How to Draw


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Category: Oil Painting

Choosing, Mixing and Applying Color

The three basic activities of oil painting can roughly be classified as, 1, choosing the colors to be mixed, 2, mixing them so that they fuse and handle well, 3, applying them, after mixing, to the canvas or support with brush or knife.

In no other medium is it so important to take such care with these processes as with oil painting. Oil paint is thicker, greasier, slower in drying. Needing more patience to handle than watercolor, it makes more demands on your temperament and good will, because if these things are neglected or sloppily done, very little of the true nature of oil painting will emerge or be enjoyed.

Initially the first few efforts in oil painting will be solely concerned with getting used to these three phases and the following few exercises are designed to enable you to familiarize yourself with them. Successful handling of oil paint depends on making these three phases habitual so that you do not have to think about them while painting and can get on with expressing what you want to do. Therefore if you take a little trouble to acquire the routine of choosing, mixing and applying you will find you have mastered the first of the difficult parts of painting.

Laying Out a Palette for Painting

Whichever way you look at it, oil painting can be a messy business. Because of its nature, oil paint isn’t so easily removed as watercolor.

If you spill or splash oil color over your clothing or the furniture or floor, it may ruin it. It is advisable then to have plenty of clean rags handy. Wear an overall, smock or an old shirt. Anything to protect your clothing in fact. If you aren’t able to have a studio or room set aside just for painting in, and have to use the living room or a bedroom, protect the floors with newspaper and cover up any furniture near by.

Good, clean habits are essential when using oil paint. Brushes and palette should always be cleaned ready for use. Tubes should always have their tops on. They will harden and spoil otherwise. Have plenty of clean turps handy. You can buy it quite cheaply at any builders’ supplier. It isn’t absolutely necessary to use the highly refined turps that is rather expensive and only comes in small bottles. You can also buy a good purified turpentine at your drug store.

Cleanliness and order are vital. It is half the craft of
painting. You will obviously get some paint on your hands, it can’t be avoided, but don’t let it get anywhere else. Bearing these gentle warnings in mind, let us start laying out our palette.


When laying out the palette, whether you are going to hold “it or not, always keep the paint well away from the center which should be kept clear for mixing only. Never put a dob of color in the center of the palette. Always place it at the edges. I cannot stress this enough. As colors are mixed, they lose a little of their brilliance. If they pick up any color that is near but not wanted, they will make the color to be mixed grey and muddy.

It is a good rule, therefore, to group your colors from light to dark. The blues come first, then the browns, then the red and finally the yellow. The white comes last and should be kept well away from all the other colors as it is easily adulterated. And because it is easily adulterated it is a good idea to put out two lots of white so that whatever happens to one lot, the other remains clean.

Dilutants, Driers, Varnishes

A dilutant is a liquid which will thin down your paint so
as to make it easier to handle. Most common is turpentine, but gasoline, so long as it is purified, can be used.

You can dilute your color with oil, but this not only tends to make the paint greasy, it can also make the paint wrinkle and crack. When using turps to dilute your paint, it is a good idea to add a few drops of oil into it to allow for any breaking down of the binder. If too much turps is used to paint with, the paint could become powdery and flake off.


Driers to speed up the drying rate of the paint and so allow for quicker working, are usually made from varnishes and, as in the so-called McGuilp medium, varnish and linseed oil boiled with lead. The varnishes that can be used with paint are mastic, copal and dammer. Varnishes are also used to touch up a picture if it has gone dead or matt and for overworking. This type of varnish is known as a retouching varnish and is perfectly safe to use so long as you retouch when the paint is dry. It can then be worked over with fresh paint.

Mastic, copal and dammer are used as a final varnish over the painting when the painting is absolutely dry to protect the completed painting from dust and damp, etc. Salesmen will advise you on how to choose a varnish for final varnishing and directions are always given on the bottle. If you are doubtful about using them, there are some good synthetic varnishes to be bought which are foolproof to handle. Winsor & Newton’s ‘Winton Varnish’ and Rowney’s No. 88, clear picture varnish, are two of these.

The addition of a drier or a varnish to your paint is a matter of personal taste. A medium like McGuilp, or its modified, manufactured counterpart Maroger Medium, helps to facilitate the drying of the paint and gives it a nice buttery consistency which is delightful to handle.

An excellent medium is compounded with half oil (pale drying oil as it is termed on the art store’s lists) and half mastic. This forms a jelly which, when agitated, becomes liquid enough to add to the paint. For further information about this medium, see Maroger’s The Secrets of the Old Masters. Authorities disagree about the durability of using driers with the paint. But for a beginner, I would go so far as to recommend using a drier as this will help him overcome the initial difficulties encountered with a slow drying paint.

If you do not get on with them, you can return to using just the paint with turps. But don’t be afraid of experimenting with them. It all adds to the excitement of painting and will help you to get the most enjoyment out of it.

Oil Painting Canvas and Brushes

Canvases are usually flax or cotton/flax yarns, stretched over a wooden stretcher and kept taut by knocking small triangular pegs at the back into the corners where there is room made for them. They are best bought, as preparing and stretching your own canvas is a rather tricky operation for a beginner.

Canvas is delightful to work on. It can be bought with a fine or rough grain. And the movement of the canvas as you paint on it springs nicely to the brush. You can scrape wet paint off with interesting effect. They come in sizes ranging from 7 in. X 5 in. to 40 in. X 50 in. and even larger if specially ordered.

However, I do not recommend canvas until you have acquired a little experience with paper and hardboard. You won’t regret it and it will be something to look forward to.


The brushes artists commonly use in oil painting are made of hog’s hair. They are harder and have more spring and toughness than the brushes used with watercolor. There are four shapes to choose from: flat, round, filbert and brights (Fig. 30). As you will see from the illustration, each type of brush will make a different mark. To begin with I would recommend the flat only. Number 4 and number 6 would do for a start, say two of each until you have had a little experience in handling them. Then you may like to try the brights. The square top of the brush would make a good contrast in brushmark to the flats. I suggest a 5 and 7 for this.

As with most aspects of painting, experience and experiment will help you find the brushes which suit you best. And it is a good idea to tryout all the shapes, eventually, adding one new shape of brush to your collection as you progress. It is not necessary to buy all the shapes at once. The fewer your brushes the easier it is to cope with the problems of painting. Similarly with colors, the simpler the palette the easier it is to cope with it. I follow this rule and find it perfectly satisfactory. Using few sizes and shapes of brushes, my only indulgence is to use oil sable brushes for fine work.

Sable brushes are excellent to use with oil paint but they must be handled very carefully and, if used with the same vigor as hog’s hair brushes, wear out very rapidly. As they are comparatively far more expensive than hog they must be used only in the final stages of painting.

Brushes must be thoroughly cleaned after use. If not, they will become hard or spoil their shape and ruin color when used again. The simplest way to clean a brush is first to rinse it out well in turpentine or turpentine substitute, dry it on a rag and then wash it in warm water and soap. It must then be thoroughly rinsed and dried. Do not use detergents as this does not clean the paint out well.

Dippers and Easels

A dipper is merely a container to attach to your palette to hold turps or oil or drier to add to your paint. If you find them impractical to use, I suggest you keep your dilutants in jars or pots. This is more practical by far than keeping them in dippers.

You will always need plenty of turps for cleaning brushes and the wider the neck of the container the easier it is to do your work. Also when the jars get dirty it is an easy matter to throw them away and start afresh with a new jar, whereas if you use a dipper you will be constantly cleaning them after use. If you don’t they will foul up and be useless.

Jars also have the advantage of being cheap and if they possess a lid you can always put it back on after use and so preserve whatever dilutant or drier you have left.

Turps is used for cleaning brushes and for diluting paint and you will probably use plenty of it. For practical purposes it is better to have two containers of turps; one for cleaning and the other for diluting. In this way your diluting turps will stay cleaner longer.


The best and cheapest easel for oil painting is the type known as the radial easel and costs about $50 to $100 at an artists’ supplier. They can take the smallest or the largest canvas, are very strong, move into any position backward or forward and are ideally suited for painting. However, an ordinary folding sketching easel will do just as well as long as you don’t use too large a canvas (Fig. 29). The greatest fault with a poorly made sketching easel is that it wobbles. If it does, it can make painting in oils very trying.

Failing a bought or home-made easel, you can always prop up your canvas on a chair with your palette in front of it and sit to paint. Or, if you want to stand, prop it up on a mantelpiece. The disadvantage here is that it is better to tilt your canvas forward slightly for oil painting, as this shields the light and stops the paint shining.