What Is Oil Paint?

When selecting any paint, it's important to know your choices. Oil paint are excellent for beginning artists and professionals alike, if you know what to look for.

When you shop for paint at a hobby or art supply store, you're faced with many choices. Here are some guidelines to make your selection easier.

There are several kinds of paints that artists use. The favorite three are oil paints, watercolors, and acrylics.

Watercolors are inexpensive and clean up easily. However, many art teachers advise learning to paint with oils or acrylics, first. Watercolor can be very challenging for beginners.

Acrylics dry quickly, and clean up with soap and water. However, mixing acrylic colors can be difficult. Even straight out of the tube, acrylic colors can look artificial.

Oil paints are the time-honored choice among artists. They offer superior colors, longer drying time, better texture, and are extremely durable and lightfast.

However, in recent years, oil paints have acquired an unfair reputation of being too difficult for beginners.


Oil paints are made up of pigment mixed in an oil base. In the age of Michelangelo and DaVinci, artists ground and mixed pigment by hand, and added it to commonly available oils. These oils included food products such as poppy seed oil.

These paints were mixed shortly before use, because the oils dried quickly.

In later years, linseed oil became the base for pre-mixed oil paints. These store well, sometimes for years, and are sold in tubes at most art supply stores.

Special oils and mediums are required to thin these kinds of oil paints. Linseed oil is one of the most common painting mediums for modern oil painters.

However, many oil paints have strong odors and require a solvent such as turpentine--called "turps" among artists--for cleanup.

Water soluble oil paints have returned to popularity in recent years. Many are based on the DaVinci's formulas and use food oils that mix easily with water.


When people talk about oil paints today, they usually mean the kinds that require turpentine for cleanup.

These paints come in a wide range of prices, usually based on the quality of pigment in the paint. An expensive pigment such as cobalt blue, or one that is finely ground (providing better coverage with less paint) will cost more.

When you're learning to use oil paints, it's fine to buy a discount brand, usually called a "student grade." You'll enjoy working with the buttery texture of oil paint, and its long drying time.

Oil paints can take days or even weeks to dry. If you have to stop working on a painting before it's finished, you can often return to it days later and continue where you left off.

If you paint a scene at a certain time of day, like Monet, you'll paint for a few hours and then the light will change as the sun moves. The slow drying time of oil paint is perfect if you plan to return day after day until the painting is completed.

Even more important for beginners, you can wipe the wet paint off your canvas if you decide that an area or color isn't working. Once you've scrubbed down to the canvas, you can repaint that area immediately.

If you'd like your painting to dry faster, there are products that you can mix into oil paint. Follow the instructions on the package label. If you rush the drying time too much, the surface of the painting can crack.


Once you've learned the basics of working with student grade oil paints, it's smart to start using better quality paints. These are often described as "artist grade" or even "professional quality."

You can mix different grades of oil paint, as well as different brands, with no worries. The difference is usually the quality of pigment rather than the base its in.

Student grade colors are often called "hues" on the label. This means that the pigment is artificial, not a naturally occurring color. Hues don't always mix together well; muddy colors can result. As many art teachers explain, red and blue don't always make purple. It depends upon the shade or hue of the paints you're combining.

When you use better grades of paint, colors mix more easily and you'll be happier with your results. For this reason, some art teachers recommend starting with artist grade paints rather than student grade.

In fact, if you are painting portraits or scenes from nature, the only way to match colors may be with artist grade oil paints. Neither acrylic paints nor student grade oils are likely to capture the colors that you see in nature.


Most people are very happy with oil paints once they learn how to take advantage of their superior colors and extended drying time. In fact, it's difficult to return to acrylics once you're used to oils.

However, turpentine is the best solvent to thin or clean up after oil painting. Many people object to its odor. Some artists even become allergic to turpentine and related products.

Manufacturers have developed alternative solvents, including odorless turpentine. But, once an allergy becomes severe, an artist is usually faced with giving up oil paints altogether.


In the past fifteen years, manufacturers have developed water soluble oil paints. These paints are made with the same pigments as their more popular counterparts, but use a different oil base.

Because the oil is different, the odor is often lighter and more pleasant than traditional oil paints. These newer paints can be thinned with water, and cleaned up with regular soap and water.

Water soluble oil paints generally have the same buttery texture of other oil paints. They dry nearly as slowly as traditional oils, and can be mixed with the same drying agents. In fact, you can mix water soluble oils with small amounts of regular oil paints, and still clean up with soap and water.

However, water soluble oils don't remain fresh in the tube as long as traditional oil paints. When buying them, it's wise to gently squeeze the tube to be certain that the paint inside is still soft. And, once the tube is opened, some colors--especially whites--should be used within a few months.

For many people, water soluble oils are a great solution to the problems of more traditional oil paints. They are priced about the same, come in student and artist grades, and the pigments are generally identical. They are just as durable and lightfast as other oil paints, too.


There are many good books that recommend specific color selections based on the subjects of your paintings. Friends who paint and the staff at any art supply shop can tell you which brands of oil paints are most popular.

Many companies sell very small tubes of oil paints in sampler kits. These offer a range of basic colors for a low price.

If you're buying brushes, be sure to choose lines that are intended for oil paint if you will be cleaning them with turpentine. Otherwise, turps can dissolve the adhesive that holds the bristles in place.

When painting with water soluble oil paints, it's important to choose brushes that can stand up to soap and water. These are usually designed for use with acrylic paints.

All types of paint--acrylics, oils, and water soluble oils--can be used on the same surfaces such as primed canvas or board.

No matter which oil paints you select, once you become used to the superior colors and workability of oils, you'll be glad that you tried them. They've been the favorite choice of great painters throughout history.

© High Speed Ventures 2011