Painting with oil - still life of Peony flowers
Robert Johnson, "Peony Dance," oil on linen, 12 x 16 in.

Find inspiration for painting with oil in the following excerpt from Robert Johnson’s classic book, “On Becoming a Painter.”

Newly released art workshop! Check out Robert’s “Flowers – Bouquets and Brushwork” video here and discover how to paint flowers that capture your unique voice.

Fresh Color: On Painting with Oil

By Robert Johnson

There is something magical and beautiful about oil paint, fresh from the tube, lush and pure. From the time of Titian forward, there have been painters whose works stand as monuments to the beauty and illusory qualities of pure paint – Velázquez, Rembrandt, Zorn, Sargent, Sorolla, Repin, and Chase immediately spring to mind. These artists took the use of color to another level. Before Titian, paintings usually had the quality of colored drawings; after his time, beautiful paint itself often became a prized element of good painting.

I believe this unique quality of oil paint is at least partly responsible for the continued popularity and desirability of oil paintings – even in a day when computer art and digital photographs flood the culture. The brilliance, lushness, and expressive power of clean oil paint has a dazzling quality unattainable by any other medium. As these other media now seek to intrude into what has been for centuries the exclusive domain of the painter, it is profoundly important that we emphasize and celebrate the absolute uniqueness of oil paint.

Robert Johnson, "Virginia Dahlias and Gladiolas," oil on panel, 20 x 14 in.
Robert Johnson, “Virginia Dahlias and Gladiolas,” oil on panel, 20 x 14 in.

One of the most important pictorial tools the painter has is the capacity to apply paint in a vivid, expressive way; a way that accurately describes the artist’s view of the world, both physically and psychologically. There are two basic principles of painting in the classical styles that will help you achieve this goal.

First and foremost, you must apply fresh and unadulterated oil paint. In other words, no old paint, no dead paint, no dirty paint, no paint (with rare exceptions) that has been overly adulterated with mediums, and no paint that has been muddied on the canvas by scrubbing or licking. The rich beauty of oil paint can be lost by invasion of the slightest impurity. Heavy-handed, excessive color mixing, or careless application can also rob the paint of its beauty.

Second, one must apply each stroke with a respect for the unique and fragile qualities of the oil paint. Some of the artists I most admire, such as John Singer Sargent, used a bravura brushstroke technique that gives the impression of having been laid down with lightning speed. The daring fluidity of brushwork in the works of Hals and Velázquez would almost suggest they were dashed off; rest assured they were not.

Painting with oil - still life of carnations and ivy
Robert Johnson, “Carnations with Ivy,” oil on linen, 20 x 16 in.

The important thing is to develop methodical working habits that allow you to be as precise as possible about where and how you apply a brushstroke. This includes considerations of the brushstroke’s direction, thickness, relationship to existing strokes, and the way it describes the object being painted. Ideally, each brushstroke would be descriptive of a pictorial element. The painting will never lose its vibrancy as long as you let each stroke tell its story in fresh, clean, unadulterated paint.

Pure, fresh oil color is not just an aesthetic pleasure – it also gives the painting a spontaneity that involves the viewer in the creative process. The effect is of an artist totally engaged and in control of his craft. It is somewhere analogous to watching a concert pianist play a concerto from a distance, then suddenly being allowed to see a close-up of his hands: the viewer (or listener) is drawing into the experience on a new level, adding to the pleasure and excitement.

The challenge of creating illusions with fresh, boldly applied oil paint excites me every time I begin a painting. Can I replicate the stunning effect of a yellow daffodil bursting from the spring earth, while suggesting its vulnerability to the whisper of a May breeze? Is it possible to make a mountain stream flow and still preserve its wet translucent quality? Can I put warm blood in the cheek of a model and maintain the illusion of cool light pouring over her face? ~ R.J.

What’s your favorite thing about painting with oil? Share your answer below in the comments.

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  1. The same elements that have colored oil paints for centuries are used today, and the permanence of artworks in oil have told the histories and given us glimpses into peoples lives and emotions for ever. I am retired and love to paint, it is part of my life. My favorite thing about oil painting is that I can create something that totally stops an image in time that has moved me. I Plein Air in Traverse City Mich. and the views are food for the soul.
    I do use Cobra, for my underpaintings especially. I can set my intentions, even with manipulations and keep the colors vibrant
    because of the easy brush cleaning.

  2. No other medium can compare to the vibrancy and transparency of oil paints. This is especially true when painting flowers, my favorite subject. I don’t have a website yet.

  3. My favorite thing about oil painting is being in touch. It’s a connection with the outdoors, with objects in everyday life, with people and animals, and with all things I love and admire in this world. It enriches my life and brings me close to other artists with whom I paint.

  4. I like most the ease with which oil paint can be applied in so many expressive ways. Whether thick or thin, it can do wonders in the hand of a skillful artist.

    • Haha, yes! A random winner who has a US mailing address and responds when we send the announcement email to them. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your question and thoughts!

  5. Although I love experimenting with color combinations, composition, and the creation of implied texture in any paint medium, I find the pleasure of working in oils surpasses all others. Especially the opportunity to slow down, which allows me to think, both directly about my painting and indirectly, to daydream and be guided by my past experiences along with new discoveries I did not even realize were occurring.

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