oil painting | what I’ve learned so far (pt 1)

by | Oct 4, 2017 | Art, Artistic Endeavors, Oil Painting | 44 comments

One of the things that has been so enjoyable about the 100 meadows project, is how it’s pushed me to learn a medium that, quite honestly, intimidated me.  Oil painting seemed so serious, technical, and with strict rules.  It’s for the real artists, not the aspiring ones.  And if you can even get beyond all of those notions and put brush to canvas, how do you clean up the palette, paints, oil mediums, and solvents?

I stuck my toe in the oil painting waters when I was back in PA and my “art friend”, Katie, who is a trained artist (and a very talented one), walked me through some of the basics.  When I moved, though, I was nervous about picking it back up again on my own.  I figured it would be one of those things I got excited about for a brief time, but didn’t continue to pursue.

When Michelle Wooderson announced her 100 meadows project on Instagram, it was just the push I needed and I tentatively committed to join her along with another Instagram friend, Page.  The three of us started a text group and have been encouraging one another, sharing sources and information, and tips with each other.  The three of us are learning together and it’s reminded me what value can be found in learning from fellow students.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of the blind leading the blind, but we can share those lightbulb moments with each other, share what we discover in our research and trial and error, and see improvement in each other’s work.

So, I’ve been asked to share more details about the products I’m using and the things I’ve learned so far, so here it is.

Take it with a grain of salt.

I have been asked a lot about my color palette and what paints I would suggest for someone starting out.  Let’s talk about colors first.  There are so many to pick from that it can be overwhelming!  I have fallen in love with a bunch of colors, but if I had to really narrow it down, I would pick these colors for landscapes…

Paynes Gray, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Sap Green, Cadmium Yellow, and Alizarin.

My “second tier” colors (ones that I would suggest adding when money allows) are…

Mars Black, Indigo, Cobalt Blue, Winsor Lemon, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, and Cadmium Red.

And colors that have become my favorite frivolous colors are Bice, King’s Blue Extra Pale, Brilliant Yellow Pale, and Lead Tin Yellow.  You could find a pretty close match to these colors by mixing colors mentioned above, but I love the softness that comes right out of these tubes.

And, of course, you need a huge tube of white.  (I show it next to a “regular tube”, so you can see how big it is.)  There are many different whites, but I’ve been using Titanium White.  I am look forward to trying out some different whites, though.  I just picked up Flake White and Radiant White.)

As far as the brand of paint, I am still testing out different brands and learning my preferences.  I will say, and it’s a very common suggestion, that you buy the best paints you can afford.  Pure pigments make a big difference when it comes to mixing.  If the paints have a lot of fillers in them, the colors will be muddy and dull when mixed and that will be discouraging for you.

Here’s a comparison of the student grade Cerulean Blue (Winton) and artist grade Cerulean (Utrecht).  You can see how much bluer the artist grade is!

The nice thing about quality pigments is that you can make hundreds of custom-mixed colors with just a few tubes of paint.

Oh, and something I learned from Katie and have seen elsewhere…many professional artists do not even buy green tubes of paint.  They mix all of their own greens.  I like having some tube greens, but I always mix them to tone them down and make them look more natural.  I’m still working on that, though!

If your budget is really tight, just buy one tube at a time from a craft store that takes 40% off coupons, like Hobby Lobby and Michaels.  Katie is the one who originally suggested Utrecht paints, because they are artist grade, but are a bit more economical than some other brands.  And I have liked their body and color.

For a painting surface, you can use pretty much anything that has been prepared with gesso!  You can use watercolor paper, pieces of luan or MDF, etc.  Canvases, canvas boards, etc. aren’t that expensive, though, and I always look for craft store sales and then pick up a few.

For the 100 meadows project, I have been using sheets of gessoed canvas that come in a pad.  I can cut down one piece into eight 4 x 6 canvases, so it’s very economical and low pressure.

For brushes, I am still figuring out my favorites, but I’ve been using a #12 Bright with synthetic bristles.  (It’s the one in the middle.)  I find there is a lot of variety of shapes that can be made with just that one brush.  I need to branch out a bit more, though, and get some of those other brushes dirty!

I’ve been purchasing synthetic and boar-bristle Master’s Touch brushes from Hobby Lobby when they are 50% off.  I’m sure I’ll pick up more brushes as I go, but clearly I have enough to choose from to keep me going for now!

I have a problem.

Down to some more of the practical stuff, I found an old metal tackle box to keep my frequently used colors in, so they are right by my palette.

I also keep rolls of Viva paper towels in a crate by my work table.  In the beginning, I was using a rag, but I realized those would need to be thrown away (which would get expensive) or washed (which might not be worth the trouble.)  Michelle told me Viva towels were the artist’s choice for “disposable studio rags”, because they don’t leave lint.  So, of course, that’s what I bought.  I wouldn’t want my Bounty Basics paper towels giving me away as a novice artist!

I keep Gamsol (solvent) in a metal container with a clamped lid near my palette, along with an old ironstone plate to hold the paper towel I’m using to clean my brushes during a painting session.  (I linked to the metal container on Amazon, but there is a similar one about half the price at Hobby Lobby.)

At first, I was swishing my brush in the solvent between each color, as if it were water, but I learned that doing so will fill the studio with fumes.  Now, I keep the lid on and only use it when I really need it.  Otherwise, I just wipe the color off onto a paper towel.

Since the paper towels have oil paint in them (that could dry and spontaneously combust if not disposed of properly), I put them in a ziplock bag, submerge them in water (in the bag), seal it, and then dispose of it in the trash.

You can find a great article on studio safety HERE.

Baby wipes are also good for cleaning up, so I have a pack of those in my tackle box, too.


…and I’ve realized this post is getting really long and I’m still going to share about my palette, easel, inspiration books & websites and more, so I’m going to write about those in part two.

I hope this information doesn’t overwhelm you, but it encourages you.  Many people have sent me messages, comments, or e-mails sharing that they’ve always wanted to try oil painting.  Some even used the word “dream”.  Don’t let your life go by with unfulfilled, possible dreams.  You can go buy a few tubes of paint and explore that dream this week.

And we can be art students together.

You can find PART TWO HERE.


  1. Rebecca Neustel

    I didn’t know that about the Viva paper towels. I do a lot of decoupage, altered boxes, etc., and I use paper towels, too, so that’s helpful information! Thanks for giving us a starting place for colors, too. Do you think these colors would work for acrylic paints, too? I’m always buying random colors, sometimes even the same color i already have!

    • Marian Parsons

      Yes, these would work for acrylic as well.

  2. Surface House

    Thanks for this fascinating insight into your oil painting ventures. I read every bit and agree that oil painting does indeed intimidate me too. I have painted in every other medium but always avoided oil paints, as a designer of wallpaper, when you think about it.. its totally silly really. Perhaps after reading your post I might just go for it and get experimenting!

  3. Joy in Alabama

    Thanks! I’m wanting to get my (grown) daughter some oil paints for Christmas and this is very helpful. She watercolors and draws with pen and ink but wants to try oils. We recently found a small oak desk that lifts up like a drafting table at the thrift store and my husband has been refinishing it for her. She has been painting at the dining room table, but we want to make a studio for her in our sun room so she has more light and can leave everything out. So all that to say, this is helpful because I don’t know anything about paint brands and which would be better.

    • Marian Parsons

      Oh, I just love what you’re doing for her! So supportive!

  4. Karen Chaudoin

    Oh thank you for all of this information. I was particularly wondering about paint surfaces and this post provided the answers. Happy days at your easel!

  5. Rowena

    Thanks for the great oil colors you are using. I have oil painted for a long time. I know there are some new brands and yes some are very different. You are doing a great job and will learn alot along the way. I sure have. Its great fun and enjoy it.

  6. Elizabeth

    You are good to emphasize the safety issues in the storage, use and disposal of solvents. Spontaneous combustion is very real.

    • Kim

      I do lament the fact that no one has mentioned the health hazards of these paints and solvents. Very toxic to the body with long term health impact, usually to the brain.

  7. Jo Ann

    This is very helpful. It makes me want to pull out what I have , upgrade where I can and start again. A HUGE thanks. Keep thinking of us.

  8. Stephanie Gunderson

    I like using water soluble oil paints! Cleanup is easy with just soap and water and no fumes!

    • Marian Parsons

      Are they as slow drying as oils? I’m loving their workability much more than acrylics.

  9. Celeste

    Oh I really want to second your advise to “just do it”. I saw an ad in the paper for a beginner class and thought I have nothing to lose. If I hate it, I don’t have to do it again. But I found something that I love. In seven years some have been good, some bad (and one lion painting is so bad I kept it in case I need a good laugh). It is so rewarding to see a world develop on a blank canvas. And if you don’t like your painting, take what you learned and just try again. Be brave, try it.

  10. Darlene

    I hesitate to comment too often as I imagine you are always crazy busy. I do want to take the time out to say I love your outlook on helping others. You share information so openly and although I have zero interest in painting, I am reading all of your emails and watching your instagram stories. So awed by your transition with your family and how you just jumped when God said to. Starting over anywhere is challenging. Watching how your business and brand will change over this next year has me excited for you and for us, your avid followers.

    • Marian Parsons

      Thank you, Darlene!

    • Erica Wynn

      Thank you so much for this!

  11. Kathryn Casey

    Have you heard of M. Graham paints? I watched a demonstration at an art store where the artists’ used them. You use walnut oil instead of solvent.

    • Marian Parsons

      Yes, I have, but I haven’t tried them, yet. You can use walnut oil to clean up most (if not all) oil paints and there are other alternatives to solvents. I’m finding I don’t use the Gamsol very much at all now. I just wipe on a paper towel and clean the brushes with my MMSMP brush soap afterwards.

  12. Pamela

    I have just taken up oil painting in the past year and the instructor uses a very limited palette which forces me to learn to mix. She too works only with viva paper towels but the originals and not the textured (what difference there is I don’t know). The metal container for cleaning is cool but you can also use a round plastic kitchen scrubby in a jar with a lid, it works wonderfully and through the glass you see how grubby the solvent gets so you know when you really need to get fresh. I had to learn not to clean the brushes too often as well, I am so used to acrylics. The one thing I do find taxing is the longer clean up time when I am done painting for the day.
    I have been enjoying your oil painting journey.

  13. Rose

    Just wanted to add my two cents. I started painting in watercolour then changed to Oils and there is a huge difference between the two. But your idea that there are so many rules for oil painting I have to disagree. Oil paint really is very forgiving. If you don’t like something in your painting you simply can paint over it. This is not the case with watercolours at all!
    My suggestion would be to start with a very minimal palette: a warm and a cool version of: red, yellow, blue, brown (umber) and of course white (Titanium being the purest). Not only is it cheaper but the colours that you mix with these (ie. greens) will be harmonious with the other colours in your painting.
    Also keep in mind the opacity of each color. This is marked by symbols or terms.
    ( I tried to attach a picture of this but it wouldn’t let me)
    Sorry I’ve run on a bit but it’s so nice to share with other artists ?

    • Marian Parsons

      I agree! After painting with watercolors and now oils, I think oils are much more forgiving. I felt like they would be harder, though, and I think that’s a misconception.

  14. Rose

    Oh and I forgot to mention there are odourless paint thinners you can use to clean your brushes so you won’t get headaches from the fumes

  15. Vickie H.

    I have loved every word of this….so much great information, both from you and your generous commentors. Thank you, Marian……and keep on keeping on…..very proud for you.

  16. Ellen Shook

    You have given me the push I needed!

    • Marian Parsons


  17. Ricki Jill Treleaven

    I enjoy oil painting! I also think that Viva paper towels are the very best. I also swear by Gamblin Paints. I think they have the best pigments, and I also like Michael harding, Williamsburg, and M. Graham. M. Graham paints uses walnut oil as its binder, so it’s very safe.

    I love Gamblin’s Neo-Megilp as a medium. It gets a little tacky, but it’s amazing how it makes pigments stand-up and pop off the canvas.

    Series 7 brushes and the ruby brights are wonderful!

    Welcome to the cult! ;P

  18. Marlene Stephenson

    Thanks for all the knowledge you are sharing, its good to enjoy and have friends to share with.

  19. Cherylan

    I am so encouraged by this! I transplanted this summer and have not gotten back to my Art Self. My usual medium is watercolor and I have some cheap acrylics and lots of precut mason board. Your serious has shocked and encouraged me. Who ever heard of a 4×6 landscape. I am from Texas and I just assumed that landscape should’ve as big as all outdoors. Its seems not. These are delightful?

  20. Laura

    Your painting is beautiful!!!

    I do have a question for you and your readers, if I may:

    Do you prefer oil over watercolor, and if so why?

    Thank you Marion for sharing your journey with us… in art and in life.

    • Marian Parsons

      I like them for different reasons, but I am preferring the structure and forgiveness of oil. I think I might like watercolor for portraits, though, because they are so transparent and the way they dry is so well suited to portraying light in the eyes, etc. We’ll see, though!

  21. Vicki K

    Hi Marian, I was told when I was getting the B.S.Ed. in All-Level Art Education, to use only real hair brushes with oils, and synthetic brushes with acrylics, which are water-based and clean up easily with water. They dry quickly, so you can paint over them right away, unlike oils, which take forever to dry and allow you to re-paint for a long time. That’s a factor also, in which one you choose to use. Turpentine was my cleaner for oils. I chose acrylics to use mostly, b/c of the toxic fumes of turpentine, and oils were a pain to clean up. My brain needs all the breaks it can get, HA. If you are getting headaches, you are breathing in toxins, not good. Love your blog and your courage, Marian. Rock on!

    • Marian Parsons

      I’ve heard that as well, but there are synthetic brushes made for oils and I’ve seen many tutorials where professional artists use synthetics or both natural and synthetic. I like that they hold their shape better, but I do have natural bristle brushes as well.

  22. Linda Greiss

    Wonderful post! I love your painting at the end. Is it a new one?

  23. Holly

    NOW you have my attention. FANTASTIC post! Time to create a missmustardseed Evernote folder! Thank you so much. Keep up the great work and share your knowledge as you go painting merrily along. I’ll be taking copious notes, Marian!

    • Marian Parsons

      Awesome, so glad to hear it, Holly!

  24. Melanie Kite

    Thanks for.your sharing about your adventure in oil painting. I have painted with watercolors, then acrylics. I just recently taken a class using cold wax and oil paint. I was amazed that there was no smell. We used baby wipes, then the teacher would finish with green artists soap. I think I will get some oils, and paint.

  25. JeanMarie

    Where did you source the Vasari brand? Dick Blick does not have it in store or online. You must be excited to see the number of people you are inspiring by sharing your journey through this interesting project. Thank you

  26. Rhonda

    Learning to paint with oils is on my bucket list, but I’m so afraid to start. I’ve watched a few YouTube videos and it looks overwhelming, with the different solutions to mix with your paints. I’ll be watching you!

  27. Cathy G

    love your inspiration and I am starting to work in oils again for the first time in fifty years! went to a Blick free workshop and got to try the water soluble oils. Less fumes and they dont freak me out as much about clean up and stains.

  28. Norma Rolader

    Love your inspirations it has been 20 + yrs since I have done any painting or sketching!!! I have wanted to get back into it but right now so busy with my husband since he is bedridden and my 81 yr old mother With you and the other blogs it is my get away Thank you and keep your inspirations coming God bless

  29. Debby Katz

    stumbled upon your blog. Love it…and this post on painting really speaks to me. I’m an interior designer by day, and amatuer artist by ?
    I’m always intimidated…by dad was a very talented, professional artist & art teacher, so I grew up around art and always loved it. Now in my late 40’s i am trying to push myself to try. Thanks for the encouragement.

  30. Michelle

    I have wanted to paint for as long as I can remember. When I was about 12, my parents gave me a set of watercolors and an artist’s pad and I thought, “This will be so much fun! I think I’ll whip out a landscape with a gorgeous tree!” Half an hour later, I had a blue blackground, muddy foreground and what looked to be a large, strangely colored piece of broccoli in the center. End of my painting career. Fast-forward 40 years, I went to a local studio where you choose the painting you’d like to copy and they give you the paint, canvas, brushes and instructions and off you go! I LOVED it. I’m no Van Gogh but that experience and your blog have inspired me to take a class and jump in, head first! Thanks for the push I needed!

  31. Annabelle

    Love your post and now I think I just might mustard : ) up the courage to try oil painting once again. Thanks so much for the in aspiration Marian, really need to get back to my painting.

  32. StayBoundless

    Great Article… I love to read your articles because your writing style is too good, its is very very helpful for all of us and I never get bored while reading your article because, they are becomes a more and more interesting from the starting lines until the end.


Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…

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