley

Nice post, Susan. I always keep the described points in mind while enjoy my oil painting. Your article is very informative for us. I’m glad that there is someone who cares about oil painters. Thanks for your awesome article. You can see my work and even read my blogs here:

Terrie Levulis

Enjoyed all of your tips, some things I never thought of.


I use Cobra Water Mixable Oils and I really like them. They are very versatile. Use can use them like watercolours as well. I have tried the W & N WMO but I personally prefer Cobra. They are artist quality grade.

Ivy Baker

I liked that you talked about how it would be a good idea to not make the painting more difficult than it has to be. I liked that you talked about how there are tools that can make the paint a whole lot easier for you. Painting seems like so much fun, and I would love to get really good at it.

Steven Ullmer

I often turn a painting upside down to check it. Sometimes even paint an area upside down. And yeah, oil paint can be difficult, but easy to remove or paint over.


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