This is not intended to be a guide on how to paint with oil because I have no experience or idea. Everything I know is from videos, friends, and info gathered all over. So, my apologies first for any barbarities that I may write. This is just an explanation of my process and some advice I will give to myself next time I paint.
Oh and no, I don’t usually paint/draw. I have an engineering background. I code and design a bit. I did a couple of painting courses in the summer when I was 10. But I am excited to do more now.
So I finally decided to try oil painting and realized it is actually really fun and anyone can enjoy the experience and create beautiful paintings. I had been considering doing it for a while but always thought it would be expensive, difficult and the most important one, frustrating. It actually turned out to be not that difficult and very gratifying.
So here’s my process and my experience with my first oil paint and hopefully I can inspire someone else to embark on this journey with me. Because I am definitely painting more.
I had nothing. So I did a quick trip to my local arts store in Cambridge. This is what I got:
- Primary colors: Cadmium Red, Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Yellow. And Ivory black and Titanium white. NO GREEN!! We are not in digital! No RGB. We create green with blue and yellow. And yes, I had to think this twice before buying it. New generations I guess.. (Or more like me being dumb). The store had a dozen different brands and I picked the cheapest one. I am a student and this is my first oil painting so I am not gonna spend money on the most expensive brands. Also, make sure you buy oil paint (it comes in tubes), not acrylic. Acrylic is water-based. Oil is oil-based (no! really??). Oil dries a lot slower and is better for blending.
- Stretched canvas. I got two small 6x8 inches and one 8x8, just in case.
- Brushes. Cheap ones to start with. Different sizes for different details. The expensive ones are made with horse hair or something fancy like that. We don’t need that yet, we’re not such experts… So get the cheap ones unless you are rich and don’t mind spending your money on fancy stuff.
- Grey Paper Palette. This is used as the surface to make your color mixtures. It’s cheap and very useful.
- A palette knife. To mix your colors.
- Turpenoid. It’s an odorless turpentine substitute. And what the f* is turpentine? I had no idea. So I looked it up and it’s a solvent used in mixing paint and varnishes. We will use turpenoid to clean our brushes.
- Cleaner jar. You’ll find this in your art store. It’s basically a glass jar where we will put our turpenoid. Try to buy the one that has a coil inside. It’s very useful to clean the brushes. You can use a regular jar/pot also.
- Kitchen paper. To try and make the least possible mess.
I spent around $100 to get all these materials, including 3 canvases and 5 brushes.
Once I had everything, I had to decide what to paint. I guess experts will tell you to start with something simple. Like an apple maybe? So that you don’t get very frustrated trying, probably. I would say, start with something that motivates you. Don’t pick the most complex thing but also don’t start with something boring. The whole idea is that you have fun and enjoy the process. You don’t wanna be painting boring stuff.
So I picked a photo of my most venerated heroine and the bravest, wittiest and strongest of all, my mom.
Yeah I know, it’s a person, it has a face, faces are hard to paint.. blah blah. But I REALLY like this photo and I felt like painting my mom, so that’s what I did. I also thought her expression was simple to paint, no laughing, crying or weird body positions.
At the end you should paint what you feel like painting while being realistic. Pick something that motivates you but won’t frustrate you.
So, on to it.
First of all, I put a layer of kitchen paper on the table and I laid all materials on top: brushes, knife, gray paper palette, color tubes, canvas. I put some turpenoid in the jar.
I then made a sketch of the photo on the canvas with a pencil.
At this point, I was so proud of my sketch I didn’t want to paint on top of it! But that’s what we are here for, so…
I started with big areas. The grass, the mountains on the back, the sky. I first had to create the colors so I mixed some yellow and blue to create the grass green. Then some blue and white and a tiny bit of red for the light purplish blue in the sky. And then some more pale dark green for the mountains. I realized here how mixing and creating colors it’s an art by itself. It is actually very gratifying when you get the richness with all these colors and you made it with just red, blue and yellow.
You will start painting and probably think it looks like crap. Or at least that’s what happened to me. But then I realized this is a process of perfecting little by little. In time, it goes from big bolt paint thrusts to very tiny and detailed fractions of your painting. So don’t be afraid to start by covering big areas or even parts where other elements will be. You will see your painting evolve from undefined blobs of color to concise shapes and edges.
You have to be careful with the amount of paint you add though. I tried adding very few paint. If you add a lot of paint, your paint will take ages to dry and it is going to be harder adding details on top of your base layers. On the contrary, painting with a lot of paint gives a lot of texture and it’s really fun too. So, your choice.
I then painted a basic structure for the trees. I tried adding some details like the pink flower trees and painted the red/maroon jacket of my mom and her dark hair. That got me more excited.
At this point, I had to paint the face. I was scared as hell. Cause I knew I would probably f* up. But oh well… I started mixing white with a tiny bit of yellow and red. I had different tones on the sheet to try and follow the shadows and bright areas on her face. First result was more of a guide on how the tones go.
She looked a bit like a clown (or a geisha?). Too much yellow probably. And she looked kind of angry. I’d say, don’t worry if you paint something and it doesn’t really look like you expected. It will never be perfect at the beginning, unless you’re Dalí, Monet or whoever. You have to keep on going, tweaking the colors and the strokes. You can keep on adjusting it until it feels more like what you wanted.
Her expression kept on changing every time I tweaked the colors on her face. At some point I thought she looked like she was making fun of me (Yeah mom, very funny…). But I kept on working on it.
I really liked seeing how the color palette kept on changing and getting richer as I mixed more colors.
I finally managed to get it to a point where I was proud enough.
There is a bunch of stuff I can improve and I keep on thinking ‘this could be better’, ‘that should be different’,… She still looks a bit yellowish. Her expression is not exactly the same. But I like it and I feel proud and it’s my first oil painting. So I will leave it at that.
At the end, what counts is that you had a good time and that you are happy with what you made. And if you are not, keep on trying! Your first oil painting is probably not going to look like Galatea of the spheres but it can be fun and you will definitely learn a bunch.