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Simple Oil Painting Ideas for Beginners

Looking for some simple oil painting ideas for beginners? You’ve come to the right place.

Oil painting is a timeless form of artistic expression that has produced some of history’s finest masterpieces across the board. But even the most creative painters can find themselves fresh out of ideas.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re in a similar spot. These 8 Simple Oil Painting Ideas for Beginners could be all you need to unlock your creativity.

Oil Painting Ideas for Beginners

The oil painting journey always begins with a blank canvas. But when that canvas stays blank for too long, you could benefit from a little help coming up with simple oil painting ideas, just like these 8 great ones for beginners you can follow.

Each one of these ideas is simple enough for you to try out, even if this is your very first attempt at this medium.

Now, they may not be the most compelling subjects to ever grace a painting, but working on them can help you familiarize yourself with your materials and get you started on developing your skills and techniques.

These subjects are also beautiful and colorful enough to give any novice artist a sense of accomplishment. You may even end up wanting to frame your completed work. But first, you’ll have to pick which one of these simple oil painting ideas you want to create.

Table of Contents

    What You Need to Get Started

    A wise person once captured the sentiments of every artist when they eloquently said, “There’s no greater joy than that of new art supplies.”

    Getting started on oil painting is the perfect opportunity to indulge yourself. Here are the important items you should have on your shopping list:

    • Oil paints
    • Oil painting brushes
    • Canvas paper
    • Palette
    • Palette knife
    • Gesso
    • Spatula
    • Gamsol
    • Paper towels

    You’ll need to have all these basic materials, especially if you plan to devote yourself to this medium. But as you’re still a beginner, you don’t have to break the bank. You can buy just enough of what you need for your first dance with oil painting.

    An idea of what you’ll be painting — even a vague one — can help you determine the right materials to buy for this project, from the amount and colors of the oil paints to the sizes of your canvas paper and selection of paintbrushes.

    A smaller-sized canvas would be best for a first attempt at oil painting. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Taking on too large a project so soon would demand more and could leave you overwhelmed and even giving up entirely.

    The paintbrushes are another key point. Using the correct ones for the size of work is essential. We recommend initially choosing the largest brush possible that lets you put in those big shapes and colors easily.

    Once you get all your materials together, you can officially begin your oil painting journey.

    How Do You Begin Oil Painting?

    For your very first undertaking in this medium, we recommend starting with a smaller painting such as a still life or abstract painting.

    But before you do any actual painting, you’ll first need to do a little surface prep and prime your canvas paper with gesso.

    You can apply it with a paintbrush but some opt to do so with a spatula for a smoother finish.

    Gesso seals the surface of the canvas paper and gives it more “tooth,” making for better absorbency of the paints and preventing them from bleeding or seeping.

    And speaking of paints, you’ll also need to put them in order on your palette and mix them to get the colors you’ll need for your painting.

    The Zorn limited palette is a good option for beginners. This basic selection consists of only four colors:

    • Yellow ochre 
    • Ivory black (for your blues)
    • Vermilion (or cadmium red light) 
    • Titanium white

    As you get better at this medium, you can add more colors to your palette. But for a beginner, this limited palette can already give you the range of colors you need for a basic painting.

    You can focus on mixing them without having to worry about too many variations to work with. Just squeeze out some of each of the four paints at the top of the palette and use the space beneath for mixing.

    It’s a huge advantage if you already know the different combinations to produce certain colors. But if you don’t, that’s alright.

    You can experiment by blending different colors and amounts of paint until you get what you’re looking for.

    When canvas and palette are good to go, remember to always start with the largest shapes and colors and then work your way down to the smaller details.

    Still Life – Fruit, flowers

    Fruits and flowers were some of the very first things we attempted to draw as children. When it comes to oil painting, it should be no different.

    These still life ideas are achievable for an oil painting beginner of any age. But while they may seem pretty straightforward, they can give you some valuable lessons you will need to remember so that you can improve at this craft. There is so much for you to realize and learn from the get-go.

    For instance, there’s more to painting grapes than making purple blots on a canvas. You will need different shades and colors, such as cadmium red, orange, and yellow to illustrate the illumination.

    Watch as artist Leonordo Pereznieto shows how it’s done.

    Another thing to remember is the drying time of your oil paints. Oil paint dries slower than acrylic paint, and for beginners, this can sometimes be beneficial.

    But while this may seem like permission to take your time, you should note that your references will gradually undergo changes in appearance, including their color and texture.

    One way to get around this is to take a picture of your reference and paint from it. Some may prefer to paint from real life, but a photograph can keep the appearance intact which can be helpful for slower beginners.

    Simple Landscapes – Forest, Mountain, Desert Scene

    Landscape paintings are not only among the most iconic pieces of artwork created. They’re also another great oil painting idea for beginners.

    Whether you want to depict the lushness of a forest, the grandeur of a mountain, or the desolation of a desert, a simple landscape painting is an excellent way to pour your creativity onto a canvas.

    This option presents an opportunity for you to experiment with the primary colors on your palette and get you started on your brushwork and technique. It’s also a good place to begin practicing illustrating light and shade in a painting.

    Loose Silhouettes

    There are many adept artists who still struggle to paint loosely. For most of them, this stems from their perfectionism and their keenness and ability to bring their subjects to life on canvas by depicting even the most intricate details. 

    Now, for a beginner like yourself, loose painting is a great place to start. For one, you still can’t capture details with precision. But with this style, you aren’t meant to.

    The large and “messy” brushstrokes are basically the whole point of loose painting and you can get into it by starting with loose silhouettes.

    Here are a couple of things you need to note:

    • Use a large paintbrush – When painting loosely, use the largest brush you have. This will help you achieve that loose look that so many artists strive to emulate. You’ll also be able to get more done and cover the canvas with a lesser number of strokes.
    • Hold the paintbrush loosely – The closer to the bristles you hold your brush, the tighter you and your painting become. The key is to hold it further down the handle. This will give you more control which will be translated into your canvas by the confidence and expressiveness your artwork demonstrates.
    • Use lots of paint – Having lots of paint on your brush contributes to the loose look you are going for in this painting style. Artists tend to tighten up when there isn’t enough paint on their brushes. So be sure to load your large brush with lots of paint.
    • Paint with your entire arm – This is the most important thing to remember with loose painting. You need to paint with your entire arm, making your brushstrokes by moving your shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Limiting your strokes to your wrist and finger movements will cause you to tighten up and your painting will consequently look tight as well.

    Loose Portraits

    You can opt for painting loose portraits instead of loose silhouettes. What’s the difference? There is more detail involved in portraits than in silhouettes.

    This can make it more challenging for some artists, especially beginners. But overall, it still follows the style of large, loose strokes suggestive of the subject rather than accurately depicting it down to the minute details.

    Should you choose to proceed with a portrait instead of painting silhouettes, try to get someone to sit for you so you can paint from life. This will give you a much better impression of your subject than a simple two-dimensional photograph of a person.

    Check out this video where artist Chelsea Lang masterfully demonstrates how to paint a loose portrait and gives tips on how you can achieve the same.


    Clouds are yet another simple oil painting idea for beginners that you can learn a lot from. There really is more to it than painting white shapes on a blue background. In fact, that’s precisely one of the first important lessons.

    Oil painting beginners often make the mistake of painting the entire background first, and then painting other objects over it.

    This just creates more work in blending the new paints with the background and it’s something that most commonly happens when painting clouds over a sky.

    The correct way to do it is to first block in the areas on the canvas where the clouds will be, then paint the blue sky around them.

    When you start painting the clouds and work on the contours where they meet with the sky, you can experiment with the hardness and the softness of the edges.

    This is one more thing you’ll need to develop mastery over as you progress with oil painting, so working on it on your very first canvas is a great opportunity you can get from painting simple clouds.


    A landscape painting of an ocean is your earliest introduction to adding dynamism to your artwork.

    It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds, so don’t let that intimidate you. Beginners at oil painting can just as well capture the movements of the waves.

    In this video, artist Amber Emmi shows how it’s done. Of course, as this is your first oil painting, it won’t be as effortless for you as it is for her.

    But if you follow her guide, you’ll earn the bragging rights to a very realistic first attempt at an ocean oil painting.

    Animals – birds, horses, dogs

    Artists who are beginners to oil painting but have some experience and skill in drawing might want more of a challenge for their first attempt at this medium.

    If you are among them and you fancy something other than the simple oil painting ideas we’ve discussed so far, we recommend painting animals.

    Birds, horses, and dogs make good subjects for all beginners in general. But as you would know very well from sketching them, they do need more detail than our other oil painting ideas.

    So while any beginner can try their brush at these, animal paintings are more achievable for those beginners with backgrounds in other mediums.

    Abstract Painting

    Not everyone appreciates abstract art, but it’s arguably the best simple oil painting idea for a beginner to start with.

    Abstraction allows you to unleash your creativity onto a canvas where principles and expectations do not apply.

    This makes it suitable for a first-timer to explore oil painting without any constraints.

    In this art style, you can endlessly experiment with mixing and blending colors, familiarize yourself with the different ways to hold a paintbrush, and practice your brushstrokes.

    This freedom can help oil painting beginners become more comfortable with this medium early on and lay a solid foundation for other styles they may want to try out later.

    Frequently Asked Questions:

    Should I start with pencils or can a beginner do oil painting?

    It is recommended that you start drawing with pencils before you take on oil painting.

    Drawing is the foundation of most forms of art and learning the basics before proceeding to other mediums is the best way to equip yourself with the fundamental skills and understanding. 

    For one, drawing will help you develop your hand-eye coordination and give you a better feel for proportions. Artists also sometimes draw on the canvas to outline the composition of the image they intend to paint.

    Drawing and painting are not unrelated disciplines. Rather, certain skills are transferable between the two. But drawing should ideally be the medium that painting and others build upon.

    Practicality is also an important consideration. Some have argued that they have managed to learn the art basics directly from oil painting. However, practicing with oils and canvas paper is more expensive than pencils and a sketchpad.

    Starting with pencils is not only the cheaper alternative, but it is also the best medium there is for laying a solid foundation for yourself as an artist.

    What are some beginner oil painting ideas?

    Some popular beginner oil painting ideas include still life, such as flowers and fruits, and simple landscapes that depict forests, mountains, or deserts. Animals such as birds, horses, and dogs are likewise good options for painting subjects.

    You can also paint loose silhouettes and loose portraits to practice your technique while allowing you to mentally and physically loosen up. Painting clouds and oceans can serve this purpose as well while letting you work on your brushstrokes.

    Most of these beginner oil painting ideas can be readily found around you. But if you would rather not paint specific objects or scenery, you can always express yourself with an abstract painting.

    Oil Painting Ideas – Conclusion

    To sum it up, there are 8 simple oil painting ideas for beginners we highly recommend. These are:

    • Still life
    • Simple landscapes
    • Loose silhouettes
    • Loose portraits
    • Clouds
    • Ocean
    • Animals
    • Abstract painting

    While they may be simple enough, there is so much you can learn from painting each of them.

    You’ll find that the different principles and techniques that take root as you create your very first oil painting will be applicable even as you progress along the path from beginner to master.

    If you’re looking to lay the right groundwork for yourself in this medium, you can’t go wrong with these simple oil painting ideas for beginners. But don’t take our word for it. Go ahead and give them a try!

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