Oil painting primer, getting started with a limited palette

I was editing the main (circa 2002) tutorial pages on portrait-artist.org, and came to the oil painting page. And froze! There is waaaaay too much I want to say about oil painting! I can’t do it in just one page.

So I’m going to start a series of posts here about oil painting, then will link to them from main site.


I started painting when I was a kid, still in middle school. It’s not that hard or scary. If it were, I would have never kept with it. (Hey! I was just a kid!) So if you’ve heard that oil painting is complex, or “scary,” don’t believe it. Yes there are “rules,” yes, there are things you need to know. But you can do it. And the rewards are wonderful!

First I’m going to tell you a bit about oil paints, set you up with what to buy. (Just the barebones.) Then I’ll tell you more about the painting I’m showing here, and its significance.

Emo Guy, oil on 5×4 inch canvas panel. Thanks to XXMAUROXX for the use of his stock photo for reference.


“It’s so nasty and toxic!” 

No, not that much more than acrylics. Both oils and acrylics use some pigments (like cobalt and cadmium) that must be handled with care. Oils do often need to be thinned with paint thinner or mineral spirits. But some of these thinners are pretty mild and will work fine with reasonable care. Or you can work around using them, by getting a completely non-toxic solvent/thinner. (I recommend it later in this post.)

“It takes weeks and weeks to dry!”

If you paint thickly, live in a humid area, and use some painting medium that slows drying, yeah, I guess so. But if you don’t paint too thickly (most of us don’t) and use a painting medium which accelerates drying, usually the paint is dry to the touch overnight (or within 24 hours). That’s usually how it works for me.

“They’re so hard to learn!”

Not any harder than acrylics, really. And oils are more forgiving, easier to blend, and richer. But that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with acrylics. They have their charms too.

“They’re soooo expensive!”

Not really. You’ll find that the tubes of acrylics are larger, but you need more acrylic paint to do the same as a smaller tube of oils. Oils are more “dense” and pack more pigment. That’s just the way they are, on a molecular level. If you shop around, you can find decent-quality oils that compare in price to acrylics.


You’re a newbie. So you don’t want to spend a lot of money. Usually that means “student” paints (which are cheaper and lower quality than the hoity-toity “artist” paints). With that in mind, here is my recommendation for oil paint: “cheap” paints that are not really student, but are priced like they are.

Richeson Oils The Shiva Series, Basic Set of 6 Colors

Richeson Oils The Shiva Series, Basic Set of 6 Colors

Shiva oils are reasonably priced (especially when you wait for a sale at Dickblick) and have pretty good quality. They edge into the “Artist” (as compared to “Student”) category of oils. You can get the set of 6 tubes (that will do okay) or select your tubes individually. If you pick your own colors, I recommend these:

  • Titanium White (or Titanium-Zinc White), 5 oz (the bigger tube)
  • Ultramarine Blue (Deep or Light) 1.25 oz
  • Shiva Yellow Medium (or Shiva Yellow Light if you also intend to paint landscapes or something other than portraits) 1.25 oz
  • Rose Red (yes, I know it’s more expensive. But the other “rose” colors are tainted with Alizarin Crimson, which isn’t very lightfast—that means the paint will fade in time). 1.25 oz
  • Burnt Sienna or Light Red (warmish reddish earthy brown) 1.25 oz

Actually, you could get away with just these colors. But I don’t recommend that. So, in addition to these, also get:

  • Yellow Ochre 1.25 oz
  • Cadmium Red Pale (preferred) or Shiva Red Medium 1.25 oz
  • Cerulean Blue or Phthalo Blue (Cerulean is more expensive, but Phthalo is wicked powerful, which might overwhelm you. Take your pick!) 1.25 oz

Other “cheap” Artist Grade paints to consider:

Lefranc & Bourgeois Artists' Oils

Lefranc & Bourgeois Artists’ Oils are another fave of mine. Recommended colors would be similar to what I recommend from Shiva. Suggested colors are:

  • Titanium-Zinc White (the larger tube)
  • Lefranc Crimson
  • Japanese Yellow Deep (or Light, if you also intend to paint landscapes)
  • Ultramarine Blue (take your pick; there are several kinds!)
  • Yellow Ochre (take your pick!)
  • Burnt Sienna or Red Oxide
  • French Red Vermillion Hue
  • Cerulean Blue or Cerulean Blue Hue

I also personally have had no complaints about: Weber Permalba Artists Oil Colors. (especially their Permalba White. Oh how I love Permalba White!). Also, Grumbacher Pre-Tested Artists’ Oil Colors are pretty good. And by the way, you can mix-and-match oil paint brands. There’s no law that says you must get all colors from one manufacturer. Pick a few from each and see which you like!

The key is to not pay too much. I almost always shop online because the prices are so much better. Sure, you can find oil paint at your local Michael’s or Hobby Lobby, but the cheaper, low-end “student” brand stuff costs as much as (or more!) than these modestly-priced “artist” grade paints on DickBlick.com.

I know I sound like such a shill for Blick (I am an affiliate, which means I get a small commission when a site visitor shops there) but I’m hooked on Blick, shop there all the time. (But I’m equally hooked on Jerry’s Artarama, where I am not an affiliate! I just shop where the deals are.)

I hate to steer people away from their local brick-and-mortar art stores, but if you’re on a budget, sometimes these stores just aren’t feasible. But by all means, collect your coupons, wait for sales, and if you can get something better locally, do it!

Other things to get:

Paint thinner or solvent: A lot of people are very leery about oils because of the nasty, smelly “turpentine,” but in fact you don’t have to use the hard stuff (Turps) for regular oil painting. You can use the much milder odorless mineral spirits. Many artists love Gamblin Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits. This are far less “toxic” than regular paint thinner or turps. But Gamsol is not benign! Don’t drink the stuff, for crying out loud! And you must paint in a well-ventilated area.

If you’re unsure that you can do that, then try Weber Turpenoid Natural. No toxic fumes, no nothing. I wouldn’t drink it either, but it’s okay to use it with less than adequate ventilation. (Try out a small bottle of it first, just to make sure you like it.)  It’s what I’ve been using lately. The key with it is to not actually thin your paints with it. Keep a small jar of linseed oil around for that purpose (Shiva Linseed Oil would serve well with that). When you need to rinse out your brushes, swish them in the Turpenoid Natural, wipe them off on a paper towel, then dip them in Linseed oil, and use the linseed to actually thin the paint. I know that the manufacturer says that Turp. Natural can be used for thinning paint, but I’d rather pass.

Mediums (what you mix in with your paints):

The aforementioned linseed oil can be your oil painting medium. What I like to use is the ever-popular Liquin. It helps speed up drying, which I love! I’ve been using Liquin for years, and it’s one of the most popular oil painting mediums out there.

That’s enough product recommendation for now. I’ll be adding more posts to this blog with more info on what materials to get.


I painted him using only 4 colors: A white, an earthy reddish brown, an earthy yellow, and a black. For example, you could use Titanium White, Mars Red or English Red, Yellow Ochre, and Mars Black or Ivory Black. There’s a lot you can use with just these colors! If you’re on a budget, you can get just these colors and do a nice job of making “full color” portraits.

Let’s look at this painting closer up:

Detail of Emo Guy

Even though the reddish brown is really more “brown” instead of bright red, you’ll see that his lips look pretty rosy red. And notice the highlight on the bulb of his nose? It almost looks blue. But I mixed a coolish black with white, and the illusion of blue-green is created.

Pretty cool, huh? There’s a lot you can do with just a few colors on your palette!

Painted on the affordable Art Alternatives Canvas panels 8 x 10 inch (pack of 12). (Only the canvas board I used was 4×5 inches.) I use a lot of these type of panels.

4 thoughts on “Oil painting primer, getting started with a limited palette”

  1. Thank you for the tutorials. Now, I want to learn oil painting. Could you do a tutorial on the above fore-mentioned painting using only 4 colors?

    I started to learn oils but got sidetracked for a decade or so ago.

    I started my education in Fine Arts, then I moved to Engineering and drafting. Then, I fell in love with the Macintosh, photography and technology so I changed my major to graphic design. Since 1998 I’ve been the proud owner of a degree in Visual Communications (a big word for Graphic Design).

    The wheel is come full circle.

    1. Hi Jeffrey, I owe you an apology (like I do with Annette above) for not responding to your post sooner!

      I’d be very happy to write a tutorial on working with the four colors. That sounds like a lot of fun!

      I know what you mean about getting side tracked with digital. I love Photoshop and see the appeal of digital art. But I keep on returning to oils, pencil, and acrylics. They have their own appeal and I don’t think that will ever change.

  2. I want to say thank you for providing so much information and tutorials for those of us who are learning. I spent most of last evening and today reading your site and practicing many of your drawing methods. I really want to do portraits, but the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know what I am doing. I appreciate you providing this and will be taking full advantage of it from now on. and I would love to use your affiliate link for Blick, if you let me know where it is. Thanks!

    1. Hi Annette, I apologize profusely for not responding to this post much sooner! I don’t know why I missed this before. Very shameful on my part!

      As for doing portraits, the key is to just dive in and keep practicing! I say on one of my pages (in the “Attitudes and Inspiration” section) to be shameless. Don’t give up and don’t be too concerned if you’re bad. That is normal for most of us, but it’ll be overcome soon enough, if you keep on working at it. I’m glad the tutorials have been helpful to you.

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