Beginners Guide to Paint: Oil

Do you feel inspired by the John Moores Painting Prize 2020 but have no idea where to start? We spoke to the experts at Windsor and Newton to find out how to choose the right medium for you, this week we are looking at Oil Paints.

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Dohyun Baek, Mom's Birthday Follows the lunar Calendar, 2020, oil on canvas (John Moores Painting Prize, 2020)

An introduction to oil paint

Cherished as a traditional painting medium that conjures up images of the Old Masters, oil paint has long been at the centre of art history, whilst still proving very popular with contemporary artists working today. Extremely versatile to use, oil paint is as good for building up thick impasto layers as it is for deploying thin glazes. Nevertheless, a number of preconceptions about the medium remain: oils are seen by some as difficult, involving the use of different solvents and slow drying times, despite being championed for their brilliance and quality. Let’s see if using oil paint is right for you.
Oil paint’s popularity past and present  

Windsor and newton paint tube

The fifteenth century Flemish painter, Jan Van Eyck, is often credited as the ‘Father of Oil Painting’, creating highly detailed panel paintings such as the ‘Arnolfini Wedding’ with exquisite technique.  However, the earliest oil paintings go back much further to the Buddhist murals discovered in Bamiyan, Afghanistan around 650 AD, although it was during the European Renaissance that oils were championed, replacing egg tempera as the artists’ medium of choice. Despite this historical association, oils still gain favour, by virtue of their flexibility and strength, with leading contemporary painters such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Luc Tuymans.

What is oil?

Oil paints are made by combining a natural oil based binder (Linseed, Safflower or Poppy Oil) with a pigment. However, each colour formulation is unique, behaving differently according to each pigment’s nature and properties, governing such things as its degree of transparency as well as its texture. At the same time, unlike water-based painting mediums such as acrylic and watercolour, oil paint needs oxygen from the air in order to dry, and it is through this process of oxidation that different colours retain different drying times: Raw Sienna drying quicker, for instance, than Titanium White.

What is meant by professional quality paints?

Most brands offer a professional range alongside a standard quality alternative. At Winsor & Newton all of our Oil Colours, from the Professional and Winton dependable quality ranges through to the Artisan Water Mixable and Griffin Alkyd Fast Drying alternatives, use the finest pigments. Professional Oil Colours have a higher concentration of these pigments like-for-like than other ranges, offering a wider selection, although the degree of choice in other Winsor & Newton Oil Colour ranges is increasing. 

Orange oil paint

Single or mixed pigments?

There is a higher degree of single pigments with the Winsor & Newton Professional Oil Colour range, giving you more control over mixing other colours, leaving you less likely to end up with a muddy palette. Single pigments such as Cadmium Yellow or Cobalt Blue offer strong pure colour where only a single pigment is dispersed through the binder. However, there are instances where colours made from a combination of pigments - known as mixed pigments - prove invaluable, such as William Payne’s formulation Payne’s Gray, which offers subtle tonal options infused with blue and grey as an alternative to black.

Traditional Oil, Water-mixable or Alkyd Fast-Drying?

Water mixable oil colour is a genuine oil colour made from modified linseed oil and modified safflower oil. This modification means that water mixable oil colours can be used without hazardous solvents and can be cleaned with water. As an alternative to traditional oil colour, water-mixable oil colour is good for artists who share a workspace or who don't want to use solvents at home. It is also ideal for artists suffering from skin complaints or breathing difficulties. The Winsor and Newton Artisan Water-mixable Oil Colours are available in 40 colours and come with a range of mediums. Alkyd Fast Drying Oil Colours offer a speedier drying option than traditional oils, using alkyds, a naturally derived vegetable oil that is polymerized; ideal for thick impasto techniques and underpainting. Alkyd is a resin-like product and very similar to traditional linseed oil, remaining workable for 4 to 8 hours and touch dry in 18 to 24. Consistent drying times across the range remove the usual restrictions that come with conventional oils, making it easier to overpaint, regardless of the colour upon the surface. The Winsor and Newton Griffin Alkyd Fast-Drying Oil Colours are formulated with the best materials and are available in 48 colours. 

Core colours 

3 core colours
Winsor Lemon
Alizarin Crimson
French Ultramarine

6 core colours
Winsor Lemon
Cadmium-Free Yellow
Alizarin Crimson
Cadmium-Free Red
French Ultramarine
Winsor Blue (Green Shade) cobalt blue winsor is dark like ultramarine

Windsor and Newton tubes of paint


Using the correct mediums with oils gives you more control. By using the appropriate medium, you can also play with the texture, sheen and vibrancy of the paint, improve blending, as well as create different effects and increase the drying time. Experiment with different mediums and techniques, you’ll produce some exciting work. Here are three good mediums to try out:

Distilled Turpentine

A highly refined essential oil used as a diluent (thinner) for oil colours and cleaning brushes that leaves a matte finish with oil paint when used alone. Keep tightly closed and away from light to prevent oxidation. 

White Spirit

A volatile, flammable diluent (thinner) for oil colours and the cleaning of brushes. As a petroleum distillate, white spirit is better for cleaning, often making dry paint appear chalky when used as a thinner. Designed for oil colours and alkyd. Slower drying than Turpentine. Does not deteriorate on storage. 


A low odour diluent (thinner). Slow to evaporate and therefore useful in controlling Alkyd and oil colours. Does not deteriorate on storage. A good addition to making your own medium.

Linseed Oil

A vegetable-based drying oil used in conjunction with oil colour which improves its flow, transparency, and gloss. Using oils maintains the flexibility of paint films, particularly when working fat over lean, and prevents over-thinning, which can happen when using solvents. Winsor and Newton has an extensive range of linseed oils which allows you to alter or enhance the characteristics of oil colour, add texture and modify the rate of drying. 

Paint being mixed with a spatula

Some tips for starting out:

  • Make sure that you always have two containers of solvents prepared for oil painting and keep them separate. One of these should be for cleaning your brushes and one for thinning the paint. Distilled Turpentine is best for thinning and White Spirit is best for cleaning. Low-odour solvent equivalents such as Winsor and Newton’s Sansador offer a flexible alternative and can be used for either purpose.
  • It is worth collecting old rags to be used for wiping brushes when you clean them. 
  • There are three rules to follow when painting in oils because colours dry at different rates: ‘fat over lean’, ‘slow over fast’ and ‘thick over thin’. (1) Fat over lean: when painting in layers, each successive layer must be more flexible than the one underneath. This rule is maintained by adding more medium to each successive layer. (2) Thick over thin: thick layers of oil colour are best applied over thin under layers. Thin layers on impasto paintings are likely to crack. (3) Slow vs. fast drying colour: slow drying colours should not form continuous under layers as any faster drying layers on top may crack.
  • Painting in oils means that you need to prime the surface first, whether you are working on paper, canvas or board. If you don’t, the oil colour will bleed into the support and eat away at its structure over time. You can either use an acrylic-based primer such as gesso for this or an oil-based primer. Winsor & Newton also has an extensive range of gesso-primed canvases, paper pads and canvas boards for oil painting that allows you to start painting right away.
  • Artists tend to use hog hair brushes when working in oils because the paint is thicker. However, it is always worth having a range of brushes, including finer and older misshapen ones (synthetic or natural-haired), which allow for detail work and the creation of different textures.
  • It is worth investing in good quality materials. Having the right materials and tools means that you will achieve much better results.