Oil painting can be a daunting medium for artists seeking the best way to express their vision. Yet, it’s both the oldest and one of the most popular mediums today. Hundreds of years before this practice was known in Europe, a 7th-century oil painting created by Buddhist artists was discovered in Afghanistan. The longevity of that oil painting is a testament to only one of the many reasons artists have entrusted their artwork to oil paint for centuries. Choosing to work with oil paint is choosing to partake in a long and rich history of art that predates many of the art forms and mediums we know today.
You might be unsure as to whether you should take up oil painting or acrylic. Equally understandable, you might be facing some serious artist’s frustration and wondering why you ever picked up this oftentimes temperamental medium to begin with.
As a long-time oil painter myself, I’ll share what makes oil painting so special and what occasionally makes my eyes wander momentarily in the direction of another medium (don’t worry oil, I’ll never leave!) to help you decide whether oil painting is for you.
A Little Oil Painting Education
Being that oil paint has a long history, there’s always room for adding a little more background to our knowledge of this medium’s roots. Many of my favorite qualities that oil paint offers stem from the medium’s makeup—whether it’s the brilliant colors, the range of opacity and transparency, or the unmatched ability for creating texture, oil paint owes much of its fame to its makeup.
The magic mixture that gives us oil paint is a blend of dry powder pigments and refined linseed oil. These ingredients are mixed to create a firm paste and then ground in steel roller mills to create the smooth consistency that’s so satisfying to brush across a canvas.
What’s So Great About Oil Paint?
Let’s get to the good stuff. For the oil painter, the list of what makes oil paint their preferred medium can seem as long as waiting for the color alizarin permanent to dry. If you’re wondering whether oil paint is the right medium for you, this list of my favorite reasons for working with this medium will help you entice you the oil side.
Longer Drying Time
For some artists, the long drying time for oil paints is an unwanted test of patience. For others, it’s an extended recess in a playground of paint. There’s no dodging this quality of oil paint: waiting for your painting to dry is a reality. Even the thinnest application of the fastest drying colors will take at least a day or two before it’s dry to the touch.
Why is this a benefit? As anyone that’s worked with acrylic paint and had to take an unexpected moment away from your painting can tell you, faster drying time means faster working speed. With oil paint, you’re granted plenty of time to work with your paint without your internal clock loudly ticking away for every moment you hesitate. Start your painting, stare it at for a while, go take a lunch break to freshen your perspective, then come back to your oil painting just as ready and accepting as it was when you first began.
The Longevity of Your Work
You might not be worried about whether your work will last as long as that 7th-century oil painting found in Afghanistan, but it’s worth considering whether time will be kind to the hard work you put into creating your artistic legacy. The reason we can still fawn over the great works of art from centuries past is partially owed to the medium their creators chose—oil paint.
Particularly if you work with high-quality paints that are rated “1” for excellence in lightfastness and varnish your piece, your artwork is much more likely to stick around for generations. Oil paint makes that moment a great-great-grandchild or antique hunter finds your work in some dusty attic and falls in love with it much more likely.
Ask any oil painter about what makes oil paint beat any other medium and you’ll probably need to take a seat for listening to the glowing monologue you’ll get about the smooth, buttery quality oil painting offers. When it comes to blending, oil paint reigns supreme for providing the kind of consistency that lets you mix your paints like a chef mixing a batter of colors.
Colors Don’t Shift Upon Drying
One of the woes of all painting is bringing the color you have in your mind out onto the canvas. Mixing colors and accurately creating the color you’re aiming for aren’t as simple as most people might assume. Oil paint doesn’t make creating the perfect color easier per se, but it does help you keep that color once you do create it. Since oil paint doesn’t shift in color upon drying, you can rest assured that the beautiful color you’ve birthed will stay that beautiful for as long as your painting stays on Earth.
While there is little any medium can do to give you an edge on finding the perfect color, oil paint does offer the widest range of brilliant colors for you to search through. Because this medium is so highly pigmented and versatile, oil paint is known for offering artists the ability to create vivid colors and visual depth.
The Environment Wins with Oil Paint
If you’re environmentally conscious and want your art to exist with the world and not at its expense, oil paint will give you peace of mind. Acrylic contains plastic particles that find their way into the environment when brushes are washed clean. Being made of pigment and linseed oil, which is made from the natural fiber crop flax seed, oil paint gets along well with the environment. Oil paints, such as Gamblin Oil Colours, are completely non-toxic; if the dog eats your oil painting art homework, he’ll be no different than before, besides maybe earning the title of “art enthusiast.”
One of the only unpleasant aspects of oil painting doesn’t come from oil paint at all, but from solvents like turpentine that are used by some artists to remove paint while working. These substances are toxic and can cause irritation and discomfort if they get on your skin or the fumes collect in a confined area. However, my painting process is completely non-toxic and solvent-free. Using palette knives allows you to completely bypass the need for turpentine for removing paint.
Oil Painting Woes
Every rose has its thorn and oil paint is no different. While the pros of oil painting far outweigh the cons for me, the cons are worth noting nonetheless. If these obstacles don’t sway you, you’ll know you’re an oil painter through-and-through.
Many artists are first put-off by the price tag difference between oil paint and other mediums. Oil paint is more expensive than acrylic, for example, but for artists that enjoy the long list of benefits above, becoming a VIP at the local artist supply store is a price we’re willing to pay.
Every early oil painter has encountered the frustration of mixing that beautifully buttery oil paint and coming out with a not-so-beautiful blend of what can only be called mud. This is one of those learning curves that using oil paint requires of artists; if you’re not careful, those brilliant colors will blend together and leave you with the visual arts equivalent of a mud pie.
Longer Drying Time
You might recognize this quality; the longer drying time of oil paint is both a pro and a con. While it does offer you more time to work with your painting and the flexibility to walk away from it for a bit, the flip side of this benefit is that when you’ve got your painting where you want it…you still have to wait.
Some pigments take particularly long to dry and if you’re working with heavy texture and lots of layers, your patience will certainly be a virtue.
Don’t like wearing those unfashionable artist aprons? Either prepare some outfits for sacrifice or keep moving—oil paint is not forgiving when it comes to accidental applications on things like clothes or furniture.
What’s It Oil About?
Besides all the terrible oil paint puns and artist jokes, this list is more of a love letter to oil paint than a line-by-line breakdown of the pros and cons. After all, that’s what an oil painter devotee will tell you when it comes to their chosen medium.
Between the vivid colors, the versatility of your painting process, and the feeling that you’re taking part in the same medium the old masters used to create the works we treasure today, a little unexpected oil paint in the wrong places or people professing their love for Bob Ross every time you mention oil painting is hardly a con when it comes to oil paint.