Oil painting Materials

Advice on the range of possibilities

Oils can be more complicated to use than other types of paint but that also makes them wonderfully versatile.  Not only is there a vast range colours to choose from, the surfaces and choice of media on offer to mix into the colours can be overwhelming.  As this site develops I will discuss surface preparation, colour mixing, media, glazing and varnishing more.

I find people often want rules and definitive answers on how to use oils but artists have different preferences and are looking for different results so most narrow down their choices through experimentation and experience.  These are just some guidelines based on my own study.


Oil paper, cardboard, board, un-stretched canvas, stretched canvas, canvas boards, aluminium, gesso panels, wood.  MDF adsorbs moisture and dampness so is best avoided. I like a smooth surface so stretch my own Italian or Belgian linen which has very fine weave or more often I use 9mm birch ply which you can order and get cut to the sizes you want at a good wood merchant.  Unless you want an unusual effect it must be primed otherwise the oil gets sucked into the surface.


More professional :  Gesso primer, oil/acrylic primer, whiting with a gluing agent.  Raw canvasses benefit from a gluing agent such as PVA or the traditional rabbit skin glue between the material/surface and the primer for it to adhere to and for preservation.

Budget : A 40/60 ratio of PVA or craft glue and white household paint.


The differences in professional quality versus student quality is usually the pigment content and quality but also student paints tend to change colour more as they dry which can be frustrating even for a beginner but there is a massive difference in price. Professional paints are prices according to the rarity of pigment by series number...a Series 1 paint may be an earth colour which is easy to source whereas one blue is traditionally made of Afghan Lapis Lazuli and is unsurprisingly a Series 7, ten times the price.

A good range of colours to start with would be: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, French Ultramarine, Ultramarine Violet/Permanent Mauve, Sap Green, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, and Payne's Grey.

I also use a lot of Alizarin Crimson, Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber, Phthalo Turquoise, Transparent Brown Oxide amongst many others!

More professional : Michael Harding, Old Holland.

Budget : Daley Rowney or Winsor and Newton (Winton) student ranges.


Oils can be thinned down with turpentine if you want a chalky matt finish, but it is mainly used as an additive to an oil thinner and as a brush cleaner.  The beauty of oil paints is in their transparency and layering qualities.  You may choose not to exploit them in this way but the old masters would build up glazes and layering indefinitely to produce incredible and delicate transitions in their subject matter.  Adding more oils and varnishes to the paint increased the amount of light that can travel through the layers and bounce off the pigment particles.  The majority of artists therefore use oil to thin down oil.  Linseed and poppy oils are the most popular and are often mixed with some turpentine to help speed up the drying process, this is what I use.  Otherwise bought versions are good but more expensive.  

Bought media : Liquin is very popular and speeds up drying; branded oil painting medium, glaze medium, varnish.

DIY media : a 60/40 mix of Poppy or Linseed oil and Turpentine (sometimes with a splash of Liquin).  Recipes for glazes are available on request.

Solvents : white spirit, turpentine, Zest it (less toxic smelling)


Discovering Rosemary and Co brushes was a revelation, they are great to deal with and have a brilliant selection.  Hog hair are considered the traditional brush for oils, but I (and many other artists) like to work with synthetic and sable brushes which are soft and agile to use.   

The long handled Ebony, Ivory, Eclipse, and Evergreen ranges are all great. Get a range of sizes.

There is also the question of shape, I tend to favour flat tipped or filbert brushes which are flat but rounder at the sides; these give me the versatility of making more marks with each brush, I can cover bigger areas with the widest stroke of the brush, small lines with the length of the flat tip and do detail with the narrower edge tip.


A traditional wood palette with a hole for your thumb is great.  Grey and varnished wood palettes are much better than white which makes colour mixing very hard as everything looks darker.  Other options include glass, clear PVC, a plastic tray or piece of wood with either foil, grease proof paper or Stay Wet paper taped on.


These vary according to needs, some are huge and stable, others are for use en plein air.  It really does depend on what you feel you want to use it for and how big your paintings will be.

Other equipment includes: Palette knives, rags, pots, brush holders.

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