5 Oil Painting Techniques for Beginners

If you want to learn how to oil paint, here are some of the oil painting techniques which you will need to learn. You will not need to use all these techniques in your paintings, but it is important to at least have an awareness of them.

Oil Painting Technique 1 – Scumbling

Scumbling is the technique of applying a very thin amount of paint using a stiff bristled brush in a kind of broken glaze. The result is a textured effect which leaves some of the underpainting exposed.

Scumbling is a dry-brush technique where little or no additional medium is used. Scumbling is different to glazing in that you do not want a smooth application of paint over the entire surface. You want a broken application of paint which leaves areas exposed.

Oil Painting Technique 2 – Alla Prima (Wet on Wet)

Alla prima, or wet on wet, refers to a direct style of painting where the paint is applied without letting earlier layers dry. Artists using this technique can finish paintings often in as little as a single session.

This technique differs from the more traditional method of painting layer on layer, allowing the paint to dry in between each layer. Artists would often build up many layers before deeming the painting complete. Obviously, this was a very time-consuming method of painting, as oil paint can take anywhere from a few days to some months before being completely dry.

Alla prima painting was practiced by many of the impressionist masters, as it allowed them to capture the elusive light as quickly as possible.

Oil Painting Technique 3 – Glazing

A glaze is a thin, semi-transparent layer of paint. Glazing is a popular technique in oil painting, where glazes are applied on top of an opaque layer of paint which has been allowed to dry.

The general practice is to create a monochrome underpainting using opaque colours and then gradually build up glazes on top, allowing each layer to dry in-between. This practice is obviously very time consuming due to the slow drying time of oil paint. Depending on how many glazes are used, the time it takes to create an oil painting using this method could be anywhere from a few weeks to years.

When glazing, it is best to use paints which have more of a translucent quality. White, for example, is not great for glazing as it is very opaque.

When there are multiple layers of glazes, the colours optically blend as if they were all combined, without the pigments actually mixing. This creates interesting effects which are very effective for portrait painting.

Oil Painting Technique 4 – Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is Italian for “light dark”. In drawing and painting, it refers to the balance and structure of light and dark in the artwork.

Chiaroscuro originated from the Renaissance period where artists would create strong contrasts between light and dark to render three-dimensional forms to dramatic effect. Generally, chiaroscuro is only mentioned of artworks with a dominant contrast between light and dark.

Oil Painting Technique 5 – Impasto

Impasto is generally used in reference to paint which is applied in a thick and bold fashion with clearly visible brushwork, but it can also refer to the more subtle textures created by delicate brushwork on a more smooth surface.

By using an impasto technique you can add another dimension to your painting by adding increased texture to areas of significance. This can enhance the illusion of a three-dimensional representation.

There are a number of ways you can use the impasto technique to improve your paintings:

  • The impasto area of paint will create areas of actual shadow on the painting depending on the light source. This gives another element to your painting and can really add some depth depending on how it is used.
  • The protruding areas of paint will be more visible from side angles.
  • You could use the impasto technique to give the illusion of distance, with close areas being more built up and distant areas being more smooth and soft.
  • By using impasto brushwork, you can help guide the viewer as you please around the painting using directional lines. These do not have to be obvious and could be something as simple as subtle lines in trees directed towards your focal point.

One artist who is famous for using a very impasto technique is Vincent van Gogh. His brushwork was extremely dominant in his paintings and a real signature of his work. His brushwork gives a sense of activity and movement in his paintings.

You can see in the close-up of one of van Gogh’s paintings below how he builds up a significant amount of paint on the canvas, even in the background. This gives his paintings a very bold and dramatic effect.