Exercise Your Creativity! 4 Inspirational Oil Painting Ideas

Getting started in oil painting? Been painting for awhile and want to shake things up? Just want to try something different? Here are four exercises for oil painting everyone should try. Treat these as opportunities to have fun! Don’t worry about the result. This is about process. Just by doing them, you’ve succeeded, and hopefully, you’ll even learn something new and interesting!

Using Four Oil Painting Colors

The first three activities are all about about limits: limited palette, limited time and limited tools. Especially when starting out it’s easy to get lost in the endless choices of paint and brushes.

#1 will make getting started simple and also inexpensive. #2 is a good exercise in seeing the bigger picture. #3 is great if you have limited time to paint. Some artists do a painting a day and limiting yourself to an hour is one way to find the time to hit the easel. Also, if you did three of these a week for a couple of months, you’d notice a real change and improvement in your work.

#4 is a composition exercise. You don’t have to paint what’s in your photo. There are lots of other possibilities. You can also do this exercise with a pen on paper.

Ready? Let’s explore four oil painting exercises to build your confidence and spur creativity!

Kauai; oil 10x8'; four color painting

“Kauai” — four color painting, 10 x 8″

1. Try a limited palette

You will need:

  • 1 tube each: Titanium White, Yellow (Cadmium Yellow or equivalent), Red (Rembrandt Permanent Red Medium or equivalent) and Blue (French Ultramarine)
  • 4 canvases or canvas panels, size 5 x 7″ to 8 x 10″
  • Whatever brushes you prefer
  • 4 favorite photos to work from

I was first introduced to this limited palette when I attended Scott Christensen’s 10-day Plein Air Intensive in 2004 and used it exclusively for almost two years. I found that it really liberated my use of color and perception of it. I couldn’t copy exactly the colors in my reference photo, but found that was ok. One of the big advantages of a limited palette is that color harmony will happen automatically.

"Gibbon River" oil 8x10"; four color painting

“Gibbon River” — four color oil painting

Cactus; oil 6x8; no. 10 flat; Large brush painting

“Cactus” — Large brush oil painting, 6 x 8″

2. Use one large brush for a small painting.

You will need:

  • Your oils, whatever you normally use
  • Flat or bright brush: a #10 for a 6 x 8″

This is an exercise that will help you loosen up, since it’s close to impossible to get picky with details using a brush this big in relation to the canvas. See how many different marks you can make with the brush. You will have to be decisive and just lay down the strokes. Pick something that has simple shapes.

It will probably feel very awkward at first. But once you get used to it, working this way can come in handy for doing quick preliminary color or value studies.

One hour painting; oil 8x10'

3. Do a small painting in one hour.

You will need:

  • Your oils and brushes, whatever you normally use
  • Small canvases or panels, a maximum of 8 x 10”
  • A timer

Over the years I’ve heard many artists say they wish they could “loosen up.” Well, here’s one way to do just that. The need for speed when working against the clock changes how you move your hand and the brush. There’s no time to fiddle or dab. You are looking for the largest, simplest shapes of form, light and shadow. Pick subjects with well-defined shapes and light/shadow areas.

photo of the Gobi Desert horizon

Reference photo for my painting

4. Try different horizon lines for a landscape

You will need:

  • Your oils and brushes, whatever you normally use
  • 3 small canvases or panels, size 5 x 7″ or 6 x 8″

Working from this reference photo or one of your own:

1. Make 90% sky and 10% ground
2. Make 90% ground and 10% sky
3. Try a proportion somewhere in between but not equal. You can move elements around, add or subtract trees, change the sky, whatever you want, but move the horizon line off-center.

High horizon line; oil 6 x 8'

High horizon line — oil 6 x 8″

Low horizon line; oil 6x8'

Low horizon line — oil 6 x 8″

The reference photo above, taken in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia last year, has the horizon line pretty much in the middle. Here are two other compositions, using the same elements, one with a low horizon line and one with a high horizon line. While both paintings “work,” they each have a very different feeling. These little studies were done very quickly, each in about 30 minutes.

Which painting exercises will you try first?

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