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David Howell PPRSMA

This page is aimed at watercolour painters who have occasionally thought about trying oil paint but aren’t sure where to start.  Oils do require a painter to be a little more organised and can be somewhat messy in careless hands but the effort can be very rewarding.  Colours are generally richer and don’t fade as they dry – what you see is what you get and as a medium it is very versatile.  It generally is an opaque medium, you can paint over existing paint, modify colours, scrape it off, add texture and you can add top layers of transparent colour.

So, what do you need to start?

Equipment  :  A palette for laying out the paint and mixing.  Wooden ones are best – it doesn’t have to be too flash, an inexpensive plywood one is fine.  A palette knife – essential for mixing colours.  One of the secrets of oil painting success, is to mix your colours on the palette rather than on the canvas.  An oil painting is generally positioned vertically when it’s being worked on.  This enables the painter to stand or sit back from the painting rather than be hunched over it and that means an easel or support that will hold the painting firmly.  There is a huge selection of easels but something like a Jax aluminium portable easel or a wooden table easel is fine. Brushes – very different to watercolour brushes but the good news is that they are a lot cheaper.  Hog hair brushes are arguably the best and are widely available, although some synthetics like Rosemary Brushes Ivory range are pretty good also.   The sizing is different to watercolour brushes and they come in varying shapes but something like a No 4 round and No 6 filbert is a good start point and maybe an 8 if you’re feeling ambitious.  A container is required for white spirit or similar for cleaning brushes and a dipper – another small container that normally clips to the palette for painting medium.

Paint  : As a guide, the above kit will probably cost you around £75 and all you need now is paint.  I use the same range of colours I use for watercolour but there are trial sets of paint available, that are attractively priced and are a good way experimenting without spending a serious amount – for instance at the moment, you can buy a set of 12 x 18 ml tubes of St. Petersburg oils for app £40, which represents excellent value or for the same sort of money, a nicely balanced selection of 6 x 40 ml colours with a top quality Michael Harding ‘Starter Set’.  You will need white in a relatively large quantity.  Unlike the watercolour technique of varying levels of dilution to achieve tones, with oils you use white mixed with colour to achieve the same effect.  Apart from trial sets, there are also fully equipped boxed sets of paints available,  c/w brushes, mediums and accessories.  The big advantage of these is that you have everything in one place but they can be expensive.  One of the nicest is Old Holland’s pochade box at around £200 which has an adjustable easel in the lid and is designed to cope with small oil panels.  It works OK on a table and on your knees if outside but you will need a proper free-standing easel at some stage, both to handle larger panels and to allow more freedom.

Solvents : You will require something to thin the paint and something to help it flow.  Traditionally turps was the thinning agent – I love the smell around the studio but contemporary thinking suggests it isn’t very healthy, so there are odourless alternatives like Zest-it and Sansador.  The other traditional medium is Linseed oil.  There is a golden rule with oil paint – fat over lean.  The first layers of ‘lean’ paint should be thinned with turps or turps alternative if necessary and as the layers of paint are built up a little oil can be added to help the paint flow.  It’s fairly easy to make a painting medium for the top layers by mixing 50/50 turps (or substitute) and linseed oil.  With oils, as opposed to watercolours, you start with the darks and work to lighter tones on top, so a pattern of painting in the dark colours and shapes with turps as a thinner if required and then adding medium or oil to lighter tones and colours painted over the top.  You also need something to wash the brushes with.  White spirit from the local DIY shop is fine and you will need a supply of kitchen roll handy and/or some rag.

Something to paint on  - The easiest surface for a beginner is a board.  They come in various sizes – I suggest fairly small – and are sold as canvas or painting boards.  The best way to start is to get some colour on to them.  A pristine white board can be intimidating and it makes it difficult to judge tones painted on it.  A quick layer of something like Raw Sienna, thinned with turps is fine – it will dry fairly quickly and then it’s ready for you to start painting.  

That’s very much the basics.  If you want to know more, my book ‘Painting with Oils’ covers the subject in a lot more detail - available from the publisher www.crowood.com or from retailers and art material suppliers.  Have fun!

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