Bill Martin's Guide to Oil Painting


Bill Martin's Guide to Oil Painting was designed and written by the Visionary Art master. The words and images on these pages are his, just as he left them, before his passing on October 28, 2008.

If there's something puzzling you, just ask. I'll try to answer your question in the coming weeks. If I don't know the answer, I'll post it. We'll learn from each other.

Submit Your Questions Here




From Tina in Toledo Ohio:

Q. My big brother gave me a set of student grade oil painting supplies. I'm having difficulty duplicating your results. Could the materials be the reason? Could you also rate the quality of oil paints?

A. Yes, your materials could be the reason. I'm sure your brother had the best of intentions but even I have a harder time painting with inferior paints and brushes. I think student grade materials are a disservice to students. They seem to save money but if it takes two coats of student paint to cover what one coat of better paint will cover, where's the saving? If a cheap brush only lasts half as long as a good one have you actually saved anything?


Perhaps this will help. I have just added the list of what I'll replace my used-up and worn-out materials with to the site. It's called Bill's Store.


Per your request, the following is an unscientific and biased assessment of oil paint brands I have used (in the order of their quality):

  • Old Holland ~ the best, but not twice as good for twice the price
  • Blockx ~ excellent but still expensive
  • Winsor & Newton ~ the best combination of quality and price, I use these
  • Gamblin ~ fairly good quality
  • Shiva ~ usable but thin
  • Grumbacher ~ OK for most colors but the reds are weak
  • Sennelier ~ too much oil not enough pigment
  • Permanent Pigments ~ good acrylics but bad oils
  • Rembrandt ~ barely adequate
  • Van Gogh ~ inferior
  • Winton ~ I wouldn’t like to see them used by a friend
  • Yarka ~ I wouldn’t like to see them used by a stranger




From John in New York:

Q. Many books on oil painting techniques recommend a coat of Lead White as the foundation layer for an oil painting. I notice you don’t. Why?

A. Health comes first. Lead paint is poisonous. Second, before you put the Lead White on, the canvas must be sealed and gessoed. Lead White (also known as Flake White) is then applied and six months later it’s ready to be painted on. The thinking behind the use of Lead White as a foundation for oil painting is that oil paint itself is the best surface to paint on. I prefer not to wait six months, so the first paints I put on are for the drawing and the underpainting. These provide an equally agreeable painting surface but let me see the painting sooner. And they’re not poisonous.


From Lillian in Little River, CA:

Q. Can I use my watercolor sables for oil paints or will it ruin them?

A. You can and it won’t ruin them. If the brushes are thoroughly cleaned with soap and water after each use you could even switch back and forth. The sable hairs for watercolor brushes and oil brushes are the same. The difference is in the way the brushes are made and the jobs they’re meant to do.


Sable hair is narrow at both ends and wider in the middle. Sable oil painting brushes crimp the hairs above the middle. This makes a stiff brush that will maintain its shape with oil paint on it. Watercolor sable brushes are crimped below the middle of the hairs. This makes a brush that can hold lots of water but will not hold it’s shape with oil paint on it. Only in the small sizes of watercolor brushes is there enough spring to use them for oil paint.


From Tim in Florida:

Q. My friend says you're supposed to stand while painting in oils. I get too tired to stand for a long time. Do I have to stop my painting when I'm sitting down?

A. You don't. Oil paintings are best painted vertically so standing facing the painting is a natural attitude. However there is no reason you can't paint while sitting down. The great advantage to standing is the ease of stepping back to assess the painting's progress. If you paint sitting down be sure to get back occasionally to see your painting from a distance.


From Bill in Albuquerque:

Q. When I'm looking at a gray I can't tell what color it is on the color wheel. How do you know for sure what its color it is?

A. I can't always tell a neutral color's place on the color wheel either. What I do is I see is what it is not. Eliminate all the colors it definitely is not. What's left will be the right color. Test it to be sure though.


From Louise in New York City:

Q. Why can't I paint on paper with oil paint?

A. You can. The paper must first be made non-porous. Shellac, fixative or rabbit skin glue will seal the paper for oil paint. If the paper is not sealed the oil will soak out, discolor the paper and eventually ruin it.


From Brian in London:

Q. I notice you don't use the earth colors in your palette, Is there a reason for this?

A. There is. The earth colors are Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber and Burnt Umber. These are colors made from Italian dirt. They have long been used to create neutral browns and yellows. The disadvantages of these colors are that they are recessive in a way that looks fine up close but weak at a distance. The earth colors have often been used to create various flesh tones. Up close these flesh colors look healthy but from across the room you want to call the doctor. Also Burnt Umber has a strong tendency to crack especially in the top layers. The earth color tones can easily be matched with the spectrum colors. The spectrum mixtures look good at all distances and don't crack.


From Jessie in San Francisco:

Q. I'm an absolute beginner, should I be buying student quality paints and brushes?

A. When I was a student I used student quality paints. When I had learned how to paint, I used better quality materials. I was surprised at how much harder it had been using the cheap stuff. And I used up more paints and brushes than I did when I was using quality materials. In the long run I don't think I saved any money using "student" materials. Use good quality it's probably cheaper.


From Marguerite in Alaska:

Q. I use a paper palette. I notice you don't mention them in your Palette section. Why?

A. Most paper palettes are too porous for oil paint. They soak out the oil and change the consistency of the paint making it stiffer and more difficult to blend. They also are usually white which makes distinguishing your dark colors more difficult. The only advantage I see in a paper palette is the ease of clean up.


From Audrey in New Mexico:

Q. I'm making a painting with many multiple blends, Is there a way to extend the drying time of oil paint so I can work on blending the colors for a couple of days?

A. Yes, there is a way. Oil paint normally should not be touched after 12 hours because it has become too dry to move around. However, there are situations where you just need more time. Mix two drops of CLOVE OIL (available from a pharmacy) into a one-inch circle of a mixed color and it will extend the working time to about a week. It will take four weeks to dry. Be sure it's totally dry before you paint over it. Try not to paint much on top of this layer because there is a high risk of the new paint cracking.


From Marge in Topeka:

Q. A sign painter told me I should use a mahl stick for my details. What does that mean?

A. A Mahl stick is just a stick with a padded end. It is used to steady your hand while working on small spots or near areas of wet paint. The unpadded end is held in the left hand with the padded end resting on the edge of the painting or on a dry part of the painting. Your right hand rests on the middle of the stick above the area you're painting. A mahl stick shifts the control of your brush from your shoulder, arm or wrist to your finger tips.


An artist using his mahl stick to paint the small stuff.


From Howard in Oklahoma:

Q. Can I gesso over an old painting and use the canvas again?

A. Yes, but it's not the surface you would want for your most important works because there is some chance of cracking and separation of the layers. Scrape and sandpaper areas of old thick paint to level out the surface. Paint the gesso on brushing firmly in all directions to create good adhesion. Even out the gesso brush strokes.


From Albert in Toronto:

Q. I've only got Tuesdays and Thursdays to paint. I'd like to put on the second coat on Thursday. Is there a way to shorten the drying time of oil paint?

A. There are ways. First, thin paint dries faster than thick paint. If your first coat is thin it may be possible to put on your second coat in two days.


Dry heat will speed the drying time. Lean the wet painting against a sunny window, put it in the back seat of your car on a sunny day or put it on top of your refrigerator. Don't use your fireplace, an open flame heater or your oven.


COBALT SICCATIVE dries oil paint. A few drops in a color mixture will dry the paint in less than 8 hours depending on the thickness of the paint. (There is some risk of cracking and light colors can darken when this dryer is used.)


From Jesus in Brazil:

Q. Is there a way can I test a color without painting it on and having to remove it if it's wrong?

A. Yes there is. Paint on the palette doesn't always look the same when it's on the canvas because of the adjoining colors so it's always good to test. You can put a small amount of a color on the canvas and then look at it with a magnifying glass to make it larger. That way if it's not the color, there is less to remove.


If the painting is dry, transparent cellophane can be laid on the canvas and will stay in place with static cling. The color or technique can then be tested wiped off and tested again and again. When it's right take off the cellophane and paint it on with confidence.


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© Copyright Bill Martin 2007 • PO Box 511, Albion, CA 95410 •