Learn How to Art: What is Oil Paint?

Different types of paint can get confusing. How can you choose between oil paint, acrylic, watercolor, and whatever else might be out there?

I once did a goodbye painting for a coworker. I was leaving the country and wanted to leave a meaningful gift.

Once I gave a coworker a painting I’d done as a goodbye gift. She thanked me and then asked if it was oil.

Definitely not! I thought, thinking of how much of a hassle it would be to do oil paintings in the small room I lived in at the time. How many supplies I’d need to get. How I’d need to paint in a well-ventilated area. How much of a hassle cleaning up would be since I didn’t know where to dispose of toxic material in South Korea. But I limited my response to:

“Oh, no it’s acrylic.”

The complexities of oil paint are like a well-kept secret from people outside of the art world.

I’ve done art my entire life, but I had no idea how oil painting worked until I took a class in college.

Just about everyone has painted with tempera paints in elementary school or acrylic in middle and high school art classes. But all anyone seems to know about oil is that it’s a sophisticated paint used by the greats.

Maybe I now have you wondering,

  • What’s so special about oil painting?
  • What’s the difference between acrylic and oil paint?
  • What even is tempera?
  • Would it be easier to go with watercolor?

oil paint brushes

This post will be the first in a series on paints. By the end, you’ll understand the difference between acrylic vs. oil, know what tempera is made of, and learn how you can use salt with watercolors.

Today I’ll go into oil painting.


Why Use Oil Paint?

Oil paint, as we’ve established, is fancy. The most famous artists in the world have worked extensively in this media: da Vinci, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Manet, Monet, and Rembrandt are just a few artists who excel in oil.

Oil paint has a certain prestige, but when you’re just trying to decide what type of paint to use, that doesn’t matter. Let’s get into what does.


So. Much. Color.

Color is the greatest benefit of oil. Oil paints have a high concentration of pigment, which leads to fuller, richer colors than other paints.

Oil paintings also retain their original color. Let me explain. When acrylic paint dries, it usually darkens. A low-grade acrylic paint might change color significantly.

oil painting colorful palette

Consistency is Key

Oil paints don’t change color when they dry, and that’s reason enough for many artists to choose oil over acrylic. However, oils do change over time. Ever notice how old, famous paintings tend to have a golden sheen to them?

That’s because the binders in oil paint start to yellow with age. But this is over the course of decades or even centuries.

oil paint renaissance annunciation-strigel
Closeup of Bernhard Strigel’s The Announcement to Anne and Joachim, 1505-1510

Lose Yourself in the Process

Oil paintings will often take up more of your time. These paints dry very slowly, so if you want to do any layering with distinct colors, you’ll need to wait. An oil painting can take days or even weeks to dry, depending on the thickness of your paint and humidity levels.

On the plus side, if blending colors is more your style, this is easy to do with oil. Your paints won’t dry out on your palette for days, leaving plenty of time for mixing colors. You can also blend right on the surface of your painting. Just don’t forget to keep that brush clean if you want to keep your original color.


Painting Surface

For oil, you need to use a prepared surface, like a canvas that’s bee coated in gesso. Oil paint is corrosive, so you can’t just paint on anything. You can prime the surface of a canvas or board yourself or purchase a pre-primed canvas in an art supplies store.


In Addition to Paint, You Need…

While many beginners use student grade acrylics straight from a tube, you shouldn’t do this with oil. Oil paints need a medium, like linseed oil or dammar varnish. Professional painters develop their own preferred mixtures and ratios of paint to medium. There are several “right” ways to mix your paints.

You’ll also need to take extra steps for cleanup.

Being oil based, you can’t simply wash your leftover paints down the drain. You need to use turpentine or mineral spirits to clean your brushes, palette, or any other surface. Use a rag or paper towels dipped in turpentine to clean surfaces.

Since these substances are toxic and flammable you need to dispose of them properly and store them in a safe area.

You should also paint in a well-ventilated area.

oil paint messy materials

Oil paints are a little more costly than any other paint. But they contain a high concentration of pigment, making them stunning. Rest assured that if you decide to learn oil painting, you’ve chosen one of the artsiest of all art media.


Oil Paint Pros:

  • Rich color
  • Easy to mix colors and achieve your ideal consistency
  • Color doesn’t change when paint dries
  • Easy to manipulate on a surface
  • Allows for smooth blending
  • Prestige

Oil Paint Cons:

  • Dries very slowly
  • Requires a prepared surface
  • Requires strong-smelling, toxic and flammable thinners and additives
  • Yellows with (significant) age
  • More costly than other paints

Best for:

  • Slow painters who want more time to mix colors
  • Well-ventilated area
  • Natural bristle or sable brushes


Other Posts in the Learn How to Art series:

Learn How to Art: What is Acrylic Paint?

Learn How to Art: What is Tempera Paint?

Learn How to Art: What is Watercolor?

EDGE Gallery Exhibit

I was lucky to have three pieces in this show, my first exhibit! Eventually I’ll have all three in my gallery.


Collage, watercolor


“Campus Climate”
Oil on canvas
Located under Gallery > Painting with an artist statement



“White Lines and Black Shapes”
Scratchboard installation

Cut & Paste, part 1

Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”   -Max Ernst


Recently, I’ve started doing collage. I don’t know about it being a “noble conquest” or “coupling of two realities,” but I suppose my perspective on collage has grown. In the beginning, my philosophy might have been something like this:

Collage is the way in which art class deadlines may be met swiftly, with minimal effort on the part of the student artist.
True, I was only trying to be practical when I started collage. But also true that I had been seeing a lot of Max Ernst collages in my Surrealism and Dada class, which helped get me into this new media.

While I can say that I wanted to get away with doing less work, I also know that I can’t help being sincere in the things that are important to me. Currently those would probably be my majors, art and sociology (among other, non-academic things). So collage also came about as both a new routine of art-making and an attempt to move beyond my artistic comfort zone, a process I had actually (accidentally) begun the previous November.

In my Intro to Oil Painting class, we were asked to create a “forgery” of another artist’s work for our final. Meaning we had to produce a painting in the style of another artist. I love street art, so I chose Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Unfortunately, liking an aesthetic and being able to reproduce it don’t go hand-in-hand.

Street art, and really any abstract art, is really REALLY difficult for me. Yes, it might look like a four-year-old drew it…but my version looks like an awkward adult’s stiff attempts at recreating her childhood. (Obviously she should have just glued popcorn to construction paper and called it a day.) I’m just not as attuned to what makes an abstract piece strong or visually pleasing. Or – yes, I’ll say it – successful.

So the Basquiat piece started out as a disaster. It was a couple days before final critique and I was seriously ready to consider this painting a failure. Then my professor, feeling my pain, swooped in and miraculously guided me in the right direction so that I had an artistic epiphany-breakthrough moment and everything turned out alright. Basically. With some prompting, and new materials, I was able to finish the piece by messing it up. My breakthrough moment was learning to be loose and messy, and so I used oil pastels! On top of my painting!

I scribbled and scratched up the painting – this time being a little less analytical – and it was fun! The piece that had caused me so much misery was turning out to be fun. Plus it was loaded with all kinds of angry messages about my university (very street-like, don’t you think?) – even better! Actually, part of what had been so paralyzing to me was that I had lofty ambitions for the concept of this piece. It was, and still is, a very important message that I want to communicate, and so having it end in failure would have deeply upset me. But the moral of this story is that I got a taste of what it was like to create loose, intuitive art, which is something I see continuing through my collages.

I leave you here, because this post is getting long, and I’m getting tired. And by calling this post part one, I’m trying to trick myself into posting sooner.

Let’s end with a collage:


Max Ernst
Max Ernst

Read Part 2 here.