Princeton Blog

How to Avoid These 3 Beginner Mistakes When Using Oil Paints

New artists often have a love-hate relationship with oil paints. It’s probably the most forgiving type of paint to work with, but it comes with a high barrier to entry, requiring extra supplies, extra time, and extra care.

Safety First

You’ll be working with solvents like turpentine and mineral spirits which give off fumes that can become overwhelming in enclosed rooms, so it’s important to paint in a well-ventilated space. Those same solvents are often very flammable, so be extra mindful to keep any cleaning rags away from heat sources.

You should also try to minimize the amount of paint that gets onto your skin. We all get some drips or splatters on our hands from time to time, but it could become a problem if it happens regularly – especially if you use solvents to wash it off.  



  • Disposable latex gloves are a great option for those of us who often end up with multi-colored hands at the end of paint sessions.
  • Don’t have a large or well-ventilated studio to paint in? It’s a great excuse to bring the canvas and easel outside for some plein air painting.


Know your drying times

The biggest practical difference between oil and acrylics is the time they need to dry. Oil paints dry very slowly. This is a huge benefit to artists who like plenty of time to shape and blend the paint but it comes with some extra challenges too.

For one thing, you’ll need a lot more patience. Oil paints can take days or even weeks to dry to the touch. If you’re planning to do multiple wet-on-dry layers or applying a varnish, you’ll be spending a lot of time waiting for things to set.

Don’t rush it.

Even a painting that is dry to the touch might still be wet below the surface, and if you’re not careful you can end up accidentally mixing half-dry paint into your newest layer.

A more long-term problem will arise if the paint closest to the canvas dries more slowly than the paint near the surface, causing cracks and flakes to appear over time.


  • A good rule of thumb is to paint fat over lean, meaning the first layers you put down should be most diluted with turpentine or spirits, using less as you work your way out. This evens-out the drying time and prevents the surface layers from setting before the base.
  • Be sure to check the manufacturers recommended drying time for the paint you’re using.

Use white paint sparingly

Generally speaking, oil paints have more pigment than acrylics, creating more distinct and vibrant colors. Yet it’s not uncommon for new artists to find their paintings frustratingly dull and lifeless. More often than not, the problem comes from mixing in too much white.

You’ll likely find yourself using white paint regularly when mixing colors. It lightens up pigments and brings down the intensity of colors. This gives you control over the color value, but overdoing it with white – especially with very opaque pigments like Titanium White – will dampen the vibrancy.

When mixing colors, start by focusing on getting the right hue before you reach for the white tube, and mix in a just s little at a time until you get the value and intensity you’re looking for.


  • Try limiting yourself to just a couple of colors when you start so that you can focus on how the value and hue are affected by adding white. For great practice, you can even try some monochrome paintings to explore the full range you can achieve with shades of a single color.
  • You should generally avoid adding both white and black to a single color mixture.

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