How Do Oil Paints Work

Oil paints are a little different in other paints because of their slow drying properties and the fact that they’re usually mixed with other things before use.

They are one of the most popular type of paints used for art and have been popular since the 15th century, though there is evidence of their use far before then.


Oil paints are made from two things: a drying oil and pigment to color it. A drying oil is a special type of oil that hardens into a solid through a chemical reaction with the air in a very slow process. Most paints dry though evaporation so this different property is what makes oil paint take so long to dry.

In most cases, the drying oil used for oil paints is linseed oil, though often safflower oil is used for lighter colors. Pigments are ground up particles of some substance that color the oil. Pigments are made from various things.

For example, umber and sienna are clay pigments that make brown paints while the metal cadmium is used for reds and yellows. Each tube of paint will include information about the drying oil and pigments contained in it, often in the form of a standardized code. You’ll see things like PB, PBr, and PY for example, meaning Pigment Blue, Pigment Brown, and Pigment Yellow, respectively.

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This will be followed by a number which indicates what that pigment is made from. With recent technology, there are also a number of synthetic pigments now being used for oil paints, though most painters still prefer the traditional methods (even if synthetic pigments allow for a greater range of colors).

How to They Work

You can paint with oils straight out of the tube, though this will result in a thick, textured stroke that doesn’t flow across the canvas very well. More often, painters will first mix the paint from the tube with a painting medium.

Painting mediums are something that you add to the paint to change its properties on the canvas (usually making it smoother and easier to apply). Two of the most popular mediums are turpentine and linseed oil. Turpentine is a paint thinner and linseed oil makes the paint glossier.

Many artists use a half-and-half combo of these two mediums to produce a good, all-purpose paint. Many other types of oils and solvents are available to use as well, depending on how you want your paint to look and flow.

Durable oil paintings must be made using the “fat over lean” rule, which dictates that the lower layers of paint must have a lower oil content than the upper layers. This means that lower layers will dry first, resulted in a smooth, uncracked painting at the end. This rule must be taken into consideration when deciding which and how much of each medium to use.

The slow-drying property of oil paint has always made it an excellent choice for painting, as it allows for ample change before the product is finished. Its thickness is also a big plus, because it allows for painting with layers and texture, something watercolor can’t provide, for example. Oil paints have been around for a long time and will probably continue to be popular far into the future.

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