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Oil Painting: The Absolute Beginner's Supply List

Practically and economically, what do you REALLY need?

So you're beginning to paint in oils. Yay! You're embarking on a marvelous adventure with one of the most forgiving, versatile, and historic mediums available. So far so good. But you're probably reading a bunch of those how-to books by now, which all give different advice on the supply page, and use different terms for them, and different brands, and different price points...

Aaaargh!

Grasshopper, fear not. I've been there, done that. Starting out is intense and confusing, especially for the budget-conscious (and who among us isn't?), but it doesn't have to be stressful. Here's a breakdown of the absolute bare essentials that you'll need to get started along with brand suggestions, price points, and explanations why!

Most of the products I will be discussing will be readily available from the following stores or online outlets:

  • Dickblick.com. Huge inventory, great information on products and brands. But generally expensive and their sales aren't great, so use them to find products and shop around for a lower price.
  • Jerry's Artarama. Also a large inventory, very low prices. Their Flash Sales are insane for finding a bargain. Sign up and wait for something to go on sale, you won't regret it!
  • Amazon.com. They don't have everything that the above outlets have, but their prices aren't beatable most of the time. Always cross-reference products between these stores until you find the best offer!
  • Hobby Lobby. Cheap, exciting, and full of goodies! Seriously, who doesn't want an excuse to go to Hobby Lobby? I prefer them over Michaels because they seem to have much lower prices for the same things.

Paint

     Let's start with paint.  Paints are exciting—so many brands, so many fantastic colors!  But with all that comes the stress of picking and choosing, and wondering if you've made the right choice.  Let me break it down for you!

Step one: if you're remotely serious about painting, discard any paint that doesn't say either "Artist" or "Professional Quality."  Anything "Student" or "Studio" is not worth your time, despite an alluring price point.  The ratio of pigment levels is much, much lower compared to levels of fillers and oil, and the hues will sometimes not be correct.  Do yourself a favor and stick to the good stuff.  You can thank me later.

That being said, you don't have to break the bank to get a good collection started, like you can with brands like Sennelier, (which are apparently awesome) with a list price often over $60 per 200ml tube.  You don't need to go there, trust me.  So here are my two top suggestions:

  • LUKAS.  In business since 1862, German made, affordable, with a wide range of colors.  Great texture with easy spreadability, and gloriously rich color.
  • GAMBLIN.  Professional quality, great price.  Excellent range of traditional hues, including a few metallic colors.  Low oil absorbency, so it has a thicker texture, but a sure-shot option for beginners and pros alike.

There are many other terrific brands to try, of course.  Windsor and Newton, Blick Artist's Oil Colors, Rembrandt, etc., but the prices immediately begin climbing.  Watch for sales and bulk deals, and try getting tubes from different brands at once.  Shop around, experiment, find what you like! 

As for colors, there are seven basic colors you need, and all other colors can technically be made from them.  Specifically, a warm red, cool red, warm yellow, cool yellow, warm blue, cool blue, and white.  Here are the most common hues to get you started:

  • Warms:  Cadmium Red, Indian Yellow, Ultramarine Blue.
  • Cools:  Alizarin Crimson, Lemon Yellow, Prussian Blue.  (Pthalo Blue is probably more common, but I prefer Prussian's jewel-tone quality, while Pthalo can be intense enough to verge on the radioactive.  Personal opinion.)
  • Whites:  Titanium White (opaque), Zinc White (semi-transparent).

Of course, you may not want to mix ALL the rest of your colors, and nor should you.  Here are a few more essentials:

Burnt and Raw Sienna, Burnt and Raw Umber, Paynes Grey (basically black, but a little bluer), Ivory Black (warmer than Paynes) and yellow ochre.  These are difficult to mix from scratch and will save your painterly life!

That's a good start for your colors and brushes.  Now, let's move on.

Brushes

A craftsman is only as good as his tools, they say. When it comes to brushes, this couldn't be more right. Save the budget where you can, but don't skimp too hard on your brushes. These tools will take a lot of abuse, and a small investment (okay, let's be honest, this is art—it's a pretty large investment) is necessary if you want to save money in the long run. So, without buying a genuine Da Vinci long handle Kolinsky sable bright size 30 for $390 (feel free to faint, I almost did finding that), avoid the cheapest ones you can find. Cheap brushes will fray, lose bristles, lose their shape quickly, and the ferrules can loosen from the handle.

Before we break down the brands, a quick word on some basic bristle types:

  • SABLES. Pretty much a dream-come-true material for bristles. Holds its shape, keeps a nice point, doesn't fray unless you try too hard, cleans easily, makes super smooth, accurate lines, and looks awesome. Pure red Kolinsky sable is arguably the absolute best, which, ironically, is actually from a type of Siberian mink, but it's rare and will cost you the moon. Imitation sables are much more affordable though, and super close in both appearance and performance to the genuine article.
  • HOG BRISTLE. Comes from... Hogs! Thicker, wavier bristles, superb for loading up your brush with gobs of paint. Not the best for delicate handling, but good for heavy duty work.
  • SYNTHETIC. Better than it sounds, animal-friendly, and decidedly cheaper. Because it's not real hair, there's little fraying, keeps an excellent shape and has a strong snap. Doesn't load as well because the fibers are, unlike hair, nonabsorbent, but leaves clean lines every time. Depending on the brand and material, it can come stiffer or softer and sometimes feels almost like real hair!

For a more comprehensive list of bristle types, here's a link to an awesome chart from DickBlick.com

And a word on head shape:

  • ROUND.  Round head that comes to a point.  Best general-use and detail shape.
  • FLAT.  Roughly square-shaped and (take a guess) flat.  Straight edge.  Also a good general-use shape, and laying down wider areas of color, or edging.
  • RIGGER.  Super long, thin round coming to a fine point.  For uber-fine details, like whiskers or power lines.
  • BRIGHT.  Basically a flat, but slightly shorter and narrows a little toward the tip.  Straight edge.
  • FILBERT.  A little longer than a flat, with a rounded edge.  Like having a flat and round in one.

And now, for brands.  Here are my two favorites for durability, performance and price point:

  • DYNASTY BLACK GOLD. Seriously, can't recommend this series enough. I've had several of these for the better part of a decade, and they've outlasted and outpainted every other brush I've ever purchased. And that's saying a lot; I'm hard on my brushes. Very reasonably priced, attractive handmade wooden handle and vinyl bristles which look and feel like real sable. Available here at DickBlick.
  • ROSEMARY AND CO. Especially the Ivory series, which has that pleasing snap and enduring shape, and is longer-lasting than the Eclipses of the same brand. These professional brushes have been handmade by an English small family business for over 35 years, and deliver a sterling performance at an affordable price. Not usually available through mainstream outlets, you can find their website through this link.

For all intents and purposes, start with a range of flats and rounds and expand from there. All brands' numbers for sizes will vary, so watch the cm/mm scales in the information instead for clarity. I recommend two of each size you choose, as the amount of work to rinse out color half-way through a session is impractical compared with grabbing a clean brush for a different color. Go for a set of smalls, mediums, and larges for each. This should start you off with at least twelve, which is an excellent place to figure out what you like. Supplement accordingly. Your large flat brushes don't have to be more than 1"-1 1/2" to begin with. Buy your super large ones cheap from Lowes until you're ready to invest, because the big ones are expensive!

Palettes

Palette preference is highly individual, and the diversity of available products reflects this fact.  They can be wooden, plastic, disposable paper, glass, clear, toned, white, opaque, flat, round, square, large, small, with or without dishes or compartments for mixes, and the list goes on and on!  Whew!  But I'm not here to give a lecture on every single type.  Here are some economical and practical options to start you off.  

  • PLASTIC.  You can't go wrong with plastic.  They come in every shape and size and remain one of your cheapest options available.  Clear ones are non-staining, and if you prefer a neutral tone (or fuchsia even--who am I to limit your creativity?) then the back can be painted over.  Hobby Lobby offers an excellent range of sizes and shapes at bargain prices.
  • MELAMINE PLATE.  A flat plate is as good as a professional palette if you're starting small, with materials at hand.  Keep it white or grey and expect staining, so don't use one intended for the table, but it'll clean off easily and the whole thing can be cling-wrapped and frozen to preserve unused mixes of paint.  
  • GLASS.  There's nothing like the smoothness of glass for mixing and pushing paint around.  Like the plastic, I recommend a neutral backing of paint or paper to improve color perception, but if you like leaving your paint on the table opposed to in-hand, then glass is awesome for durability and cleanup ease.  Try an old window pane or take it from a cheap picture frame to save money. Just make sure the edges aren't sharp or cracked.  Dropping not recommended.

Solvents and Oils

The issue of oils and solvents was difficult for me to decipher early on, particularly distinguishing between the relative uses for them. Unfortunately, these are both absolutely necessary for painting with oils, so after a lot of trial and error, and finally some decent instruction, the question was demystified. Which is what I'm hoping to do for you, uber-simplified.

  • OIL. Oil helps thin down your paint for better spreadability and makes it easier to lift out of glazes and tone your canvases. It lends flexibility to your painting, and areas with more oil will tend towards shininess over matte. Linseed oil is traditional, and has been used for hundreds of years by the very best masters on down to the present day. It has been shown, however, to cause yellowing of pigments over time (probably long after yours or my lifetimes) so there has been a gradual shift towards walnut oil as both a preservative measure and a cheaper alternative. It behaves the exact same way as linseed oil, so I advocate walnut for the lower price point alone.
    • Of course, oil being oil, the more you add for whatever reason, the more slowly your painting will dry. So for projects that have a time limit, try oil mixed with alkyd medium, which will speed up the dry time considerably. It's expensive, but worth it if you're on the clock, and available in either linseed or walnut.
  • SOLVENT. Solvents break down paint, which make them essential in cleaning up both palettes and brushes, restoring previous layers of paint or removing excess oil from your canvas. I use it almost exclusively for cleanup, but it shortens the process a hundred-fold. There are different sorts and words for solvents—turps, turpentine, mineral spirits, white spirits—but are all essentially the same thing. For sensitive people, like myself, go for odorless mineral spirits. All turpentine is toxic and flammable, but the fully odorous variety can cause headaches. Always use in a well ventilated area and keep away from pets or children.
    • DON'T buy solvents from art/craft stores! Go to Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot or something similar first. You will pay WAY too much for the exact same brand and product if you buy them at an art depot!
    • For more on how solvents can be used to clean your gear, see my previous article for absolute beginners on cleaning equipment here: Lifehack: "Absolute Beginners: How to Clean Up After Painting in Oils"

Miscellaneous

Trying to keep this list at a bare minimum, but there are a few things left to complete your startup.

  • EASLE. Try something small and cheap from Hobby Lobby or Walmart first, maybe even one that rests on a tabletop. Don't invest hard until you know what your painting style needs, because easels are expensive and unique. Do you sit? Stand? Paint several pieces at once? Do you want something mobile and adjustable, or heavy and permanent? Start with a basic sort of canvas stand, and feel your way towards the style which will best suit your needs. When your ready for an investment, however, I recommend visiting Jerry's Artarama for competitive prices.
  • CANVASES.  Generic will do.  Hobby Lobby has great sales prices and a tantalizing range of sizes and shapes.  Don't go too cheaply, or the canvas will sag on the frame while it's being worked.  *gasp*
  • PALETTE KNIVES.  Essential for your studio! Palette knives are used in mixing paint (don't use your brushes—very bad for the bristles), moving and removing both mixes and layers applied to the canvas, cleaning your palette, even applying paint to canvas in certain styles of painting like impasto. They don't have to be fancy, you can even go chintzy to start out with. Try some with more flexibility, though—the stiffer the knife, the more difficult to use (in my opinion.) Hobby Lobby, or even the craft section in Walmart, offer sets very cheaply. Do it!
  • PAPER TOWELS.  Go for those blue shop towels in the automotive department.  You'll get triple the use out of them and use half as many.
  • OLD T-SHIRTS.  Before chucking that stained tee or camisole, cut it up for scrap.  Good for blending or simply used as rags.  Always use a lint-free material.
  • CONTAINERS.  Save every container you have.  Large to small, spice jars, bell jars, cookie tins, drinking glasses, etc.  There's always a need for "keepers."  You need a way to store your brushes upright, keep your paints sealed, your liquids safe, etc.  Keep 'em all!  You'll use them eventually.
  • DRAWING MATERIALS.  Be it charcoal, pencils, tracing paper, erasers, you'll definitely need them.

For more nifty-thrifty art tools to save your life, see my previous article here: Lifehack: "5 Thrifty Artist Tools to Make Life Awesome"

Well, there's my two-cents worth! Hopefully this helps to lead you in the right direction the first time, instead of floundering around like I did wasting money and time on the wrong products from the wrong stores.  

If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to drop a tip in the jar!  I SUPER appreciate it! :)

Also, don't forget to watch out for more art-related articles in the future!  As always, like, follow share, and look me up on Facebook below: Facebook: Shelby Lynne Artist

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