Oil Painting Techniques

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There are so many variations of Oil Painting techniques that it would take volumes to cover them all.

However, a short basic list will cover much of the work taught in a beginning oil painting class.

Don’t expect to master these techniques right away or all at once. A painter spends years learning the intricacies and subtleties of brushwork. Just getting comfortable with using your brush and manipulating paint in a pleasing and interesting manner will be a good start. As you continue on your quest, you’ll develop an intuitive sense and, just like driving a car, it will become an almost automatic set of movements.

Alla Prima

This type of painting is fast, loose and is usually completed in one session. It’s typically the type of painting done en plein air. Without underpainting or glazing, paint is applied and blended wet in wet. The artist just starts flinging paint and continues until he’s done. This loose, spontaneous style of painting is great for impressionistic styles and down-and-dirty paintings.

Oil Painter Bob Ross

If you’ve ever watched a how-to-paint show on PBS, you’ve seen alla prima painting. Artists like Bob Ross make it look simple with his happy little trees and clouds. However, if you’re not careful, those sunny, cheery landscapes can quickly turn into a muddy mess that looks like the aftermath of Woodstock.

When painting alla prima, don’t spend a lot of time fussing with your brush and risk overworking an area. The colors will turn to mud and leave you with a sodden, brown disaster.

Although this style of painting can be fast, the artist should have a good idea where he’s going with his colors to avoid over-blending.


The impasto technique is really just a more substantial version of alla prima painting. The artist is building up the surface with either a brush or a palette knife. This style of painting uses a great deal of paint, so you may want to try it out on a small canvas. There are extenders to bulk-up your paint, which we’ll discuss in Oil Painting Accessories.

Impasto painting uses the impressions left by the brush or knife to add texture to the painting. Those strokes help the artist to convey emotion, a sense of movement or attitude in the same way he uses color. The strokes aren’t just applied helter-skelter. They are meant to convey information to the viewer. The strokes are an integral part of the painting, and a novice needs to learn how to control those marks to give the impression he’s trying to portray.

Oil Painting Glaze

Underpainting And Glazing

These are two entirely different processes, but they are used in conjunction with one another as a complete painting technique. This gets a little confusing, but it’s not complicated. First, however, we need to discuss the term ‘fat over lean.’ This is a basic tenet and is crucial to successful oil painting.

Fat Over Lean

Examining the chemistry of oil painting isn’t particularly fun or interesting. However, it’s important to understand how the paint, oil and medium works together to be able to create a painting that isn’t ruined as it sits quietly in the corner drying.

Additives like turpentine and mineral spirits dry quickly. That makes them perfect to thin your paint for the beginning stages of your painting. The layer dries quickly and you can continue with another layer of paint.

Oil paint is made up of pigment and oil. Paints have various drying times, which depend on the pigment and their individual formulation. The time can be several days, or the paint can take a week or more to dry. In creating a glaze, you add additional oil to the paint. You are also adding additional drying time. Paint needs to dry to a certain degree before adding another layer. Even if it feels dry to the touch, it’s still moist underneath. When you build up a lot of paint, if the drying time in the lower levels is slower than the upper layers, you will eventually wind up with problems. The paint can crack or wrinkle, and you wind up with a mess that can’t be repaired.

With that little lesson in mind, you can see why you need to start with fast drying components and follow with slower drying combinations.

Oil Paint Underpainting


A brilliant white canvas staring back at you can be a daunting sight. Writers tend to be intimidated by a blank sheet of paper, so you’re in good company if that white canvas somehow feels threatening.

You’ve sketched your composition and maybe even added a little shadowing or color to the sketchpad. You’ve even gone as far as reproducing the lines on your canvas. Now it gets scary. You’ve got to put paint on that white expanse.

A good way to start is by laying in the basic shapes with an underpainting. You don’t need to worry about the color, the details or the highlights. Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber are good choices for underpainting, but other colors certainly work as well. Use a mixture of paint mixed with thinner to create a wash. Start painting your basic shapes, and pay attention to the values you are using for each area. You can use this step to establish your darkest areas, your mid-range tones and light areas. This will dry quickly, so you’ll be ready to continue very shortly.

Continue to refine your painting without worrying about the local color. Just concentrate on darks and shadows. When you’ve gone as far as you can with your monotone layout, it’s time to start using less thinner, more paint, and add some color.

Let’s fast-forward ahead to the point at which you’ve completed painting without the use of thinner, or at least a very small amount mixed with your paint. When the painting has dried sufficiently, you are ready for glazing to fine-tune your work.


Regardless of its opacity, you can glaze with any oil paint. It’s just a matter of adding enough oil. The amount of oil used to thin the paint will determine the effect the color will have on the painting. A strong glaze will make substantial changes, while an oil-rich glaze will make a subtle transformation.

There really is no limit of layers one can apply to a painting. It’s all just a matter of patience. Different oils have different properties and you should be aware of their characteristics before choosing one as a glazing medium. Some tend to darken with age, while others remain nearly clear. There are also commercial products that have enhanced drying times to speed up your painting process.

Glazing is great for dawdlers, but the impatient artist may not have the long-suffering nature required for this technique. One glaze or two may be all the impetuous artist can handle.


Drybrush is pretty much self-explanatory. Instead of a juicy paint-loaded brush, drybrush technique uses a small amount of paint that is stroked across the support. The result is a brush stroke that shows the textural surface of the support or lower levels of paint. This method gives an unfinished or a sketchy appearance and is often used in conjunction with other techniques. It has an informal feel and a rough appeal.

Oil Painting Techniques

Other Painting Techniques

There are many other painting techniques that you will want to try as your skills improve. Some techniques are seldom used, as techniques fall in and out of favor much like fashion trends or car models. Be adventurous, and choose a technique that piques your interest. Give it a try and learn all you can about it. Who knows, you might just stumble on the perfect method to express your passion.


This technique uses the capacity of the viewer’s eye and mind to blend color spots. Just as a digital photo is made up of tiny dots of pure color, so is the canvas of a pointillist. Pure color is applied to the support with no attempt at blending. When viewed up close and personal, it appears to be a random mix of colored spots. When viewed from a distance, the dots merge into a recognizable composition. This technique is currently out of favor. It was developed in the late 1880s and continued to be popular for several decades.


Chiaroscuro is heavy-handed contrasts of light and dark. Highlights are usually popping out of a dark scene. It’s dramatic lighting at its finest. Rembrandt is a perfect example of a chiaroscuro artist.


This form of underpainting is usually composed of various shades of gray. The composition is then worked over with glazes to add local color and highlights.

Fun Oil Paint Techniques


This is a treacherous occupation for a brush. A thin layer of opaque or semi-opaque paint is scraped, dragged or otherwise smashed onto a dark underpainting. The paint is used in a small quantity to allow the underpainting to be revealed in an irregular pattern. It’s especially useful for clouds, brush or leafy trees. Try to use an old, much maligned brush for this task, or relegate one to the ranks of scumble-brush after giving it a hearty send-off.

Unless he has a plan to use purposefully a particular technique, the average artist will incorporate a number of techniques in a single painting. Some areas are complete in one passage of the brush, while other sections require the refinement of glazing. The painting may have started with an underpainting to establish the lights and darks, as well as using bits of scumbling to establish a misty look in the background.

Don’t make yourself crazy getting too technical at first. You have plenty to keep yourself occupied just in getting the colors correct and laid down in a convincing fashion. That’s why simple a still life is a very good way to begin your painting career. In fact, a dozen or so may be a good idea until you’re ready for the next step. Just keep practicing, and add a new twist as you become comfortable with what you’ve learned.

One final admonition is to sear the concept of ‘fat over lean’ into your brain. It may not seem like a big deal now, but down the road, it’s critical.

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The Beginners Guide to Painting

Watercolor Paints

Watercolor – Where to Start
Watercolor Paints
Watercolor Paint Brands
Watercolor Supports
Watercolor Paint Brushes
Watercolor Basic Painting Techniques
Advanced Watercolor Painting Techniques
Watercolor Painting Accessories
Watercolor Painting Tips and Tricks

Oil Paints

Oils – Where to Start
Oil Paints
Oil Paint Brands
Oil Paint Supports
Oil Paint Brushes
Oil Painting Techniques (This Article)
Oil Painting Accessories
Oil Painting Tips and Tricks

Acrylic Paints

Acrylics – Where to Start
Acrylic Paints
Acrylic Paint Brands
Acrylic Painting Support
Acrylic Paint Brushes
Acrylic Painting Techniques
Acrylic Painting Accessories
Acrylic Painting Tips and Tricks

In Closing…

Getting Creative!

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