A Quick Guide to Oil Painting Principles

Here’s a quick guide to some oil painting principles – basic stuff that most painters have internalised but it can be good to go back to the basics if you get stuck…


Lean to Fat

Using paint mixed with a ‘lean’ oil painting medium over the top of a ‘fat’ layer can cause the paint to crack over time – so it’s best to work from Lean to Fat.

Thin to Thick

Similar to the Lean to Fat principle, there’s a risk of the paint cracking if thin layers are painted over the thick ones that are likely to expand and contract underneath over time.

Cool to Warm

Not specific to oil painting, more of a colour and design principle, and of course a rule to be broken… but as warm colours appear to come forward and cool ones recede, in some circumstances it can be useful to work from cool to warm in the various layers of paint.

Dark to Light

Similar to Cool to Warm, Dark to Light tones tend to work in the same way to create a sense of depth.

so the mantra goes…

  • Lean to Fat
  • Thin to Thick
  • Cool to Warm
  • Dark to Light

and perhaps we can add the universal principal of working from the General to the Specific and of course the one that has made it into everyday use of starting with the broad brush strokes… so I guess, on a fresh canvas, this all means the first marks are likely to be lean, thin, cool, dark, general marks applied with a broad brush.

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