An Introduction to painting in oils

Workshop held on 7 May 2011

Facilitator: Nathan Jansen Van Vuuren
Coordinator: Mandy Johnston

The workshop began with the choosing of an artwork for the attendees to use as reference.
Two artworks were chosen:

  • Michael Borremans: Man with Bonnet, 2005
  • Edgar Degas: Portrait of a young woman, 1867


We were then put through our paces with a brief lesson on the proportions and geometry of drawing a face. Nathan explained that the face can be broken down into
“balls and triangles”.  The drawing was done with colour pencils as these do not mix with the paint as in the case of lead.

As we worked Nathan discussed evidence of the great masters using a concave lens to project images onto the canvas. And in particular, due to this method, Ruebens eventual development of a kind of short hand for body parts that can be easily observed once you know these "tricks".

How to:

We began painting with an under painting on prepared canvases of linseed oil mixed with a very tiny amount of burnt Sienna. The idea is that thecanvas be ‘wet’ in order to create a wet on wet painting. This method is used by many artists and allows for a vibrancy and fluidity not otherwise possible.

  • The use of linseed oil as a medium is because of evidence of Turpentine's bad side effect to health. You should always use gloves when using Turps in order to clean. The other way to clean brushes is to soak them in linseed oil and sunflower oil and then use ordinary liquid soap to clean off oils.
  • Next a small square hogs hair brush is selected. This is because of the strength of the bristles and because of the ability to change side of brush and therefore change width of strokes, with ease.
  • When painting with oils, Nathan advised we start with dark colours and slowly adding the lighter until finally highlights are added. So we mixed two colours, burnt umber and French ultra marine to make a very dark shade, as close to black as possible. This colour allows for “vibrancy” even in the darkest shades. Use more blue to make shade darker.
  • For the mid tones put titanium/zinc white, yellow ocre and burnt sienna on your pallet( an old magazine works well as a pallet. This is because you can see the colour easily and tear off pages for easy cleaning.) It really helps to organise your pallet in a logical fashion. So you can try all pure colours at outside and blended lighter colours as you go in toward the middle.

Some Tricks:

  • Use a very soft dry brush and lightly brush over the surface in order to blend colours. If you bush over the entire surface with a wide, soft, dry brush you create hazy effect into which you can work detailed areas.
  • if your paint tops are stuck shut, heat the lid with hot water.
  • use a colour like scarlet lake for the lips.
  • there is a colour/glaze called flesh tint. Use it sparingly to give magic to Caucasian skin tones


Quote of the day, “Oil on Canvas is like getting into bed with a more experienced person, most of the time you end up on the bottom.”

  • Michael Borremans: Man with Bonnet, 2005
  • Edgar Degas: Portrait of a young woman, 1867