Updated: Oct 9, 2019
I hope my simple checklists based on practical application will help any newcomers to oil painting. If nothing else, they serve as a useful revision tool for me!
How to choose a support and prepare your surface for painting
There’s a vast amount of excellent advice online about choosing the best supports for painting in oils. When starting out I found it all rather overwhelming so here’s a quick basic guide, leaving out the technical stuff:
1. Oil painting paper…great for oil sketches, ease of storage and travelling light. Not so good when it comes to framing and hanging. You would need to glue-mount the paper onto a solid board, or treat as a watercolour and frame it behind glass.
2. Canvas boards…light to transport, fairly rigid though may warp in large sizes, and come in a range of textures and price points - from relatively cheap to archival quality. I buy Loxley canvas boards in bulk.
3. Pre-stretched canvas…relatively light to transport and ready to hang. I find some supports too “bouncy” under the brush, and they are easily dented in transit. Not my first choice.
4. MDF…cheap and cheerful, but heavy to transport and hang. I get my local DIY store to cut a sheet of MDF (3-6mm thick) to various sizes. I enjoy the process of priming the board with gesso - more on that below.
With the exception of the MDF option above, most surfaces are specially primed for oil so you can start painting straightaway. But even when using pre-primed boards I like to add my own layer of gesso to get the best surface for my painting style. You can buy ready-made gesso (I like Jackson’s Art Supplies own brand) or make your own. The recipe is simple: mix together one part chalk (whiting) to three parts white acrylic paint. First add a little water to the chalk and whisk to form a paste. Then stir into the acrylic (don’t whisk or you'll introduce pesky air bubbles). Store in a tub and it will keep indefinitely. Apply with a big paint roller for a smooth surface, or use a brush for a more textured surface.
Why use gesso?
1. Gesso provides a protective absorbent base which gives the paint something to stick to. The more chalk you add, the more absorbent the base and the shorter the drying time of your painting. To lengthen the drying time (i.e. to work “long" instead of “short”), use less chalk or wipe over the primed surface with linseed oil. I like to work “short” initially, to create a quick-drying underpainting; then “oil out” across the entire picture or locally for fine detail painting.
2. Gesso reflects light making your painting appear more luminous. You can increase this luminosity by using marble dust instead of chalk. You can reflect a particular light as a base by adding a little dry pigment to the pre-made gesso (first add a little water to the pigment to make a paste), this is called a “bole". For a warm red light (good for portraits) choose a Venetian, red ochre or burnt sienna pigment; for a yellow light (good for interiors and still life) choose Flemish yellow, yellow ochre or raw sienna pigment.