4 Oil painting techniques you should know

Oil paints are the way of the old masters. Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci are examples of the old oil paints. The many art pieces completed in oil paints are invaluable and precious because of the number of oil paint techniques. With years of evolving art styles and techniques, it is condensed into three basic rules and understanding of oil painting that every artist has to practice and perfect over time. These techniques are your test of patience and artistic abilities that, if done correctly, will be a highly rewarded experience.

Here are some of the examples of the unique techniques that oil paints allow the artist to utilise and work with:

  1. Underpainting:

there’s nothing more intimidating to a painter than a blank white canvas staring back at them. Underpainting is the technique of applying a base layer of paint to the canvas to start with something. It is the foundation of any oil painting that an artist puts on canvas to set the particular mood of the picture in their mind and establish specific values of the painting at the beginning itself. The colours used in underpainting itself are an essential choice:

  • A blue underpaint will establish a cold sense to the painting even if you choose to bring it the sunshine and bright afternoon.
    • Yellow paint is perfect for dessert and the countryside in the summertime.
    • A purple is for shadows and warm layers.

There are two types of underpainting:

  • Tonal grounds underpainting: this type has the entire canvas covered in even tone colour, which will be the backlighting for contrasting colours or complementary ones.
    • A tonal underpainting: when you have a slight idea of what you will paint, you start mapping out the subject on your canvas. You use a neutral shade to outline the darker areas in your painting on the canvas. You can also let the canvas blank where you want the white to shine prominently to allow a pure white in your painting.
  1. Thick over thin:
  • The oil paints on the canvas do not dry due to the oil medium and pigments in the mix but are cured. The artist has to wait for the oil paint to become solid over time due to oxidation. The thicker the layer of oil paint, the longer it takes to cure and be available for further work of colours. Therefore the apparent logic is to apply thin layers of oil paint before applying thick ones on the canvas. You move on from thin layers to impasto (thick layers) with a drying period between each of them.
    • The thin layers solidify quickly and are perfect for the eventual buildup of the paint and layers. However, whereas the thick layers take longer to settle and cannot be hurried, it will cause a muddy mix of colours on the canvas.
    • Applying thick layers first might also cause the paint to crack over afterwards as it continues to dry while working the top layers.No amount of thin layers can cover up the cracks in the canvas.
    • It also depends on the oil medium you use for your oil painting. The market provides several oil mediums for you to choose from for your next masterpiece. Some mediums allow the paint to dry as fast as 12 hours, and you can continue your work every day without pause.
  1. Fat over lean:
  • The oil paints are made out of pigments, oils and solvents to make the oil paint viscous in nature. The concentration ratio of the oil and solvent is what makes the paint fat or lean. The thinner the oil paint, the more solvent it contains. More solvent means lean paint, and more oil means fat paint.
    • When you apply lean paints on the canvas, the solvent starts to leave the paint and the oil and pigments bonded together are left on the surface to dry. However, the oil paints don’t dry but undergo curing and can take up to days to fully oxide on the surface.
    • The lean layer of paint is relatively fast drying compared to the fat layer of oil paint that may take a long while to cure. The high amount of oil in the paint may cause the layer to crack while curing and requires correction. If the fat layer is on the top, it can correct the cracking. Therefore, the laws of painting suggest “flexible over non flexible” as the lean layer is relatively flexible compared to the fat layer.
    • If you apply a quick-drying layer over the slow drying one, the top layer will be fixed quickly, while the underneath pain may take even longer to dry and settle ultimately. In addition, it may change your work later on, messing up the sharply done brushstrokes or end up messing the whole scene. Therefore, ensuring that the underneath layers are dehydrated before you move on to the finishing touches is a vital process.
  1. Slow drying over fast drying:           

Another secret to painting is that some colours may dry faster compared to some other colours. For example, you will observe that jewel colours, like reds, blues, and yellows, take twice as long to dry as earth colours and tones.

  • Of Course, it depends on the solvent, amount of oil, pigments and colour combination, but you must remember to paint the slow drying over the fast drying if you choose to paint in layers.
    • Alla prima is the technique of painting the complete painting in one sitting and one sitting. You don’t paint layers and start and finish the painting in the same order without allowing it to dry. It is also called the wet on the wet style of painting.


These are the very basic style/technique/rules of painting with oil paints. It is vital to understand these rules before picking up your brush and oil paint palette for your masterpiece.

RJ Frometa
Author: RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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