top of page

Techniques III - Oil Painting

When someone asks you, ‘Do you want to learn to oil paint?’, what’s your first reaction? Maybe a bit of excitement, followed by fear? Then you think oil painting isn’t for you because it’s something you could never learn to do. Well, today’s 3T Art Blog is going to change that misconception.

Oil is a wonderful medium to work in. To get you on your way, we’re going to discuss a bit of the history of oil paints and then we’ll dive into different techniques to use when you’re working with oils. I’m also going to introduce you to oil painter Cathy Fairs. I know you’re going to love her work as much as I do!

Brief History of Oil Paint

Oil paints have been around for centuries. It wasn’t until 2008 that paintings by anonymous Buddhist artists were discovered on the walls at Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, at a settlement along the Silk Road. It’s thought the paintings date back to around 650 CE (AD). Evidence suggests artists used a wide array of pigments with different binders such as linseed oil, poppy seed oil, along with safflower and walnut oils. These ingredients may have also been boiled with pine resin or frankincense to create the varnish they used to seal their work. Their techniques in making oil paint and varnish were quite advanced for the time and needed to be perfected over time which leads experts to think that oil paints were used in Asia before the 7th century.

By cea+ -, Public Domain, wikipedia

During the classical and medieval periods in art history, there is little evidence to show that oil paint of any kind was used as a medium for painting in any of the Mediterranean civilizations. Why? Because they mainly used vegetable oils which aren’t suitable for making paint. Back then linseed oil, when used as a medium, had the tendency to darken and crack, and dry too slowly to be useful for artwork of any kind.

Oil paints didn’t make much of an appearance in Europe until the 12th century. They were used for decorative purposes, not for creating paintings or mural work. Oil paints at that time dried very slowly, if at all, and had a very murky, yellow appearance to them. The right process and ratios to produce a quality oil paint hadn’t been worked out yet. Artists before the Renaissance mainly used egg tempera in their paintings. Oils were sometimes painted over egg tempera work but oil’s slow drying time was an issue with artists. There was also the difficulty in acquiring the materials needed and the time required to work the materials into some form of usable paint. For these reasons, oils were rarely used.

‘Madonna and Child’ By Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1284, egg tempera painting on wood.

Public Domain, wikipedia

This changed around 1430 when Belgian born Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck, a pioneer in alchemy, began experimenting with a new technique to produce his oil paints. Oil paint was not new to the world when van Eyck started experimenting with his formulations, but you can consider his process somewhat of a breakthrough especially for that time in art history.

It’s been suggested that by adding raw pigment such as calcined bones, glass, and mineral to an organic liquid like linseed oil (made from the flax plant) and boiling it, van Eyck was able to produce paint formulations that were stable and actually dried in what was considered a useful amount of time.

He has been referred to as the father of oil painting but not just for his formulations but also for his handling of this new medium. Van Eyck could produce usable oil paint that was transparent, giving him the ability to build up layers of translucent paint. This allowed him to handle light, colour and texture in new ways. It created depth that other artists at the time couldn’t surpass. Even areas of paintings that in the past were gilded, could now be painted to look like gold using pigments instead of gold leaf.

‘The Arnolfini Marriage' - By Jan van Eyck – 1434, first painting using his newly formulated oil paints. Web site of National Gallery, London

As the Renaissance gained steam, Italian artist Antonello de Messina was credited with improving the formulations by adding lead oxide. This created a honey-like consistency to oil paint that had better drying properties without cracking. Leonardo da Vinci later improved on this formulation by adding beeswax to it. This prevented the darkening of the paint. Artists during the period of the Renaissance continued to make adjustments and improve on the formulations created by past artists while altering them to suit their own purposes. They also perfected the oil painting techniques we use today.

In 1841, John Goffe Rand invented paint tubes. Until then, glass syringes or pig bladders were used to store paint. The paint tube allowed oil paints to be produced in bulk, sold in stores, and be transported easily.

Tube paints were a major influence on impressionist painters. It made it easy for them to keep a variety of colours on hand when painting en plein air. Renoir was quoted as saying ‘Without tubes of paint, there would have been no impressionism.”

Today, you can find a wide variety of oil paint brands and colours at any art store. They’re available in transparent and opaque formulations and made using some of the same materials that were used centuries ago. Linseed oil is still found in most oil paint, and colours such ochre, sienna and umber continue to be in artist’s palettes. You’ll also still find artists who mix their own paints.

Oil Painting Techniques

Now that we have a bit of oil paint history behind us, let’s have a look at the painting techniques Renaissance artists perfected. These are all techniques we continue to use today in our oil paintings.


Have you ever heard the term ‘fat-over-lean’? It applies specifically to oil painting. Think of it as ‘flexible-over-inflexible’. ‘Fat’ oil paint contains a lot of oil so it’s considered flexible and slow-drying. ‘Lean’ oil paint has very little oil paint in it so it’s considered ‘inflexible’ and fast-drying compared to ‘fat’ oil paint.

Start with a ‘lean’ layer and build up layers by adding more oil paint to each layer. By doing this, you’re allowing each layer to dry properly before adding the next one which will be more ‘fat’ than the layer before it. This process will help with your drying time and keep your painting from cracking in the future.

You should never apply a ‘fat’ layer of paint followed by a ‘lean’ layer of paint. Chances are good the ‘fat’ layer isn’t completely dry when you apply the ‘lean’ layer on top. It can take months for some oil paints to dry completely and that ‘lean’ layer will undoubtedly crack over time.

So, how do oil paints dry? Evaporation? Nope. Oil paints don’t have any water in them so drying isn’t the same as with acrylic and watercolour paints. Oil paints dry by oxidization. That means that when they react with the oxygen in the air, they begin to harden. When they go through the process of hardening, they begin to contract, and it’s that bit of movement that can cause paint layers to crack if they’ve not been applied properly.

It’s also good for you to know that certain colours of oil paint dry faster than others. For example, earth tones such as burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna and cobalt blue naturally dry faster than jewel tones. Colours like sap green, some blacks, most reds and all of the cadmiums can take weeks or longer to dry right through.

It takes many sessions to complete an oil painting, but by practicing the ‘fat-over-lean’ process, you’ll avoid any problems with your next oil painting.

Grisaille Underpainting:

Working ‘lean’, the grisaille underpainting is the best place to start your new painting.

The first step is to thin your oil paint. It’s much too thick to use straight from the tube for this technique. Oil paint can be thinned with an odourless solvent (first choice), turpentine or mineral spirits. This is a technique where you’ll be scrubbing in lean layers of oil instead of painting with broad strokes

The grisaille underpainting allows you to work out your design while leaving room to make adjustments to your work as you move along to the next stages. Its key purpose is to help you set values (the darks, mid-tones and lights) in your painting before you start adding colour to it.

Courtesy: Judy Sherman,

A grisaille underpaintings is worked completely on the grey scale which means it’s monochromatic. Make sure you cover your work surface at this stage so you end up with only lights, mid-tones and darks.


Good choices for colours when you’re doing a grisaille underpainting are greys and earth tones like burnt umber and burnt sienna. And, when considering what brush to for a grisaille underpainting, use the largest hog bristle brush you can fit into the size of painting you’re working on.

Alla Prima:

Now here’s a term I know you’ve all heard before. It is definitely reserved for oil painting and the results, when executed with skill, are incomparable to any other technique. It has been said to be the hardest oil painting technique to learn and execute successfully.

Alla Prima comes from the Italian ‘at the first’ and can be defined as ‘a painting which is completed in a single session’. A plein air painting is an example of the Alla Prima technique.

Robert Henri, Snow in New York, 1902

This technique does not require a grisaille underpainting. A few strokes with a brush to lay in some shapes at the start is all that’s required. Alla Prima is more of a direct, spontaneous painting method in which the artist works quickly and confidently, using determined brush strokes to interpret what they are seeing. Paint straight from the tube can be used. There should be very minimal thinning of paint when painting Alla Prima if any at all.

'The Interior of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople', John Singer Sargent, 1891

It’s important to start out with a good idea of what it is you’ll be painting before you start your Alla Prima painting. What does your composition look like? If there are lots of finicky bits, focus instead on the larger shapes you’re seeing so you can easily turn them into forms once you get painting.

This is a good place to mention the use of a ‘limited palette’. Have you heard this term before? It’s basically an artist’s palette consisting of only a few colours. The Alla Prima technique demands working quickly so it makes sense to have a limited amount of colours to work with when painting. You really only need a few colours to be able to mix hundreds of colours.

A limited palette consists of warm and cool colours which could include: yellow ochre, burnt umber, ultramarine blue, cadmium red medium, and titanium white. Most artists don’t have a black in their palette, they mix it. In this case, we can mix ultramarine blue and burnt umber together to create a black which stays in the complexion of colours we’re using in our palette. Additional colours to add to a limited palette can be alizarin crimson (a cool red) and cerulean blue (a warm blue), cadmium yellow medium (cool yellow) and lemon yellow (warm yellow).

The Zorn palette is perhaps the most popular limited palette used by many artists today.

One last thing. What if you’ve made an error in your Alla Prima painting? Well, it’s possible to scrape off the part of your painting you don’t like just as you could with any other oil painting you’re working on, but this defeats the purpose of working Alla Prima. Paint it, leave it and learn from it.


The technique of oil glazing has been long associated with the Renaissance. Artists used glazing as a method of mixing colours. One transparent layer of colour was applied on top of another transparent layer, giving a translucent effect to the paint underneath. Kind of like sheets of coloured glass. The resulting build-up of glazed layers gave paintings a richness and luminosity that could only be formed this way.

Girl with the Red Hat, c.1665-1666 (7x9”)

By Johannes Vermeer - National Gallery of Art., Public Domain,

Glazing requires a dry underpainting done with lean oil paint. To save time, acrylic paint can be used for the underpainting. The underpainting can be created in grisaille or as a dead colour.

Make sure each layer of glaze is completely dry before the next layer of glaze is applied.

To glaze, you’ll need to have the right medium. Linseed oil is not suitable as a glazing medium because of its high oil content, making it far too runny. You can use a synthetic glazing medium with a transparent oil colour, as they’re perfect for glazing. Don’t use opaque colours! Mix the two mediums to the consistency of a thin cream and apply it to the dry surface of your painting with a soft brush. You can remove the access glaze with another clean, soft brush, dabbing carefully with short strokes.

Source: Pinterest, artist unknown

This is a beautiful example of glazing. The grisaille underpainting has been enhanced using orange to glaze the woman’s skirt, her hair and the child in her arms.

Another thing you can do with glazes is change the temperature of certain areas of your painting. For example, you can correct colours that are too cool with warm glazes or too warm an area of with a cool glaze. You can do this for colours too. To change a bright yellow to orange, apply a red glaze or if your background mid-tone blue background needs a punch of colour, add a turquoise glaze to it. You can even give your finished and completely dried oil painting an overall glaze. This’ll help to remove any harshness between contrasts and bring an overall harmony to your painting.

Glazing is a difficult process, but it can be well worth the time you’ll spend on it. It’s impossible to mix paint to achieve the same look because transparent colours transmit and reflect light much differently than opaque colours.

3T Art Blog Guest Artist

Cathy Fairs – Observational Painter Working in Oil

I’d like to introduce you to a very talented oil painter who has a style all her own. Her name is Cathy Fairs. If you don’t know her work, it’s time you did. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Cathy for many years. Her creativity and skill have only grown over that time and I so happy to be sharing Cathy and her work with you.


Cathy, like many artists, has always been creative and has had an affinity toward art. In her teens, she enjoyed art classes at school and has always been a doodler. As is the case with many artists, Cathy’s life took on more responsibility, leaving her with less time for her art. Making a happy home life with her husband for their two sons became her focus. But Cathy continued to find creative outlets. She took pride in decorating her home, she learned to quilt, and she began to garden. Her gardens became her canvas, giving her colour, form, shape and textures to work with and the results are breathtaking.

When Cathy’s life became less scheduled, she decided she needed to get art back into her life. She’d found an advertisement for art classes in the local newspaper years earlier and finally decided to call. The next day she was at Sherman J. Studio, ready for her first art class under instructor Judy Sherman.

‘When I started, the 2-3 hours I spent in class were like an escape from what was in my head. Like a mini-holiday. It proved that I could concentrate on other things, not just the kids, my husband or what had to be done at home. It was my time.’

Cathy started by learning to reproduce Bargue drawings. This way of drawing focuses on observation, measuring and shading. With these skills under her belt, Cathy transitioned over to painting.

Cathy’s early Bargue drawings

‘I enjoyed drawing but I found painting to be even more relaxing. It’s not as mathematical as drawing. It’s freer and more intuitive.’

Cathy has also been a student at the Dundas Valley Art School in Dundas, Ontario. She studied under instructor Jody Joseph in Dundas and also in Monte Castillo di Vibio in Italy at the International Center for the Arts (previously known as The International School of Art and Sculpture).

'Umbrian Valley'

Cathy has taken regular trips to Monte Castillo di Vibio to learn and hone her skills as an artist. On one occasion, she had the opportunity to learn figure drawing from instructor Alan Feltus, an American figurative painter who lives in Italy. It was the first time she drew the figure. In 2019, Cathy attended a 2-week plein air painting workshop from American artist Lucy McGillis.

Cathy painting at the school in Monte Castello di Vibio

Modern Masters like Morandi, Cezanne, Braque, Picasso and Bernard are among the many contemporaries who have influenced Cathy and her work.

‘I think it is important to always look at other artists’ work. Ask why it works and why it keeps you looking.’

Cathy prefers to work in a limited palette of oil paints on canvas, wood panel and paper. She is drawn to earth colours and uses combinations such as burnt umber, yellow ochre and ultramarine blue and white, or Payne’s grey, burnt sienna, raw umber, cadmium red light and white. Sometimes, she included Naples yellow, or lemon yellow, or cadmium orange.

‘My palette varies, although it is usually a limited palette. I start with an earth palette and add other colours if needed. A limited palette helps me to create a constant throughout a painting. I also try to use large brushes.’

Cathy’s paint palette – earth tones and greys with a touch of yellow

Cathy considers herself an observational/perceptual painter. She studies what she sees and always paints from life. Her process is based on the teachings of the Old Masters.

‘I always start with a ground (paint thinned with some turpentine) all over my surface and left to dry. Then, I do a grisaille underpainting of what I’m observing using thinned paint. I never draw with pencil. I don’t want my edges to exact and drawing it would push me in a tight direction. I want to stay loose, which is hard for me.’

Cathy’s grisaille underpaintings can be as simple or as detailed as she wants them to be. At this stage of her painting, she makes sure to get her darkest darks and lightest lights in. This is something she needs to do quickly when indoors in her studio, she mostly paints by natural light, and outdoors when working on a plein air painting.

Grisaille underpainting – Italian Studio

When this is done, Cathy begins to lay in colour. Ultimately, she wants each stroke she puts onto her work surface to be side by side of each other, not blended. This gives her the opportunity to make adjustments and corrections as she continues to work on her painting.

Grisaille underpainting with first stages of colour – Barriefield, Ontario

‘One of the hardest things to decide is: will this stroke make for a better painting? And, when to stop! It is easy to take a painting too far.’

Her work surfaces and sizes vary according to the subject of her painting. For plein air, Cathy likes to use smaller sizes and she may recreate the painting on a larger size canvas later. Her go-to sizes are 14x18”, 16x20” and 20x24” because they can be easily framed.

Since Cathy started her painting career, she has been in many shows and exhibitions, both here and abroad, and has won awards for her work.

‘Umbrian Hill Town’ received Best in Show Awards at the Society of York Region Artists Curious Minds show.

Juror’s comments:

‘This painting shows a mastery of composition and repetition. Cathy’s subtle colour palette is sophisticated and underscores her reference to Braque. The artist’s use of simplicity shows great maturity in her ability to maintain a dynamic surface that keeps the eye engaged.’

Here are a few more examples of Cathy’s beautiful paintings.

‘Winter Light’ - SOLD

This painting of Cathy’s was so loved by the client it inspired them to write this to her:

My home has just lightened. ‘Winter Light’, for me, is representative of endless possibilities, infinite hope, breath, the calm that comes when one allows themselves to, just for a moment, bask in the beauty of dancing sunlight that lands on the hardwood floor. The now in the foreground can be more enjoyed and tempered by all the vastness and depth beyond each successive door right through the glass to the wonders that lay beyond the edge of the painting. Thank you so much.’

‘Mulock Farm’ - SOLD

This piece was painted en plein air at Mulock Farm in Newmarket. Cathy was one of only a few Society of York Region Artists who were permitted on the property by the Mulock family. They had recently sold their long owned family property to the Town of Newmarket and is being turned into a park for all to enjoy. Cathy’s painting, ‘Mulock Farm’, was purchased by the Town of Newmarket for their permanent collection and the other artists’ paintings were all purchased by the Mulock family for their private collection.

‘The Cabin’ – SOLD

Cathy’s Home Studio

Cathy’s home studio, a well-organized small space.

Natural light to paint by in Cathy’s home studio

Cathy accepts commissions from clients who share her choice of subject matter, those being Landscape, Still Life and Interiors.

‘I always paint something I love. I need to have a connection to what I’m painting whether it’s a place or an object.

You can contact Cathy at or at (905) 727-0658

Final Thoughts

Those are some good Old Masters style techniques to try out, aren’t they? Oil painting and the techniques used by artists is a very large topic. This is all we have room for in this post. If you’re interested in the grades of paints and a few more techniques, check out last week’s 3T Art Blog post on Acrylic Techniques. Some of the same rules apply. Most importantly, keep in mind that the quality of paint you use will be directly reflected in the work you produce.

Next time, we’re going to have a look at Watercolour painting and the techniques artists use to create them. And we’re lucky enough to have acclaimed watercolour artist Nancy Newman as our 3T Art Blog guest artist!

See you next week,


Enjoying the 3T Art Blog? Give it a Like before you go.

If you’d like the 3T Art blog delivered right to your inbox every Thursday evening, just go to and sign up.

If you’d like to leave a comment, you need to be a member of the site. Please join us! There will be benefits to being a member of the site. Perks and special offers will be coming your way soon!

55 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page