Moving to Oils for watercolourists

Thanks to the positive responses from oil newbies out there I've delved into my article archive to find a this piece on my first experiences of trying oils. I hope it helps you avoid the mistakes I made, or at least lets you know you're not alone.

Moving To Oils

When I decided to teach myself to paint in 2000 I knew it had to be in oils, don’t get me wrong I’m no ‘oil snob’, in fact I now love working in any medium, but if I was going to learn painting I wanted to use the ‘real thing’.

A week later with canvases smeared in sticky grey mud I wished that I’d tried watercolour, acrylic or gouache, but I’m glad I stuck with it because no other medium has the creative potential, or gallery cachet of oil.

You can have opacity, texture, glowing glazes, permanent colour, delicate washes or thick impasto, oils offer it all; if you’ve mastered your current medium but feel your creativity could take you further then then this series is for you.

I’ve been given a wonderful chance to show you how to get into oils and share my passion for the medium, but let’s start by dispelling a few myths.

Myth Busting

Oil painting is an old skill, and like all traditional processes, rich with jargon and myths. The most prevalent of these are that ‘oils don’t dry’, ‘oils are smelly’ and ‘oils are complicated’. I’ll be dealing with these in detail later in the series and offer some simple ways to avoid common problems, but here’s why I don’t want you to worry about any of those things.

Oils don’t dry

If you handle oils correctly they can be workably dry as rapidly as watercolour or acrylic, unfortunately most new oil painters just lard them on like coloured butter.

Used like this, oils dry very poorly compared to aqueous media because they oxidise (dry by a chemical reaction with oxygen) and this is a slow process compared to evaporation. Managing drying is actually very easy, but most painters never learn to do it. The exercise at the end of this article will get you started.

Smelly Oils

Many people don’t use oils in painting groups or at home because of their smell. In fact oils themselves don’t have a strong smell, but solvents certainly do.

Most untutored painters choose turpentine or white spirit, both are which are very volatile and quickly become unpleasant to use. Again the solution is easy; don’t use volatile solvents. By choosing low volatility solvents (which really have no discernible odour) oils are no more objectionable than acrylic. It’s important not to confuse these with commonly available ‘low odour’ spirits with dour free solvent - which are often just a little less worse than white spirit.

Many traditional oil mediums have volatile solvents in them, so again simply avoid these and use modern mediums which use odourless solvent.

Complexity, confusion and jargon

Oils dry rapidly and they don’t have to smell, but I have to admit that oils are a jargon rich medium: Ebauche, Grisaille, Gesso, Imprimatura, Camaieu, Bole and Siccative are the kind of terms you have to wade through to read any useful sources on the subject - except this article of course!

In fact oils are really very simple to use, and if you strip away the jargon no more complicated than acrylics.

Over the next four articles I’ll turn some of the most common jargon into straight forward English, and the chances are you are already using most of the key approaches to oils in your current painting.

A quick primer on oils

All paints are essentially the same, that is to say a pile of coloured dust (pigment), emulsified with a liquid of some kind which acts as a binder when dry. So if you are familiar with Ultramarine Blue in Acrylic or Watercolour, its precisely the same as the Ultramarine Blue in oils.

The only difference is that the binder in oils isn’t gum arabic or an acrylic polymer, but a ‘drying oil’ such as linseed, safflower, walnut or poppy.

This means that you can carry straight on with your current favourite palette of colours, and that your usual colour mixes will work just as they always have. So what is different?

Your learning checklist

The only fundamental difference between oil and other media is the binder. This means you will have to use solvent for clean up rather than water and adjust your technique to take advantage of and manage their extended drying time. In practice this simply means paying more attention to the amount of paint you use, putting that paint on to a proper ground, and working in a less time pressured and disciplined way.

Changing the binder to oil gives you several distinct advantages including:

Better working time : with oils there’s no need to work like mad to get a passage down before your washes start to drag or your blending edges dry. If you learn to manage drying time its a huge advantage to have paint which will stay open for as long as you require.

Opacity: Contrary to popular belief most oils are translucent, just like watercolour, but can be built up as thinly or thickly as you wish. This versatility makes it easy to create great range in your work and makes it possible to both transfer and build upon existing watercolour skills.

Clarity: No other medium offers the clarity and lustre of oils, used correctly they create deep colours which seem to glow. You just can’t match this with acrylic (believe me I tried when I was engaged as a consultant for a major acrylic manufacturer).

Toughness: Oil isn’t just a great binder, but encapsulates your paintings in a tough skin which not only gives your paints a lustre but avoids all kinds of problems associated with less robust finishes such as pastel, gouache or watercolour.

Cachet: There’s a reason that most major artists painted in oils, and for better or worse doing so will help you to command a higher price in commercial galleries.

If you already use watercolours then you’re already working with a far more demanding medium than oil, so you should actually find them more forgiving. If acrylic is your thing, then you’ll need to be more disciplined, but you’ll get infinitely more luminous colours, a better lustre and never have to struggle with blending again.

The Basic Kit

  • A set of oil brushes, choose bristle, it’s higher quality than hog but still inexpensive.

  • A set of simple colours, just start with ones you already know as it will make it easier to move to oils. If you’re starting from scratch choose a simple set for example:

  • Titanium White

  • Ivory Black

  • Alizarin Crimson

  • Ultramarine Blue

  • Cadmium Yellow

  • A simple medium such as Liquin or Galkyd (available from art shops). Mediums allow you to manage drying time, lustre and make it easier to create glazes.

  • A jar of odour free mineral spirit such as Gamsol, Sansodor or Shellsol T. If you don’t mind the smell use white spirit. Don’t use turpentine it’s expensive, volatile and incompatible with modern alkyd resin mediums.

Something to paint on - primed canvases, canvas boards etc, avoid oil paper when you’re starting out, the surface is very ‘long’ which will make it difficult to manage drying time. Semi absorbent primings are best, so look for surfaces that don’t feel smooth or slick (cheaper acrylic gesso is often both of these).

A simple exercise

To get a feel for it I suggest you paint a quick oil study after JMW Turner. Like all painters of his time Turner would make little distinction between using oils and other media, and in fact his technique is essentially a watercolour approach, extended to exploit the potential of oils.

I suggest you paint a quick study after his ‘Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore’. You’ll find references for it (and similar works) easily on Google and it’s fairly intuitive if you currently use acrylics or watercolour. Here’s a quick method:

  1. Dilute your tube oils with a mix of half medium, half solvent ( I prepare this in a jar beforehand, and add it to paints on my palette as I mix)

  2. Wash in the colours fairly thinly, don’t lard it on, just like watercolour or thinned acrylic

  3. Rub them lightly with a paper towel - this will leave behind a stain which Turner called a ‘colour beginning’

  4. Using a little more oil and less medium work up the picture

  5. Using oil and no medium tap in the strongest parts with a palette knife or brush.


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