Oil Painting: the Gear!

Contrary to popular belief, getting started in oil painting is not crazy difficult or expensive.  I’ve put a “shopping list” up front in this article, and have added more commentary below, including next steps if you want to splurge past this “necessities” list.


The Beginner Shopping List:

Paints  Brushes Other
Titanium white

Ultramarine Blue

Cadmium Yellow Light & Deep (or Hansa Yellow)

Cadmium Red Light (Or Naphthol Scarlet)

Cobalt Blue

Alizarin Crimson


Transparent Iron Oxide Red (or Burnt Sienna)

#8, #4, #1 flat, round, or filbert

Duplicates of these – nice to have

Any other brushes – nice to have

Palette Knife – need

Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits

Clean Empty Jar



Paper Towels

Easel – nice to have

“The Masters” Brush Cleaner – nice to have


Paints: To start you need at least a white, plus the three primary colours.  Most artists recommend titanium white, ultramarine blue, cadmium red (naphthol red is a less expensive and lower toxicity version), and cadmium yellow (hansa yellow being the alternates.  For a beginner kit it is also nice to add cadmium yellow pale (or hansa yellow pale), cobalt blue, viridian green, alizarin crimson permanent, and transparent iron oxide red.  Depending on the “look” of the painting you’re going after, the earth colours can also be useful: burnt umber, burnt Sienna, raw umber.  Think of a Da Vinci or a Michaelangelo colour scheme – that’s where those come in handy.

Brushes: You can spend a ton on brushes, but the three I’ve pictured in the feature image above are a good starting point.  They are #8, #4, and #1 brushes.  If you look at the shapes you’ll notice two are flat on top, and the little one is round.  This is all personal preference.  I keep brushes in a variety of shapes so I can switch up how my brush strokes are looking on the canvas, but every artist will give you a different answer as to which shape is “the best”.  Just make sure you get at least three sizes, and then experiment from there!

Brush Cleaner: Pictured above beside my brushes in the – indispensable – brush cleaner from “the Masters”.  It’s a really great soap you can use to clean your brushes and keep them in good condition whether you work in oil or acrylic or water colour.

Palette Knife: This is another place where you can spend a ton, and get all different sizes and shapes to experiment with for different mark-making.  In my paintings, the palette knife gets used sometimes as much as (or even more than!) the brush.  That said, I’ve never found the need to go past the time-honoured shape in the photo above.  It’s great for scraping, mixing, and smooshing paint onto the canvas.

Solvents: Oil paint solvents have come a LONG WAY since I started painting.  Back then the fumes were overwhelming, and to this day turpentines bring me back to good painting days as a kid!  But now we artists have evolved into much safer odourless products.  Buy pure Odorless Mineral Spirits from the art supply shop (NOT the hardware store).  An artist favourite is Gamblin’s product “Gamsol” (pictured below).

Put your mineral spirits in a mason jar and use them only for cleaning brushes at the end of the painting process, to minimze exposure.

Advanced Solvents (when you want to spend more $$): In class, we used a mix called 5:1:1 for thinning our paints and also for “oiling up” the canvas.  Here’s the recipe in case you want to invest:

– 5 parts Gambol
– 1 part Galkyd (this helps speed drying time)
– 1 part Refined Linseed Oil

Mixing all of this into the squirt bottle, shown, means that solvent fumes and contact with skin is minimized during painting.   I love that my art studio smells just as clean and fresh as the rest of my house, and is a safe place for my little kids to come join me!

Canvases:  Stretched canvases are available for dirt cheap at the dollar store, or you can “splurge” and buy well gessoed versions at the art supply shop.  If you buy dollar store versions, pick up some gesso at the art shop and add another layer, or the paint will suck into the cotton canvas and end up with a pale, matte finish.  Other options at the art shop include canvas board, which is the best low-cost option for starting, but will require you to frame the painting later.  Best value for best convenience option: Buy stretched canvases at the art supply shop.

Easels: Easels are a personal choice, with some artists preferring to work on a flat table.  I personally always paint standing up, so I can very quickly and frequently step back from my canvas to see what the painting will look like from a typical viewing distance.  I also find it adds more energy to the finished piece.

This picture shows my studio with my stand-up easel, and on the table (with its long legs retracted right now) is my plein-air easel, which can easily be packed up and taken with me on a flight or into a field.

Palettes: A palette is simply what you put the paint onto to mix it.  Pictured above you can see my fancy cookie sheet palette, which has lovely edges and contains paints from rolling off onto my carpet.  In the field I use the artist’s palette with the thumb-hole that you’re probably more familiar with, simply because I can grasp it well in the wind.  In class we use paper plates or styrofoam plates.  I know one professional artist who uses – exclusively – edges of cardboard boxes.  Another uses an antique window frame, mixing on the glass.  And others like those pads of disposable wax sheets that can be thrown out at the end of a painting session.  This is entirely up to personal preference.

Next-Level Palettes: Some serious artists have taken to using glass palettes (window frames or whatever) and painting the underside of the glass in a neutral, mid-value grey.  This way when they’re mixing they can easily understand the value (how dark or light) of the paint, and the hue (how warm or cool vs. a neutral).  I think this would be tremendously helpful!

Further Reading


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