Old Masters Academy

Introduction to Oil Painting Fundamentals

To accurately convey your feelings about the subject you are painting, you should learn and understand the fundamentals of oil painting like drawing, color theory, value and composition. I hope to give you a better understanding of these fundamentals in this article. This article is meant to be an introduction. You should study these topics further on your own when you have time.


Learning to draw, as a foundation for oil painting, is one of the most valuable skills a beginner oil painter can have. Many new artists usually frown upon the idea of drawing first. They would rather jump right into painting, as most beginners do. Nothing is more rewarding for a painter, than working with color, but if you want to gain experience working with values, form, and space, then drawing is something you should consider learning. This is not to say that you should master drawing, as it is an art form all in itself, but do spend time drawing and sketching your subjects before you work with color. Did you know that in art schools, many years ago, students were not permitted to work with paint until they successfully spent at least a few years drawing first? They must have been very restless, but imagine how skilled they became before they ever lifted a brush. You should at the very least have a basic understanding of drawing techniques before you begin. Check out Amazon.com for some great beginner drawing books that will give you a well rounded introduction to drawing and techniques. A book that is highly recommended by artists is: “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards”.


Color is probably the single most exciting part of oil painting. It is truly amazing how an artist can take a two dimensional surface and create the illusion of depth and distance using color. To accurately depict a three dimensional scene using color requires much practice and an understanding of color theory and how to mix colors. The basics of color are value, hue, saturation and temperature. The value of a color is how light or dark it is. The hue refers to the color itself as it appears on the spectrum of colors. The saturation is the strength or purity of the color. The temperature of a color is how cool or warm a color is. For instance a cool color is blue and a warm is red. Artists can use temperature to give the illusion of distance. Cooler colors tend to recede into the distance, as in a distant mountain range, and warmer colors tend to advance closer toward the front of a picture. Color theory is a very broad topic, one that deserves more thorough attention. A great book on color theory and mixing is “Color Mixing the Van Wyk Way: A Manual for Oil Painters”.


Have you ever visited an art museum and a particular painting just grabbed your attention and drew you in? Something in that painting kept you there looking and studying it. One element the artist successfully used in that painting was composition. The artist laid out the shapes and divided the space in the painting in such away that appealed to your senses. Here are some points to consider when developing your composition:

1) Avoid putting the main focus of interest in the center of your painting.

2) The areas of your canvas should be divided into parts of different sizes. For instance, if you are creating a landscape painting, do not put the horizon right in the center of your painting.

3) Do not place all the interesting parts of your composition on the left side of your painting. People read from left to right so they will have no reason to continue viewing the rest of your painting.

4) Avoid placing an interesting or important element of the painting too close to the edge of the canvas.

There are other elements that contribute to good design in an oil painting. Here is another good book to study if you would like to learn more about this fascinating aspect of painting: “The Simple Secret to Better Painting: How to Immediately Improve Your Work with the One Rule of Composition by Greg Albert”

I know all this information seems overwhelming at first. Oil painting can be very challenging in the beginning, but don’t let that intimidate you. The most important thing to remember is to never give up and keep painting. You will learn from your mistakes and grow as a painter. Everything will come together in time. Happy Painting!

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