A master painter and favorite art workshop instructor, Johannes Vloothuis teaches thousands of students how to paint with oil (among other mediums). We asked him for his top 10 tips for learning oil painters, which he graciously shares here. We think you’ll agree that these essential painting techniques should be in every artist’s tool kit.
Enjoy all of Johannes’ tips and art guidance and get even more access to this top instructor in his next Paint Along on Color Variety, a live video workshop (all the sessions for each Paint Along are also recorded for your convenience) that will put you on the fast track to fun and fulfilling sessions of painting.
1. Using Underpainting or Fast-Drying White to Enable Over-Laying
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. For 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
Most, if not 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 the paint 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 very 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 your 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 percent 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 a bundle of dry leaves that will help break the monotony of monochromatic greens.
In this underpainting stage, below, you can see that an orange underpainting was used, and then the local color of light, shadow, sky and foliage were added.
4. Conveying Volume with Thick Paste
One big advantage of acrylics and oils is that you can build up thick impasto that will help convey a three-dimensional look. Other media 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, below, you can see that the flowers and foliage in the foreground have been applied thickly, and so they appear to move forward in the painting.
5. Dry Brush to Create Texture
Indicate clumps of leaves, clusters of grass, and 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 while dragging it in different directions. This method will make wood look weathered, produce an array 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 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 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 call 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 top-quality painting surface.
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 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 percent mixed). Wipe your brush dry and double load it. A
pply a lot of pressure when squeezing 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 below, which shows how to paint a variety of greens for realistic foliage.
Also, check out the video below to learn how to vary your oils and brushstrokes to quickly and easily create a group of lush evergreen trees.
9. Create Mist for Atmospheric Depth
I feel fog is quite undermined in landscape painting. These scenes, when well depicted, can add mood and tons of depth to your artwork.
In a top gallery, I once saw this beautiful painting of Upper Yellowstone Falls with a lot 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.
An award-winning, master painter in all the leading mediums, Johannes Vloothuis has exhibitions across the U.S., Canada and internationally. He has thousands of online students around the globe and is a regular online workshop instructor. Watch the interview below for an inside look into Johannes’ love for painting en plein air, his favorite painting mediums and the start of his career in art instruction.
You can find Johannes Vloothuis’ three oil painting instruction videos (as well as more on acrylic painting, watercolor, and pastel) at the Artists Network Shop and streaming on Artists Network TV. You can also find many Paint Alongs and other courses from Johannes here.