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Best Oil Painting Materials for Beginners, an In-Depth Guide

Gvaat’s oil brushes

For those of you just starting out with oil painting, the following guide will help in choosing a great set of oil painting materials, everything you need to get started included.

As a side note: oil painting is an incredible journey – and I could not be more excited for you!

Having the right oil painting materials and set up are extremely important to a good painting. Without further ado, let’s get to the supplies list you will need to get started on your first oil painting.

12 supplies to start with oil painting as a beginner:

  1. Oil paints
  2. Brushes
  3. Palette knife (painting knife)
  4. Illustration board
  5. Canvas
  6. Rags or paper towels
  7. Easel/Palette
  8. Paint toolbox
  9. Odorless thinner
  10. Charcoal or Conte pencil
  11. Wax paper or freezer paper
  12. Painting medium
Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - sample painting.
Gvaat’s copy of Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus. Oil on panel.
Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners
Gvaat’s copy of Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus. Detail.

1. Oil paints, which ones to get to as a beginning oil painter

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - artist colors.
Winsor Artist’s oil colors are a fine line of oil colors that uses a higher pigment-to-medium ratio than the Winton line oil colors. This results in superior paint that is more expensive. Using the Winton line of Winsor oil paints will be fine for beginners. The Winton line still provides great quality oil paint and a great value.
Suggested oil paints list for beginners:
Winton Alizarin Crimson
Grumbacher Thalo Green
Winton Cadmium Red Light
Winton Cadmium Yellow Light
Winton French Ultramarine Blue
Winton Phtalo Blue
Winton Sap Green
Winton Titanium White
Credit for this palette goes to Lin Xia Jiang, an oil painter, and instructor, who taught Gvaat how to use this palette and how to work with oil paint, among many other priceless lessons.
Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - old paint tube.
Oil paint keeps for a long time. After a while (years) the tube may begin looking a bit jaded (see above), but the paint should work fine as long as it is properly stored: keep oil paint tubes in a cool and dry place, away from the heat of the sun and from freezing temperatures.

Why these specific colors?

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - paint tubes.

The answer to why I suggest this specific color list is very simple:

The suggested oil paint list is limited to keep choices of colors to pick to a minimum, and, more importantly, from this specific palette you can mix virtually any color.

Yes, that’s right, almost any color you see.

In fact, as a student under the instruction of Lin Xia Jiang, I did just that. Using this palette, I was taught to look at any color in the room, and mix a color so close to it, that holding a brush next to the colored surface would make the brush virtually disappear. It was interesting to have that kind of practice and it was a lot of fun too.

Gvaat's painting detail.
Detail of an oil painting by Gvaat. All colors (including skin tones) mixed with the recommended oil color palette.

2. Oil painting brushes for beginners

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - brushes.
Gvaat’s oil paint brushes.

Do not spend a lot of time on picking the ‘perfect’ oil painting brush. This practice will not improve your painting skills – not at all!

You are using your time more wisely when you actually practice painting. In fact, you should be eager to jump in and start painting as soon as possible.

Only through painting, we get better at painting, – especially at the beginning.

Below are suggestions for painting brushes for any kind of oil painting for beginners. Do you want to paint landscapes? check, still-life? check! you aspire to become the world’s greatest figurative painter? check! You want to paint something else I did not mention? Check!

Why is it ‘check’ for everything with this simple brush list set? The best answer is that oil painting brushes come in great variety, there are brushes for glazing and painting thin, and thick, and painting detail, and painting the smallest detail ever painted, and on and on. You will have plenty of time to explore all of that later.

For now, get these brushes (see below) and get a few oil paintings under your belt. There will come a moment when you will sit down to research as much as you can about oil painting brushes, and you will spend much time on that. This moment should come after some practice, not before!

Suggested list of oil painting brushes for beginners

Princeton Natural Bristle Brushes
Princeton #2 Flat brush – 2X (get two of these)
Princeton #4 Flat brush – 2X (get two of these)
Princeton #6 Flat brush – 2X (get two of these)
Princeton #8 Flat brush – 2X (get two of these)
2″ Bristle Brush
The higher the # number next to the brush’s name, the larger the brush.
Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - brushes big vs small.
Princeton bristle brush #2 (small) vs #10 (large)

You want the flat type of brush, they are easy to use and easy to make hard edges with. Do not get the filbert or round types until you are farther along with your oil painting practice.

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - Gvaat's brushes.
Some of Gvaat’s oil painting brushes.

What are bristle brushes made from?

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - life of a brush.
Life of a flat #2 bristle brush. From left (new) to right (old stump). As you paint, bristles fall off the brush, being pulled by the sticky paint surface. Eventually, there are a few bristles left and each flat brush turns into something similar into a filbert type brush.

Oil brushes can move through their life span in just a few painting sessions if they are poorly cleaned, or they can last for years if thoroughly cleaned.

The maker of many great bristle brushes, Princeton, describes the bristle brushes as follows:

Bristle is a stiffer, coarse, natural hair that often has flagged tips. Flagged tips are like split ends and hold more color. Bristle is great for basecoats, heavy-bodied paints like oils and acrylics, and for adding texture.

Why use Bristle brushes as a beginning oil painter?

Natural bristle brushes are usually made from hog hair. The brush retains the coarse quality of animal hair. It is ideal for beginning painters for many reasons:

  • They are easy to use and behave like you would expect a brush to behave, even if you never painted, thereby removing a big mental barrier to entry;
  • they retain a lot of oil color, keeping you on canvas longer;
  • they are not usually made for detail work, making a beginning oil painter focus on the entire image (a common mistake for beginners is to paint a small detail of a painting for way too long, only to find that it does not match the rest of the painting at all);
  • They are natural and provide great quality but are also relatively inexpensive;
  • They are extremely versatile and unless you are working on very detailed, thin layer type of painting that is relatively small, they should work just fine for just about any type of application
  • Due to their coarse nature, they eliminate much complexity that comes from texture variety of using a fine sable-hair brush, thereby keeping a beginner’s focus on the colors themselves.
Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - brushes.
Old flat brushes. After a while, flat brushes begin to look more like filbert brushes, having rounded corners after losing some bristles in the painting process.

What is the #2 Bristle Brush?

What a #2 bristle brush looks like from Blick, a large online art supplies distributor.

You will use this brush to paint large areas of the canvas, to apply a flat thin layer of color on to the canvas for your underpainting, or to apply ground onto uncovered canvas, or to apply dammar varnish to the finished painting. Lots of uses. Eventually, you will get separate brushes for all of them, but for now, start simple and get the #2 Bristle Brush.

3. Palette knife (Painting knife)

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - palette knife.
Gvaat’s unclean palette knife. Try your best to get the blade completely clean at the end of each painting session. Once oil paint dries on the palette knife, it is very difficult to get it off.

You will need a painting knife to add to your oil painting toolkit. It serves to mix paint, take the paint off the canvas, or apply it to the canvas. It is a great tool to have nearby when you paint. You want to get one with a nicely flexible blade, something resembling a fish knife.

I suggest a basic #6 Atrium Painting knife like in the image above.

Detail of an oil painting by Gvaat. A palette knife has many uses, you can use it to apply thick coats of color onto the canvas – as an example, look at the left side of this image. The palette knife was used to make textured paint marks to amplify the contrast between the earth and sky in this oil painting.

4 and 5. Illustration board and canvas to paint on

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - canvas for oil painting.
A wall of canvas sold at a local Arts and Crafts store.

To become pretty good at oil painting you will need to paint a lot of paintings. Not ten or twenty, but hundreds or thousands. While oil paints can last a long time if you use them with care, you will need a lot of canvas.

I, therefore, suggest getting pre-primed canvas sold at your local art store to start off. Something not too expensive or elaborate for at least the first few paintings.

Over time, you can get very specific and deliberate with your canvas choices. You can stretch your own canvas, and mix your own ground to prime it. This is not necessary when learning to paint. The regular pre-stretched, pre-primed canvas that is on sale at the local art and crafts store will do just fine.

Why use illustration board?

Illustration board is a very thick paper board that is very difficult to bend.

If you are just starting to paint with oils. You may want to complete a few color exercises, or just have a surface to blend paint on, and practice.

Illustration board is more cost-effective for these types of activities than canvas. Will it last? The oil from the oil colors will saturate the paper, and it will show, but yes it will last, probably for decades! Great for exercises, use it for that, and then move on to canvas.

6. Rags and paper towels

As you paint, you will need a way to unload the paint from the brush quickly and to get excess paint out of the brush before you start cleaning the brush. Cotton rags or paper towels are great for this.

As a side-note, oil painting is a messy process for most of us. Unless you are extremely careful, and even then, it is likely that oil paint will get on your hands and clothing at some point. Oil paint is notoriously difficult to clean, so identify a set of clothing you are okay with getting dirty.

Alternatively, you can use an apron for oil painting. If you do, get an apron with front pockets, as they can come in very useful to store away rags for quick access.

7. Sketchbox Easel or Folding Traveling Easel

Get a sketchbox or folding traveling easel. They are not cheap but are well worth the money. A good traveling easel will help you:

  • keep your art materials in one compact place
  • gain portability when transferring your art
  • have the ability to paint standing up anywhere, outside and inside
  • feel a bit more like an oil painter
Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - easels.

This last reason may sound funny but is important. It helps to feel like a beginning oil painter when you paint with oils!

As you are beginning with a new skill like oil painting, a lot of things are bound to go wrong (and that is okay, that is how we learn to paint). So it is a good idea to have something be right at the start.

Standing up to paint on an easel can be just that one right thing that will make the introduction to painting in oils more enjoyable for you.

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - easel as carrying case.
Gvaat’s traveling easel. The folding traveling easel can serve as a canvas carrier as well.

There is no substitute to easels. You will paint better standing up, especially when looking at reference.

Although you could mount a sketchbox easel onto a tripod, I definitely prefer the Folding Traveling Easel since it comes with a folding out tripod, and space for oil painting materials.

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - easel storage.
Inside compartments of a traveling easel.

A traveling easel usually includes a wooden palette. A palette is a flat surface used for mixing paint. Paint goes from the tube, to the palette where it is mixed for the proper color, and then from the palette to the painting surface.

The easel is also usually adjustable to fit a wide variety of different canvas sizes, and it can serve as a wet canvas carrier once you are done painting. (Oil paints take days to months to fully dry on canvas).

Traveling easel Gvaat used as a student.

8. Tool box for oil paint tube storage

I suggest getting separate storage for oil paint tubes. Something like this plastic portable tool box with latches and removable tool tray:

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - paint box
Gvaat’s oil paint carrying tool box. Although a traveling easel can carry your oil paints, it is a good idea to get a separate container for that. Oil paints can leak and having them in the wooden easel with other supplies is not always ideal, instead, find a plastic toolbox that can be closed completely shut to keep the elements away from the paint, and to keep the fumes from escaping.

9. Odorless paint thinner

Odorless thinner, while not odorless, is a great solution for cleaning brushes.

Oil is not water-soluble. This means that cleaning oil brushes is a huge pain. The thinner does a great job cleaning off most oil paint from the brush, after the thinner, you can use soap and water.

For beginners in oil painting, I recommend the Mona Lisa Odorless Paint Thinner, it is inexpensive and very effective.

How to Clean Oil Brushes:

First, use a rag to wipe off excess paint, then wash the brush in a jar of odorless thinner, and finally was the brush by loading it up with soap under warm water. It is important to get as much paint as possible away from the heel of the brush.

  1. use a rag or paper towel to wipe off excess paint – try to get as much out as you can off the brush, pushing paint from the heel (stem) of the bristles outward;
  2. then dip the brush in a jar with odorless thinner and see the paint come off the brush. The paint will settle on the bottle and the jar can be used again and again. You can use the sides of the jar to clean your brushes when there is lots of paint on the bottom;
  3. use soap and water to get the rest of the paint of the brush. When you do that, you may have to fan-out the brush in the sink to let the water and soap get in between the bristles to wash off excess paint. It is very important to try to get as much oil color as possible out of the bristles especially at the heel. (The heel is the area where bristles begin from, moving toward the tip of the brush).
Here is a demo of how to clean your oil brush under running water with soap, especially focusing on cleaning the heel. As you push down on the brush the bristles open up throughout the brush and soap and water wash away the paint stuck at the heel of the brush. Although this type of pressure will cause the brush to wear out over time, as it will begin to lose bristles, it will prevent the damage from oil paint drying up at the heel of the brush. Oil paint drying up at the heel will render the brush unusable as the brush will lose its flexibility and the ability to be loaded up with paint.

What soap to use to clean oil brushes?

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - soap to clean brushes.
Pink soap from Speedball

In the past, I used bar soap to clean brushes. Bar soap works well because the soap material drives into the bristles at the heel of the brush, and is then rinsed off with water. Oil paint getting stuck at the heel of the brush is the problem, because over it renders the brush inoperable. So getting all the oil paint out of that area is very important.

I have also used Pink Soap from Speedball, the manufacturer of Mona Lisa paint thinner. This also worked well, and the manufacturer claims that it also works as a brush preserver and conditioner. The instructions say to repeat rinsing with Pink Soap until the soap stays pink so that you are sure all the oil color has been taken off the brush.

10. Charcoal or Conte cryons

Stay away from graphite if you don’t want your underdrawing to show up through thin layers of oil paint. Charcoal and conte pencil will mix with the paint making them optimal.

I have used graphite pencils in the past as well, and if the paint is thick enough the pencil will not show through. There are concerns with how well graphite can mix with oil paints, but I have not seen an issue come up yet on paintings a few years old.

11. Wax or Freezer paper

Palette options
Wax and freezer paper Gvaat used in the past as a palette to mix oil colors.

For easy cleanup, you can use wax or freezer paper on your palette.

Just stretch it over the palette’s hard surface and use tape to affix it from the backside of the palette.

Wax paper has a great surface, however, it does bleed oil paint through and oil medium too.

Freezer paper was my personal favorite, as it does not generally bleed-through if you use a couple of layers of it. If you use freezer paper, use the glossy side to mix your paint.

Eventually, I switched to a glass palette, which requires some cleanup but provides a superior surface to mix paint on. More on using glass as an oil mixing palette below.

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - sample painting.
Gvaat’s oil painting as a student.

12. Painting Medium

When you paint with oils, you will not use paint right out of the tube most of the time. You will likely use some medium to propel the paint – make it more buttery, and easier to work with.

All you need as a beginner is an all-in-one medium solution called Liquin.

The maker of Liquin, Winsor and Newton describes Liquin as follows:

This reliable favourite is a general-purpose semi gloss medium which speeds drying, improves flow and reduces brush stroke retention. Halves the drying time of conventional oil colour (touch dry in 1-6 days depending on colour & film thickness). Resists yellowing. Not suitable as a varnish or final coat.

Liquin is a painting medium that speeds up drying times and makes the oil colors more buttery, and easier to apply to the canvas.

It may be helpful to review oil paint drying times. You can come back to this page to review these charts when you begin to add new colors to your palette to experiment with.

Oil paint drying charts

Rapidly drying oil paint colors:
Flake white
Raw and burnt umber
Burnt sienna
Cobalt green, blue and violet
Prussian blue and manganese blue
Naples yellow
Venetian red
Average drying oil paint colors:
Raw sienna
Mars colors
Chromium oxide green
Zinc yellow
Strontium yellow
Phtalocyanine (Phatlo) blue and green
Quinacridone red and violet
Ultramarine violet
Indian yellow
Slower drying oil paint colors:
Green earth
Permanent or cobalt green
Zinc white
Slowest drying oil paint colors:
Vandyke brown
Emerald green

Additional tools and materials beyond the initial 12 to explore after your first few oil paintings

Glass palette

I love glass palettes because they provide the optimal surface to mix oil paint. A glass palette is a piece of glass, usually with a neutral color paper underneath – like a neutral grey (50% grey), to help better judge colors you are mixing.

You clean the colors off the glass with a single edge razor blade. It is actually fun to clean off when the paint is fresh, and when you do it for the first time you will be surprised at how well this cleanup method works.

It is not fun at all when the paint is dry, you end up doing lots of scraping and hitting blade against the dry paint until it comes off.

Glass is definitely a superior surface to wax or freezer paper. However, it requires a lot more clean up.

Mahl Stick

A mahl stick is generally used by an artist when working on a detail of a wet (fresh) painting. The stick can be anchored at an edge of the canvas, with the length of it going across the canvas and thereby providing a place to rest the palm of your hand as your paint in detail.

You would hold the stick with your other hand as you paint.

Mahl sticks usually have a soft pad or rag at the end, so they can be rested on the canvas itself. I recommend resting it on the edge of the canvas instead of the painting surface, especially if it is still fresh.

Either way, it can help a lot to get very steady with detail. You will probably not need this item unless you are often working on adding detail to your paintings.

Damar varnish

Oil painting materials and supplies for beginners - varnish on a painting.
Glossy varnish being applied to Gvaat’s copy of Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus.
Glossy varnish being applied to Gvaat’s copy of Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus.

Varnishing oil paintings protects them from dust, pollution, and the sun. It can only be done after all of the oil paint has dried. This means you have to wait at least six months or sometimes more, depending on climate and on the type of oil and medium you used in painting and how you applied paint layers.

Artist’s Gloss Varnish by Winsor & Newton

Traditional Damar varnish dries quickly to a high gloss. It has a tendency to lose some gloss over time as well as yellow. After a while, there are ways to strip it off the painting and apply new varnish.

Modern day products like Winsor & Newton® Artists’ Gloss Varnish are similar and claim not to yellow over time. I feel that everything yellows over time but the new formula varnish will yellow less.

Glossy varnish being applied to a painting (on the left), verses unvarnished dried painting surface (right).

Acrylic gesso and canvas grounds

If you stretch canvas yourself, you will need to prepare it for oil painting. This means priming the canvas with some sort of a ‘ground’.

Most pre-primed canvas sold in art stores is probably primed with some sort of acrylic gesso mixture.

Acrylic gesso verses traditional gesso:

Acrylic gesso is a mixture of white pigment and filler, as well as an acrylic resin (a plastic substance). It dries solid and is nonabsorbent.

Unlike acrylic gesso, traditional gesso usually refers to a mixture of rabbit-skin glue, chalk and white pigment, without presence of any acrylic resin. This mixture traditionally has been used as a ground for oil painting.

While there are concerns of painting with oils on top of an acrylic (plastic-like) ground due to a mismatch in the flexibility of these substances, as a beginning oil painter you should feel confident painting on acrylic gesso, here is why:

The concern of painting with oils on top of acrylic gesso is mostly due to mismatch in how flexible the surfaces are. The concern is that the mismatch can cause paint layer separation and cracking.

However, consider that paintings painted on rabbit-skin glue mixtures (oil type grounds that don’t have the concerning mismatch) have cracked all the time and are still cracking.

Although mismatch of surface tensions is always a concern with oil painting, cracking paint over time will have a lot more to do with how you paint and what colors you use as well as the climate in which the painting is stored.

Generally, you want to build up layers from thin to thick, so that layers underneath dry faster.

From experience, paintings from over ten years ago that I painted on acrylic gesso ground that I applied to canvas that I stretched myself are not cracking at all so far. Paintings from the same period painted on pre-primed canvas I purchased from an art store are not cracking at all either.

Mixing media, other than liquin

As a beginner oil painter, all you will really need to get started with painting is liquin as the propelling medium.

However, as your experience grows, you will undoubtedly run into a discussion over a variety of oil-based medium that can be mixed with oil paint. The great variety of mediums means varying drying times, and a variety of finishes.

From the list below, I used stand and linseed oil to paint with and I have to say that both have a much better texture feel than liquin when painting.

But there is a learning curve to use oil medium other than liquin.

Each oil medium requires preparation, proper storage, and often a formula to mix with other medium (or thinner) to ensure the longevity of your oil painting.

Things can get very complex fast, as you begin to use less thinner in your medium formula with each layer of painting, to ensure faster drying times for paint closest to canvas, and then also account for the particular colors you use given their varying drying times.

If you are just starting out, Liquin is all you will need. Get a few paintings under your belt quickly, (mileage is everything!) and then move on to experiment with something else.

Below is a chart of oil medium drying times to come back to later as you begin to experiment with medium other than Liquin. I will note here that in my experience Liquin dries much faster than the faster drying oil on this list.

Chart of oil medium and drying times:

OilDrying time
Sun-thickened linseed oilfast drying
Linseed oilmedium drying
Stand oil slow drying
Poppyseed oilvery slow drying
Safflower oilvery slow drying

Oil painting is incredibly fun! The texture of mixing paint, endless color options, endless possibilities, not just for visual expression but for the surface texture of a painting, all make it extremely inciting to explore! The medium also has a rich tradition that you can experience and participate in first hand.

To close out this guide on materials for beginning oil painters, I have two pieces of advice.

First, don’t get lost in the ‘proper’ use of oil paints and the minutia surrounding this beautiful painting practice. Focus more on your results on canvas. Your paintings, the creative output you are able to place into the world, in the end, matters more than anything. Learn the tools and materials, of course, you should know them extremely well, but don’t get lost in them!

Finally, to someone beginning to paint with oil colors: Don’t forget to have fun as you start on your very first painting, and never forget to have fun thereafter.