So you want to get into oil painting but don't know where to start.
We get it. Just shopping for beginner oil painting supplies can be intimidating. With so many pigments, colors, and oil paint brands out there, it can be difficult to choose the best quality oil paint set for your skill level and artist needs.
That said, it's okay to try other paints to find the best ones that work for you.
For starters, base your decision on your preferred colors, skill level, and of course, your budget. But don't compromise on quality.
Here's a guide to choosing the best oil paints for you. Plus, a little more about the oil paints we have here on ZenART and what sets us apart from other brands.
What is oil paint and why should I get into it?
Oil painting has been around for centuries. Your favorite classical paintings are likely oil paintings.
Artists love oil paint because of its versatility, vibrance, and longer drying time compared to acrylics.
You can work with different techniques to blend, layer, and apply your paint without running out of time. And once dry, most high-quality colors will stay rich and true.
Now let's talk about the chemical composition of oil paint.
Paints are made with pigments—a pure color often in fine powder form—that are suspended in a binder. In the case of oil paint, you have pigments suspended in a drying oil like linseed oil.
Its unique composition gives oil paint a rich buttery consistency.
Water-based paints like acrylics and watercolors dry by evaporation. Oil paint dries by oxidation, meaning the oil in the paint starts reacting to the air and hardens on the canvas, locking in the pigment.
Since oils take longer to dry, you have lots of time when working on an oil painting. In fact, painting with oils can take hours.
Of course, you can vary both the drying time and consistency of your oil paint by experimenting with oil painting mediums.
What do I need to start oil painting?
Here's a general list of things you need for oil painting. We'll cover how to pick quality oil paint in the next section.
To learn more, we've previously covered the basic oil painting supplies you need.
What use is a set of oil paints if you don't have the tools to work with them?
Get yourself a set of good-quality brushes specifically made for oil painting. You'll also need a palette knife for either mixing your oil paint or applying it to the canvas.
We get into it with more detail in this guide to brushes for oil painting.
Surfaces and supports
Can't paint without a canvas either, can you?
You have the option to buy canvases premade, pre-primed, and pre-stretched. They can save you more time and money. Or you could make canvases yourself for a more customizable experience.
Other surfaces you can make oil paintings on are canvas paper and canvas boards.
Don't forget an easel so you can paint upright and easily.
Solvents and mediums
Solvents are used to thin or dilute your oil paint. They help to clean your brushes too.
Turpentine is a commonly used solvent but it's toxic and releases fumes, so if you're using this, make sure to paint in a well-ventilated area. You can also opt to paint solvent-free or use non-toxic or odorless alternatives.
Linseed oil is another staple for oil painters.
Adding more oil will enhance the texture and smoothness of your oil paints but can delay drying. You can use linseed oil to thin out your paint and try out a glazing technique.
More on solvents and mediums in this guide.
What should you look for when buying oil paints?
Now that you know what else you'll need to start oil painting, we can go over some tips for choosing high-quality oil paint.
You don't need expensive oil paints if you're still trying out the medium. Nor should you get the cheapest oil paints either. Sacrificing quality means sacrificing an enriching art experience.
If you're a beginner, a basic color palette of paints should suffice for now. It's a good way to learn how to mix colors and make the most out of your budget.
Here's an overview of what to look for in oil paints.
Generally, you'll come across three different quality ratings for oil paints.
From low to high quality, these are student-grade paints, artist-grade paints, and professional-grade paints.
What's the difference? Lightfastness, pigment purity and quality, and price point.
Again, oil paints are made with pigments, binders, and sometimes fillers.
Student-grade oil paint
Student-grade paints have less pigment or sometimes use pigment hues as a substitute.
The color isn't as pure since hues are mixed pigments. A student-grade paint won't be as lightfast or strong as artist-quality paint.
This isn't to say that student-grade oil paint should be avoided. You can still find good-quality student-grade paint from reliable brands.
Artist-grade and professional-grade oil paint
On the other hand, you have professional-grade paints and artist-grade paints. These use pure, high-grade, and more expensive pigments without fillers so you'll notice the difference in quality and light-fastness.
There isn't much difference between professional quality and artist-quality paints, besides the extra cost and pigments used. Other brands even use these terms interchangeably.
This is your choice if your goal is to sell and exhibit your work.
Try out decent-quality student paints first to get to know the medium. Then, when you've gotten better at oil painting, move on to artist-grade or professional-grade oil paint.
Sometimes called permanence, lightfastness is how well oil paint can resist fading or color shifting when exposed to direct sunlight. If a color changes, fades or even darkens over time, it's called a fugitive color.
Not all oil paints in the same set will have the same lightfastness as this quality depends on the color and pigment used.
If you look at your oil paint tubes, you'll find the ASTM rating for lightfastness. Here's what those numbers mean:
- I: Excellent
- II: Very Good
- III: Fair
- IV: Poor
- V: Very Poor
Alternatively, you'll see these letters indicating an oil paint's permanence rating:
- AA: Extremely Permanent
- A: Permanent
- B: Moderately durable
- C: Fugitive
Opacity refers to how much light penetrates the oil colors.
Oil paints can be opaque or have a more transparent color. Your tube of oil paint usually shows the opacity rating. Here's what those letters mean:
- T: Transparent
- ST: Semi-transparent
- O: Opaque
- SO: Semi-opaque
Pigments are pure colors in fine powder form.
A tube of oil paint will often show the paint's Color Index Name: a combination of a pigment name and number to tell you what exactly is in your paint.
Experienced artists look to this code to assess the quality of their paints. This also determines how the paint will behave on canvas.
What oil paint colors do you need?
We recommend painting with a limited color palette. Many artists only use a few basic oil colors, preferring to mix their own paints to create unique colors. It's a great way to save money while learning color theory.
Since you're working with oils, you needn't rush when mixing paint. The paints don't dry up fast so you can keep trying out different color combinations.
We recommend the following basic colors for starters:
- Titanium white
- Ivory black
- A warm, primary red (e.g. Cadmium Red)
- A cool, primary red (e.g. Alizarin Crimson)
- A warm, primary blue (e.g. Cerulean Blue, Phthalo Blue)
- A cool, primary blue (e.g. Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue)
- A primary yellow (e.g. Cadmium Yellow, Hansa Yellow)
- A warm yellow (e.g. Cadmium Yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre)
Some artists also like having earth color paints (e.g. Burnt Sienna or Raw Umber) to create shades or mix realistic skin tones.
Best oil paints from ZenART Supplies
Now that you know what to get, we highly recommend trying out the oil paint sets we have here on ZenART! Unlike other oil paint brands, ZenART oil paints use non-toxic pigments that still yield good quality paint at a good value, too.
Where possible, our professional-grade paints are crafted where possible with the finest, non-toxic single pigment colours. Not to mention, the buttery smooth texture makes for easy mixing.
And a fun fact! Our Infinity Series is based on the great masters of oil painting.
You don't need all the colors of the rainbow. Just the essentials, as we mentioned.
Think of this set as the foundation of your oil painting. Here are the colors in this set:
- Titanium White
- Ivory Black
- Cadmium-free Red
- Alizarin Crimson
- Cerulean Blue
- Cobalt Blue
- Cadmium-free Yellow
- Cadmium-free Yellow Deep
You need the primary colors (red, blue, yellow) in a warm and cool color. That way you control how vivid or muted your paint mix gets. You also need white paint for making tints and black paint for mixing shades.
Want to be like the Impressionists and get started on your next luminous landscape or seascape painting?
Start painting like Camille Pissaro and Claude Monet with this vivid, jewel-toned set. The colors included are:
- Titanium White
- Rubine Red
- Dioxazine Purple
- Ultramarine Blue
- Prussian Blue
- Lemon Yellow
- Indian Yellow
With this, you get a vibrant set of oil paint that's perfect for scenery and portraiture.
Crafted and curated for the people watchers and portraiture pros, this is a set of unique colours for painting skin tones.
Our Portrait Palettes include a variety of earth colours so you can paint realistic skin tones:
- Titanium Zinc White
- Yellow Ochre
- Naphthol Red
- Chromium Oxide
- Burnt Sienna
- Burnt Umber
- Raw Umber
We recommend using this as a supplementary selection for either our Essential or Impressionist palettes so you can paint any color you'll ever need!
White is perhaps the most essential color for oil painting. So you'll need a lot of it. This collection has three different white paints in larger tubes:
- Titanium White
- Zinc-Titanium White
- Naples Yellow
With this set, you can easily adjust saturation and tonal values, and even warm up your paint colors.
Ready to start oil painting?
Are you new to oils? Have you tried oil painting before? Do you like working with limited colors or would you rather have an extensive oil paint color selection?
If you're just starting, we highly recommend checking out our other painting tutorials, tips, and guides in our Toolkit section. If you're looking for Inspiration, we've covered some of the great oil painting masters before!
Or if you want to branch out and paint with all the colors and mediums out there, check out our other paints here on ZenART Supplies!
- MEET THE AUTHOR-
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.