The 5 Most Common Mistakes Made by New Oil Painters

Even small mistakes can ruin an oil painting. Fitzroy Painting’s Adriane Strampp shares some pro tips so beginners can avoid epic fails before they happen.

Creativity 8 min read Dec 06, 2022

Every new artist makes mistakes; but so do more experienced artists! Of course, this is simply part of the process of learning to be an oil painter and daily practice will definitely help you get there. But is regular practice enough?

What if you knew certain techniques to help you avoid rookie mistakes? We sat with Adriane Strampp, professional artist and owner of Fitzroy Painting on Brunswick Street, to pinpoint five of the most common errors that beginner oil painting students make and how to avoid them to improve your painting skills overall.

5 Most Common Mistakes When Starting Out with Oil Painting

Many oil painting students stumble upon these five most common blunders. Get familiar with them so you can avoid the mistakes that everyone else is making!

Mistake #1: Starting out with the wrong materials

New oil painters can get overwhelmed by the very wide range of choices in paints, brushes, and mediums available in art supply stores. Out of excitement, they might even be tempted to get one of those bargain paint sets with small tubes of 20 or more colours. Since they’re new to the craft, they could use all the practice they can get. So it’s alright to use the cheap stuff, right?

Adriane disagrees:

“These bargain packs contain mainly filler and very little pigment, whereas artist-quality paints will be mainly pigment and last much longer.”

Instead, she suggests investing in artist-quality, less toxic paints even this early in your learning process. Start with the primary colours – red, blue, and yellow – and from there, you can learn to mix your own colours. If you’re not sure about which brand to choose for your starter set, go to a reputable art supply store and ask for help. That way, you’ll be sure to avoid the more toxic, low-odour painting mediums and solvents, stay safe, and start your journey right.

This goes for paint brushes, too, because they will have a big impact on how well you are able to achieve the effects you want. High-quality brushes will hold more paint, making them easier to use and allowing you to get consistent coverage when applying layers or blending colors together.

Good-quality brushes can be a bit expensive but because they last longer than synthetic paint brushes, this means you won’t have to replace them as often – but only if you properly care for them! Some advice from Adriane:

Look after your brushes and they will love you for it. Clean them properly and never use them for mixing colours, always use a palette knife to mix with.

Mistake #2: Picking out paint by their colour names

“I’ve tried oil painting but my colours always get muddy”.

We know how some pigments are more expensive than others; like a series 6 or 7 can get quite pricey. But a muddy-looking result is usually due to the use of poor-quality paints, because of how paint manufacturers make their budget products, where they mix two or more pigments to look like a more expensive colour. So, let’s say, you mix a budget blue and yellow hoping to make a green, you may get a muddy colour, because the blue and yellow were each made with two or more pigments in them.

For best results, try to buy single pigment paints to keep your colours clean. So what’s the best way to pick out the good paint colours at the art supply shop?

Paint makers can call their products different names, so simply asking for a colour by name may not get you the exact shade you’re looking for. Instead, follow this pro tip from Adriane:

Look on the back of the tube for the pigment number. If there are no pigment numbers listed don’t waste your money! If there is more than one, try another hue. For example, PY 74 stands for Pigment Yellow and 74 is the universal pigment number.

Mistake #3: Not choosing the right surface

Oil-sketch paper is an inexpensive way to work whilst learning. It is specifically made for oil painting, tends to dry quite quickly, and is easy to store.

Canvases can get expensive but if you are working on a painting you intend to gift, sell, or keep, consider buying a good-quality canvas. Basically you get what you pay for! Cheaper canvases often only have a thin layer of gesso and your paint may seep through the back, causing it to fall apart over time. You should add another layer of gesso before painting on these or think about buying a better quality canvas.

There are many options in linen and canvas, oil or acrylic-primed, in weight and texture. If you are working on a portrait you may want a very fine surface whereas if you are going for heavy impasto type work you may want a coarser weave.

Mistake #4: Starting without a plan

Make sure that you have a plan before you start with your oil painting. Starting a painting without having a basic sketch to work from can make it easy to get off-track and make mistakes. A few preliminary sketches before you start can help work out your ideas and composition. Think about what shape and size canvas would best suit your painting.

A thin wash of a transparent or semi-transparent colour (e.g. Burnt Sienna) on your surface will give you a good mid-tone to start on. Draw your composition in with the same colour, and look for overall shapes to start with, block in the darks and avoid going into detail too soon.

Mistake #5: Not applying proper tonal contrast

If you’re just starting out, you might notice that your work can sometimes look flat. This can happen if you are still building your confidence as an artist and perhaps hesitate about going too dark.

To avoid the flat appearance, learn how to apply tonal contrast, that is, the use of light and shadow, in order to show differences between various tones in your artwork.

A cool pro tip from Adriane:

If you are working from life or a photograph, squint and you should be able to see where the lights and darks fall more easily.

So get back to the canvas and get some darks and lights in. With enough practice, soon, you’ll be able to master how you can achieve this three-dimensional feel in your paintings.

Students new to oil painting often don’t give themselves the freedom to simply practice. Remember that making them isn’t all bad; in fact, it can help you improve and grow as an artist, as long as you learn from them.

Don’t let your painting mistakes get you down! Start gaining a stronger foundation in the basics at a painting class near you.

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