A master painter and favorite art workshop instructor, Johannes Vloothuis teaches thousands of students how to paint with oil (among other mediums), so we asked him for his Top 10 Tips for Oil Painters. We think you’ll agree that these essential painting techniques should be in every artist’s tool kit.
1. Use Underpainting or Fast Drying White to Enable Over-Layering.
One thing that has dissuaded some oil painters from using this medium is that when you add a layer of paint on top of another they tend to intermix. Example, it is hard to add snow on top of a blocked in mountain while the first layer is still wet. When an artist is all pumped up and his adrenaline is in high mode, it is frustrating to have to abandon the painting and resume it days after. There are new options of white paint over the classical Titanium White that solve this problem, making oil painting so much more cooperative. It’s called fast drying white or Underpainting White. I use the Winsor & Newton brand. This can be substituted in place of Titanium White. This paint tends to be thicker than ordinary whites so use mediums such as Liquin, walnut or linseed oil to dilute.
2. The Thin Line Enigma in Oil Painting.
All oil artists have been frustrated trying to achieve thin lines with oil paint, especially when the paint is still wet, because of the fatty vegetable oils which tend to not dilute well (water-soluble mediums are more cooperative in this regard). Even signing a painting is not that easy if the signature is small. One way to achieve thin lines is to wait until it dries before depicting them. Here are some methods
- You can use a business card and tap them into the painting.
- Believe it or not if the lines are that thin you can use acrylics on top of the dry oils.
- I discovered another innovative technique–stick oil pastels. Normally these don’t dry, but if you add a thin layer of Liquin first, the hardening process will take place. This will really help you add all the thin tree twigs, barbed wire, and telephone wire.
3. Toning Your Canvas.
If you ever visit a top gallery and see a painting close up you will see little specs of broken paint that expose a warm burnt sienna underpainting. This has the following advantages:
- The white background will make it harder to judge values.
- During plein air if you canvas is tilted toward the sun, the glare will be too bright to judge values properly. You don’t want to wear sunglasses, as this will distort your colors.
- It is practically impossible to totally cover every area of a painting during a spontaneous quick procedure. As a result if you work on a white canvas, these little specs can show through.
- Paint is not 100% opaque, so the warm glow of a toned canvas can influence the general feeling. To control the painting from being too warm such as in Fall scenes, you can resort to the background being toned in a cool color.
- The orange specs that would show through when depicting foliage would come across as some dry leaves that will help break the monotony of monochromatic greens.
In this underpainting stage from one of Johannes’ demo paintings, you can see that an orange underpainting was used, and then the local color of light, shadow, sky, and foliage were added.
4. Help Convey Volume with Thick Paste.
One big advantage of acrylics and oils is that you can build up thick impasto that will help convey a 3-D look. Other mediums such as watercolor and pastels lack this quality. My advice is to apply thick paint in the foreground and gradually go thinner with the paint as the planes recede, leaving just a thin layer in the most distant background. Add blobs of paint on tree trunks, rocks, flowers, and protruding leaf clusters.
In this painting by Johannes you can see that the flowers and foliage in the foreground have been applied thickly and so appear to move forward in the painting.
5. Dry Brush to Create Texture.
Indicate clumps of leaves, clusters of grass, water foam in crashing waves and waterfalls using the dry brush technique. “Dry brushing” is a term used to relate to skipping the brush and allowing the paint to peel off. Graze the brush, holding it horizontally and tickle the bottom surface as you drag it in different directions. This method will make wood look weathered, produce lots of small leaves, make water foam look bubbly, and add weeds to grass.
For more texture techniques that work for both oil and acrylic, watch this short art video from Johannes on how to paint tree bark in acrylic using a choppy short stroke and a melodic line.
6. Working on an Already Dry Canvas.
Alla Prima or wet on wet is a very popular oil painting technique. However, time and the size of the painting may not allow you to complete the artwork in one sitting. Working on a dry painting does not give that blending effect. This can be a problem when doing water reflections which demand for blurred forms. To work on a dry painting, I recommend you first add a thin layer of Liquin, after buff it off like waxing a car. The new paint will melt in, yet won’t merge with the previous layer. This way you can soften edges to your heart’s content!
7. Spend on Professional Quality Paints and Save on Canvases.
Linen is an expensive and mostly an unnecessary expense, however, many professional artists prefer to use this “Cadillac” of painting surfaces. I admit there is some benefit when it comes to dry brushing on linen, as it breaks up the painting nicely, but I still don’t feel the cost merits the benefits. You can prepare your own painting canvases just by spreading Super Heavy Gesso from Liquitex with a paint roller onto your painting board. This will leave random protruded little bumps similar to linen. Use Masonite or Birch Wood for your board and instead of spending money on linen, divert that cost to professional paints where you will reap the benefits.
8. Vary Your Colors to Generate More Interest.
During my online classes I make constant references to color variegation. Solid monochromatic colors are boring, so top artists exaggerate and add several variations of similar hues in one area. Try this: Partially mix the colors in question on your palette until you neutralize the saturation (about 50% mixed). Wipe your brush dry and double load it. Apply lots of pressure as you squeeze the paint out. You should be able to see the subtle color variations in each stroke. It takes some practice but once you master it your paintings will look more alive.
You can also use color mixing variegation for painting foliage, grass, and rocks, as you will learn in this short art video from Johannes. Watch him paint a variety of greens for realistic foliage.
9. Create Mist for Atmospheric Depth.
I feel fog is quite undermined in landscape painting. These scenes well depicted can add mood and lots of depth to your art work. In a top gallery, I once saw this beautiful painting of Upper Yellowstone Falls with lots of mist where the falls hit the bottom. Yet I was able to see through some of that mist and it looked so believable. That was achieved by using Zinc White which has the characteristic of being semi opaque. You can also use this to add haze to far away mountains and other areas that can benefit from atmospheric perspective.
10. Use Your “Green Thumb” to Blend.**
There is unwarranted fear of using oil paint, especially when there is contact with the skin. Take into account that leading manufacturers post the toxicity levels on the tubes of paint in case you wish to consult the health labels. I am big at blending with oils and I want to get my edges just right. Because your fingers have nerves, you can adjust just the right amount of pressure to smudge lines to end up exactly as you want them. This is not achieved as easily with just a brush.
**Try this technique using a thin latex glove to protect your skin.
You can find Johannes Vloothuis’ three oil painting instruction videos (as well as more on acrylic painting, watercolor, and pastel) at NorthLightShop.com and streaming on ArtistsNetwork.tv. You can also find many Paint Alongs and other courses from Johannes here, and be sure to visit WetCanvasLive for upcoming live workshops with Johannes.