oil paint

Oil Painting Terms for New Artists

By Alina Bradford

oil paint
Oil Paint Strokes by Asif Akbar

Oil painting has many terms that need to be learned before picking up a brush. Here are terms and tips you need to know.


Value is the graduation of a color from light to dark. By varying the values in a painting you can achieve what is called contrast, or the sharp difference between light and dark. Adding contrast to a painting adds depth and interest.

To see the difference in value in your subject simply put on sunglasses. Your sunglasses will keep you from seeing the actual color, and leave you with just lights and darks.

Color Temperature

Color Wheel
Color Wheel

Color temperature refers to the color’s place on the color wheel. If you divide the color wheel at neutral purple (purple that is neither warm nor cool) and at neutral yellow the wheel will be divided into a “cool” side and “warm” side. Warm colors are colors that have a red tint to them. Cool colors have a blue tint.

Long and Short Oil Paint

Oil painting mediums can be used to control the thickness, or consistency, of your oil paint.

Long oil paint means that enough medium has been added that it has very little “peak” (the ability to make small peaks or hills out of the paint) to it. It is smooth and oily. Long paint is used when you want very little brush strokes.

Short oil paint is paint straight out of the tube. It is thick and has a lot of “peak” to it, stiff and buttery in consistency.

Some classic mediums are:

  • Linseed Oil 
  • Stand Oil 
  • Safflower Oil 
  • Alkyd Painting Medium 


Layering Oil Paint by Asif Akbar.
Layering Oil Paint by Asif Akbar.

There are certain rules that should be followed when painting in oils. These rules keep you from ending up with a muddy mess of a painting.

First, you should always paint from warm to cool, meaning, lay down warm colors first, then cool. This also goes for value, always go from dark to light.

Similarly, you should always lay down your thin paint first (or long paint), getting thicker (short paint) as you go along, using your biggest brush first. Start with big, blocked in objects first, slowly working into more detail toward the end.

Here is an example of a typical layering for an oil painting:

  1. Canvas 
  2. Gesso 
  3. Underpainting 
  4. Thin, long, dark, warm paint
  5. Thicker, short, light, cool paint
  6. Varnish


Gesso is used to prime a surface or canvass before painting. Basically, it makes paint stick better to the surface. It also keeps it from sinking into the surface. You don’t have to use gesso when painting, but it is worth giving a try.


Varnish protects your painting from damage. It is only applied when the painting has thoroughly dried, around six months. Retouch varnish is temporary and can be used as soon as the picture is dry to the touch and can be removed with gum turpentine.

When remembering these tips and terms you are bound to produce better paintings.

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