5 Things I Learnt From Painting My First Oil Portrait

I’ve recently gotten into experimenting with oil paints and I have to say, I loooove them!

Now I know why so many artists just work with oils and nothing else. I tried my first oil piece drawing an easy Sphinx cat and I love how blendable the medium is – now I wonder why did I stick to acrylics for so long? Actually the real reason why is because I do not have the proper ventilation and work space required for oils. All my oil works are done at this art jam retreat that I frequent, Artesque, where you have experienced artists helping you along during the guided sessions.

So, after working on my first piece, I decided to try a portrait to see if it’s really worth finding ways to make oils a part of my life. I want to work with them so badly! And who knew that skin colour is so easy to mix – just add the 3 primary colours (red, blue and yellow) to make the base, then improvise from there. For this piece, I also added in a mix of Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber. At some point towards the end, the touching up feels like putting make-up on and it’s pretty fun! 😀

I also did some research and asked my art guide a few questions – so I’m going to share with you what I learnt. Also, I’ve compiled some side-by-side images of my work in progress.

1. WORK FROM DARK TO LIGHT

I made the mistake of adding in all the light areas of the Sphinx cat and leaving the shadows for later. Bad idea. It won’t ruin the painting but it means I’ve got to wait a few days (in my case, a week since I signed up for weekly Artesque sessions) for the paint to dry before I can add in the shadows. This is because in oil, white is all powerful and even the darker blacks will turn to a grey once you begin blending it in. The best way is to settle the darks and have them all blended before adding in any light colours or whites.

2. DON’T USE TOO MUCH OIL

In my Sphinx cat piece, I went a little overboard with the linseed oil. One, I loved the smell of it and two, it made the paint all buttery and smooth. No one noticed just how much oil I was adding into my paints. And I just thought, the more the merrier. The painting looked good and smooth and vibrant. So one week later, when I came back to finish working on it, I found out that the paint thinned out as they dried, leaving white spots of the canvas texture everywhere! I was so annoyed because I had to try mixing the exact colours again (which didn’t work) and cover up all the unsightly spots. The lesson here is to work on your first layer with literally no oils (or very, very little) and once dry, the overlaying layer can have more oils in them for that nice sheen. This was the improvement I made when working on my portrait painting – the first layer or any layer going directly on canvas uses no oils at all!

3. ONLY WORK ON THE DETAILS WITH DRY SECTIONS AROUND

I cannot tell you how many times I actually rested my hand on a wet spot of paint and have to retouch again and again. Details are hard to do and require fairly steady hands. If you have steady hands, great! But if you’re like me where your hand shakes if not rested on a surface, then you need to plan ahead. For the Sphinx cat, I only added the eye details and whiskers the week after the background has dried. I still managed to accidentally rest upon the parts of the body that I had to touch up though. So when working with the portrait, I made sure to work on the face first – adding in skin tone and working on the details of the eyes, lips and nose immediately since the background is blank and I can rest my hand anywhere.

4. UTILISE OTHER TOOLS FOR DEPTH

For the finishing touches that you see above, I was taught to use a palette knife to create that raw, beautiful texture. It was a challenge for sure, but pretty fun as well. I only had to mix white and the mint green paint, and spread them onto the canvas like butter on bread. The knife picked up on a little red from her clothes (paint’s still wet since I just applied them on the day) and it created little mistakes of red in some area – which I love since it adds a nice aesthetic touch to the work.

5. KEEP LIGHT & DARK COLOURED BRUSHES SEPARATE

I tried to be smart and decided to work with only two brushes – one for applying colour and one for blending. It did not go well. No matter how much you wipe and wipe, any brush that has touched whites, blacks or reds will definitely transfer those colours over especially if you’re going from light to dark. Two brushes are possible with acrylics, but not for oils. I ended up working with 6 brushes, but only due to the different sizes I need. But my light and dark colours are always separate. I use the same brushes for medium colour depending on how light or dark they are.

From my research online, I have one more thing to add…

BONUS: IT IS POSSIBLE TO WORK WITH OIL PAINTS IN A SMALL ROOM

Typically, most artists use solvents and chemical mediums when they’re painting, which is why people have always recommended to work in well-ventilated spaces. In my case, I’ve managed to work on two artworks with just the paints and linseed oil (harmless) which are both non-toxic (unless if you ingest the paint). You don’t really need solvents like turpentine unless for cleaning up. But then again I’ve found out that it is possible to clean brushes using just oil and dishwasher soap – it’s also much more environmentally friendly and pet-safe, since I have a cat. However, as a safety recommendation, I would suggest painting with a fan in the room and keep the door or a window open. Better to be safe than sorry.

Did you find the tips above useful? Happy painting!

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