Oil painting is a challenging and rewarding craft that takes a lifetime to truly master. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced painter, improving is a never ending process.
Self Portrait as Zeus by Rembrandt
Here’s 12 ways to improve as a classical oil painter and take your skills to the next level.
1. Master different techniques
Oil painting offers a wide range of techniques, from chiaroscuro, sfumato, glazing, and scumbling to impasto, sgraffito, and alla prima. Mastering different techniques can help you find new ways to develop your skills and add to your arsenal of abilities as an oil painter.
Old Master Secrets - Impasto Via Nic Thurman on Youtube
2. Learn from great painters
Studying the works of painters who are better than you can help you to gain insight into their techniques and approaches and give you ideas about how to improve your own work. Attend exhibitions and workshops, study masterworks, and learn from more experienced painters to expand your knowledge.
The Alien by Odd Nerdrum
3. Keep a sketchbook
A sketchbook can help you develop your drawing skills, keep track of ideas for paintings, and allow you to practice anywhere. This is by far the easiest way to increase the amount of time that you spend practicing. Whether you’re waiting for something, drawing for fun, or need a break from painting, you can always bring out your sketchbook for a quick drawing session.
Instantly Improve Your Drawings Via Nic Thurman on Youtube
4. Use master references
Using masterworks as references is a great way to get yourself in the right headspace. You have a sort of gold standard in front of you that will force you to think on a higher level. Additionally it will make it easy to draw connections to your own work and inspire you to use the same techniques and effects. This applies to the composition, contrast, brushwork, motifs, painterly qualities, etc. If you’re working from imagination then this is by far the best reference you can have because it has already been translated into the visual language of painting, whereas a photo has not.
Love and Life by G.F. Watts
5. Get specific
When you have a big goal it’s easy to drown in the complexity of it all. That’s also the case when observing a masterwork. There’s so many great qualities that if you simply try to "paint like them" you will likely fall short and not be sure why. Like with a big goal, you need to make the process more simple for yourself and identify step by step actions that will get you to the desired result.
A great way to get better at painting is to get specific about what you actually want to improve. Isolating individual qualities or techniques that you admire in other paintings is one way to make the process of mastery easier. That way you can identify whether you’re hitting the mark or not. For example, look at a Rembrandt portrait and practice getting the same values as him. Or get even more specific; practice getting the same values in the eye. Then it is significantly easier to see the changes that are happening and they don’t get lost in the big picture.
5 Principles You Need to Learn From Rembrandt Via Nic Thurman on Youtube
6. Paint from life
Painting from life will help you to develop your observational skills and hand eye coordination. It is a drastically different way to learn how to capture the nuances of color and light as opposed to painting from photos. If your goal is to make paintings that feel alive, then you should be painting from life! While it may be more difficult in the short term, in the long term it leads to the best results.
The Problem With Painting From Photos Via @nic.thurman on Instagram
7. Use a limited palette
Using a limited palette can help you focus your color mixing and develop a deeper sense for how the various colors work together. It can also help you to create more harmonious paintings because it is a more simple base that forces the blending of colors. Additionally, in the long term you will know your materials much more intimately than if you had a wider range of colors.
Mix Any Skin Tones With The 4 Color Apelles Palette via @nic.thurman on Instagram
8. Practice color theory
Understanding the fundamentals of color theory is essential to becoming a successful oil painter. Practice mixing colors and thinking about complementary or analogous color schemes while using your palette to take your colors to the next level.
Classical Oil Painting Color Theory - Explaining The Apelles Palette via Nic Thurman on Youtube
9. Make it easy to practice
A cluttered workspace can be distracting and hinder your ability to work. Keep your workspace organized so that getting started working each day is as easy as possible. A great trick for making it easy to get started painting is to premix the main mixtures you use every day. That way you can take the paint straight out of the tube and start painting without having to mix your palette.
It may sound simple and even a bit silly, but small things like this add up in a massive way. By having the colors premixed you will be much more inclined to get started. You won't procrastinate because of the dreaded palette mixing preparation you need to do. Meaning you will end up having far more practice over the course of a year! Remove as much friction as possible from actually practicing and you will practice far more often.
Never Mix Your Oil Painting Palette Again via @nic.thurman on Instagram
10. Ask for critiques
When working on a painting for a long amount of time you can go blind to the mistakes, so having fresh eyes on the painting can make it much easier to find the major problems. Getting feedback from other painters can help you identify areas for improvement and give you a more clear course of action to move forward.
Blind Passing by Odd Nerdrum
Like any skill, oil painting requires regular practice to improve. Make a scheduled time to practice each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Practice compounds over time, but only if you practice consistently.
Common Oil Painting Mistakes and How to Fix Them via Nic Thurman on Youtube
Mentorship is a powerful way to learn a craft in depth. My time spent in Odd Nerdrum's studio as his pupil was life changing and changed my entire philosophical perspective about painting.
If you would like personalized feedback and to learn more about the philosophy and craft of classical painting, feel free to join me on Patreon.com/nicthurman to strive for the eternal masterwork.
Mother and Child by Nic Thurman
Watch a Patreon lesson for free here:
Improving as a classical oil painter is a lifelong journey.
Reaching the highest level in painting requires an extreme dedication. By following these tips, you can continue to develop your skills. But remember to always be patient, persistent, and passionate in your pursuit of excellence in the craft.
Want To Learn More About Classical Oil Painting Techniques?
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