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Traditional art has been around a lot longer than digital and it’s gonna be around for centuries to come. Oil painting is a great place to start for anyone who wants to get into painting beyond digital artwork.
But switching to a new medium always comes with a learning curve. You need to learn the materials, the techniques, and with oil you’ll need to learn how to work with canvases too.
Thankfully there are tons of books out there tailor-made for beginners. And you’ll find all the best intro guides to oil painting in this post.
Oil Painting For The Absolute Beginner
When first starting any task like exercising or cooking it’s always nice to have some guidance. Oil Painting For The Absolute Beginner offers this type of guidance for beginning painters with a writing style that anyone can follow.
It’s a pretty small book with only 128 pages but it covers a lot about the oil painting process. You’ll learn all about the materials from paints to palettes and setting up an easel at home.
The second chapter is huge with a ton of techniques for beginners. It can be intimidating getting used to the medium and learning how to apply oils to the canvas. You’ll need to learn about hard/soft edges and how to work with wet oils confidently.
This book covers so many important topics from the medium itself to mixing colors, basic color theory, and certain techniques for painting subjects like people, animals, flowers, and objects.
I absolutely recommend this book for getting started with oil painting. No matter what your background or reason for starting this will take you far.
The Oil Painting Course You’ve Always Wanted
No book can make you a great oil painter. But a great book can guide you in the right direction to practice properly and learn the right techniques as you go.
The Oil Painting Course You’ve Always Wanted is a fairly lengthy guide for beginners and experts alike. It really does feel like a structured class starting with the basics of which brands to buy for brushes, paints, everything.
Early lessons focus on the basics like painting shapes or simple objects like fruits. This is usually a good place to start with painting and you can do this on your own too.
But with these lessons by your side you’ll have a much easier time learning the ropes and skipping the hurdles that all beginners face. An excellent guide with some very valuable tips for getting started.
Painting with Oils
The true beauty of David Howell’s Painting with Oils is just how much detail you get with each lesson. This book encourages you to experiment with oils and try new things with the techniques.
David is a professional artist so he not only has a way with oils, but also knows how to explain his process clearly in the written word.
You’ll learn how to imply movements with certain objects and how to find the focal point of a piece before making a mark.
Just starting in oil painting can be quite intimidating. There’s so much to learn and there isn’t really a “right” way to approach the whole process.
This book outlines techniques you can follow that’ll eventually click in your mind the more you practice. That’s why I also recommend keeping this on your bookshelf for future reads.
Oil Painter’s Bible
Marylin Scott’s Oil Painter’s Bible feels like a nice mix between beginner material and more intermediate advice.
For the name “bible” it does feel a bit small with only 190 pages. But it’s packed with a ton of photos, diagrams, and illustrations explaining the best techniques for working with oils as a medium.
The chapter on color mixing is especially valuable for beginners because that’s a huge area to learn about. Many artists even start with a limited palette because it makes color mixing a bit simpler.
But most of this book talks about techniques like working with dry brush painting, blending, glazing, and how to make minor corrections without screwing up your work.
Towards the end this book wraps up by focusing on specific subjects like landscapes, buildings, people, and still lifes around the home.
Another excellent book to keep nearby on the bookshelf and it’s something you may find yourself revisiting many times over your expedition into oils.
You’ll learn some absolute basics like how to handle your brush, how to mix colors, and how to paint with a 3-dimensional view in mind.
One reason I recommend this book is that it helps beginners set realistic goals. You can only improve so much in a few months’ time so you cannot expect to master oils with this book.
However the lessons are pragmatic and take you through a hierarchy where each chapter pushes you a little further along. If you hit a chapter that’s too difficult you should spend more time practicing, then revisit the book to keep moving.
Problem Solving for Oil Painters
I’ll admit this does feel a bit “heavy” for beginners, but I think the concepts are invaluable to anyone seriously getting into painting.
Problem Solving for Oil Painters looks past the techniques into the conceptual fundamentals of creating good art. You’ll learn how to solve issues with perspective, volume, lighting, form, and more importantly ideas that you’re trying to convey.
Art is about seeing properly and recreating what you see accurately. This includes colors but also forms and proportions related to other items in the composition.
This book isn’t exactly a step-by-step guide on oil painting. But it does cover a lot of “how do I fix this?” questions that beginners and even experienced painters often face.
The Elements of Landscape Oil Painting
Getting out and painting in nature is one of the best experiences for artists. It provides endless inspiration and nature is a beautiful subject to paint.
But if you’re just getting started with oil painting these ideas may go over your head. You certainly don’t need to be an expert to go outside and paint landscapes, however you do need to feel comfortable setting up an easel and a canvas.
Author & artist Suzanne Brooker talks about her experience painting landscapes and her tips on different subjects like skies, terrains, and natural flora from trees to flowers.
A really cool book for artists with some oil experience who want to dive into landscape work.
1,500 Color Mixing Recipes
You can learn how to mix oils pretty quickly but mastery takes years of practice.
With this book you’ll have a bunch of hand-made color recipes right at your fingertips. 1,500 Color Mixing Recipes spans 176 pages with solutions for mixing oils along with watercolors and acrylics.
Even though it’s not strictly an oil book I still think the lessons are invaluable for beginners. These recipes will stand the test of time and you can use them as base templates for creating your own recipes.
It’s also good to read how other professionals mix their colors so you can learn how to approach this topic yourself.
Anyone struggling with color mixing should nab a copy of this book and keep it handy for some easy mixing practice.
The Complete Oil Painter
You can do so much with oils and The Complete Oil Painter is one of the best guides on depth and versatility. Once you learn some of the basics you can take your oil painting skills anywhere with different palettes, subjects, and moods.
This all comes with practice but you can skip a lot of the early pitfalls by working through this book. It covers a lot of ideas like underpainting and alla prima painting which all oil painters should know about.
Beginners will find a lot of advice on specific themes like painting portraits, landscapes, flowers, or objects around the home. Each subject deserves its own approach and there are always little nuances to consider before you start a painting.
The last section talks about professional studio practices like sizing a canvas, varnishing, and framing your completed paintings.
This basically covers everything about oil painting and it’s absolutely brilliant for a newbie who wants to understand the big picture.
The best way to improve at something is to do it a lot. Granted not everyone can find the time to practice every single day, but for those who can you’ll see tremendous leaps in your output.
This is why Daily Painting is such a fascinating book. It’s not really a how-to guide, but more of an inspirational guide from artist Carol Marine who started painting daily in 2006.
She shares her journey and the lessons she’s learned painting every day and trying to get her oil paintings into galleries.
For hobbyists this may not offer a lot of practical advice. But for anyone who really wants to maximize their skillset I absolutely recommend a copy of this book. It’s something you can revisit many times and still pull out new bits of wisdom.
Oil Painting with the Masters
Artist Cindy Salaski organized this book as a complete guide to oil painting with advice from dozens of modern-day masters.
Oil Painting with the Masters studies the work of professional oil painters. Some of these featured artists are Richard McKinley, Phil Starke, George Gallo, Marc Hanson, Susan Lyon, and Jeffrey Watts.
Jeffrey is actually the founder of the Watts Atelier which is an excellent school for aspiring fine artists and entertainment artists.
I would not recommend this book for anyone brand new to oil painting, but it can help once you’re just beyond the absolute basics.
Think Big Paint Small
Think Big Paint Small is the newest book in this list and it’s one of the best for oil painting techniques.
This book talks about small canvas painting and how to approach each project with the right mindset. Beginners should start with smaller canvases because there’s less pressure and they’re easier to focus on.
If you can learn to create volumes on a smaller canvas you’ll be able to apply those skills to a 3-foot wide canvas too. And the step-by-step exercises in this book will help you to think about each stroke and how it’ll appear regardless of canvas size.
Granted this book is really best suited for artists who already have some oil experience. Keep it around once you past the basics and want to start making real finished paintings.
No matter what stage you’re at there’s bound to be something in this list that can help. Oil painting doesn’t have to be excruciating but it is a challenging medium.
Once you can estimate your skill level it’ll be much easier finding the right books to guide you along the path to oil painting.