Applications, Techniques & Tips

The following are descriptions of a variety of applications and techniques that will help ensure your success with oil colours.

Surface Preparation

The permanence of the painting begins with the surface upon which it’s created. There are a number of surfaces that are of proven stability, but all have one thing in common: they allow the essential integrity of the paint film to remain undisturbed for generations. They are stable themselves, and because oil can become progressively more brittle as it ages, they impose a minimum of flex or shock upon the film. For long term adhesion, they present a moderate degree of tooth or texture as well as a suitable amount of absorbency. Too much absorbency leads to sinking and drawing of the oil vehicle away from the pigment, while too little means that the film may ultimately loosen and flake.

Here, then, are the primers and supports, along with suggestions for their appropriate preparation.

Primer types. Primers control the texture, absorbency and colour of your support. A high proportion of technical problems experienced by artists are due to a poor quality ground. Winsor & Newton primers and ready-made surfaces ensure good results by controlling texture, absorbency, and colour. There are two types of primer:

Acrylic. As a result of their formulation, Winsor & Newton acrylic primers are suitable for oil painting. They dry quickly and do not require any sizing underneath. Winsor & Newton Acrylic Gesso Primer has the highest covering power and is the best primer if using one coat only. Galeria Gesso provides a good quality gesso at an affordable price.

Clear Gesso Base is a unique product, which provides tooth and only a translucent film. Adding acrylic colour to Clear Gesso Base allows the creation of a coloured gesso.

Oil primer. Oil Painting Primer imparts a traditional base; the surface acquires a slightly increased degree of gloss and smoothness compared to gesso. Oil primed canvases may slacken off less than acrylic primed canvases. A coat of warm glue size is required first. The primer should be left to dry overnight.


Through the preparation of your own surfaces, you can choose any dimension or shape that you like. Here are those that are used most commonly:

Wood has been used as painting support for centuries. In addition to their own permanence, hard woods offer a singular advantage in their rigidity, making for a support that minimizes any shock or flexing upon the paint film.

Fibreboard (MDF) and masonite (hardboard) offer stability and rigidity at a lower cost than hardwood panels, and are far more dimensionally stable.

Paper is popular for sketching in oil. It’s attractive for its texture and drag. Using paper is acceptable with oils, as long as the sheet selected is a good quality, heavy water colour paper, and is thinly primed with Acrylic Gesso Primer.

Canvas, when stretched over an open frame, has been the most popular support for oils since the 17th century. The weave of cloth, combined with the spring of the stretched material, makes for a surface that can be quite rewarding and pleasurable upon which to work.

Canvas board has been commonly used for sketching outdoors. Boards take up less room and are less easily damaged than stretched canvases. Winsor boards are made from a substantial substrate and high quality cloth, making them superior in quality to coated sketching boards.

Painting Rules

Fat over lean. This is the most often-repeated principle when referring to “building” the oil painting film. What it really implies is flexible over less flexible, for, when increasingly flexible layers are built one on top of another, the final paint film will have the greatest possible resiliency, and will be more resistant to cracking. Increasing flexibility is accomplished by adding more medium or oil (a “fatter” mixture) and less solvent to each layer of colour. Contrary to many publications, neither oil absorption, nor oil index information is required for observing this rule.

Thick over thin. Thicker layers of oil colour are best applied alone or over thinner underlayers, ensuring that the thick layers are able to dry.

Drying rates. The different drying rates of Winsor & Newton oil colours are due to the different reactions of each pigment when dispersed in oil. Some pigments serve as chemical catalysts, accelerating the drying process. Others affect it little, while others slow the process. Slow drying underlayers can cause cracking of any subsequent faster drying layers. A list of fast, medium and slow drying colours is included as part of the information regarding each oil colour range, beginning on page 27 of this book. Generally, the only requirement is to avoid thick, continuous layers of slow drying colour in any underpainting.

Underpainting (the first layer of colour upon the canvas is called the underpainting). Because of its paler colour, safflower oil is used in the formulation of most Winsor & Newton whites. For extensive underpainting and priming, however, safflower whites are not recommended. When oil colours dry, the paint film undergoes a number of dimensional changes, increasing and decreasing in weight as different chemical reactions occur. Semi-drying oils, such as safflower and poppy oil, undergo greater dimensional changes than linseed oil. While a safflower oil based white is perfectly appropriate for use in normal applications and mixing, it is not suitable for use with underpainting. The movement of the film can lead to cracking in the layers applied above. Hence for underpainting, we recommend Underpainting White; titanium pigment ground in linseed oil, and Foundation White, a lead pigment, also ground in linseed oil.


Colour mixing. The objective of colour mixing is to create the largest number of options from the minimum number of colours. All pigments used in the formulation of Winsor & Newton ranges are selected to create a balanced spectrum, allowing the artist to mix the colours desired, as efficiently as possible.

Wet into wet is the process of adding fresh colour into existing, still wet layers. The technique can be used to bring great immediacy and interest to the image. It also can be used as a technique for blending, and can be accomplished with the colour in virtually any state of viscosity, from thick and stiff, to fluid.

Glazing is the build up of layers of transparent or semi-transparent colours over dry underlayers. The effect is one of great depth and spatial atmosphere. It is a lengthy technique, but the effects in oil are unmatched when compared to other media. Liquin, Stand Oil, or, if working in Artisan Water Mixable Oil; Artisan Fast Drying Medium, are all well suited for glazing techniques. Griffin Alkyd Fast-Drying Oil Colours are perfectly suited for building layers of brilliant, glazed colour.

Impasto is the technique of applying stiff, thick colour, leaving brush and knife marks as a central element in the painting. An impasto surface can be dynamic and powerful. For thick impasto, build the texture in several layers, allowing each to dry before applying the next. For use with conventional oil colours, Oleopasto is an alkyd-based medium that will safely maintain the stiffness of the paint, while accelerating drying. For use with Artisan Water Mixable Oils, use Artisan Impasto medium.

S’graffito is the technique of scraping into a wet oil film, usually with the handle end of a brush, or a painting knife. It’s an expressive effect, and is also effective for defining outlines.

Scumbling. With a stiff brush, work a thin film of opaque or semi opaque colour loosely over your painting, allowing colour from the layer below to show through. The effect is highly atmospheric. O

Oiling out is the application of oil medium to a painting that has sunk, or lost oil to the layer below. Winsor & Newton Artists’ Painting Medium should be sparingly rubbed into any sunken area with a soft cloth. Wipe off any residue, and leave the painting to dry for a day or two. If smaller dull areas remain, repeat the process until the painting has regained an even sheen. The most common cause for sinking is the use of a ground which is too absorbent, and often occurs if a household primer is used. Sinking can also result if the colour has been overthinned with solvent.

Murals. With appropriate preparation, oil colours can be an excellent choice for murals. Unless the wall is new, the surface should be stripped back to plaster and must not be “friable” (dusty or broken) or damp. If new, the plaster should be sized and then primed with Acrylic Gesso Primer or Oil Painting Primer. The finished work should be allowed to dry for a suitable period (at least six months for traditional oils; one month for Griffin Alkyd Colours), and then protected with a removable picture varnish (if indoors). Griffin Fast-Drying Oil Colour, because of its faster drying time and tough film, is well-suited as an oil colour for mural application.

Suggested Colour Mixing Palettes for Mixing

The use of three primary colours alone is an outstanding exercise. It is necessary to choose the red, blue, and yellow which are the purest, eg. the red which is as close as possible to a mid-point between a blue shade and a yellow shade. This ensures the cleanest violets and the cleanest oranges when using but one red. In theory, the three primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow. But remember that each artists’ colour has a masstone and an undertone, and that artists require a colour that offers specific handling properties. Permanence is also critical. Therefore, the primaries recommended below offer the best combination of mixing properties, working characteristics, and permanence.

The three primary colours in each of the oil ranges are as follows:

Artists’ Oil Colour: Transparent Yellow, Winsor Blue (Red Shade), and Permanent Rose.

Winton Oil Colour: Cadmium Lemon Hue, Phthalo Blue, and Permanent Rose.

Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour: Lemon Yellow, Phthalo Blue (Red Shade), and Permanent Rose.

Griffin Alkyd Fast-Drying Oil Colour: Winsor Lemon, Phthalo Blue, and Permanent Rose.

Six Colour Systems A broader spectrum can be mixed with six colours. As a learning exercise, the move from three colours to six also begin to introduce other variables, such as opacity, tinting strength and drying rate. Here are the recommended six colour palettes:

Artists’ Oil Colour: Winsor Lemon, Winsor Yellow, French Ultramarine, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red.

Winton Oil Colour: Cadmium Lemon Hue, Cadmium Yellow Hue, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue, Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Hue.

Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour: Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Hue, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue (Red Shade), Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Hue.

Griffin Alkyd Fast-Drying Oil Colour: Winsor Lemon, Winsor Yellow, French Ultramarine, Phthalo Blue, Permanent Rose and Cadmium Red Medium.