Oils for Beginners

Wet into wet

Join Paul Apps outside as he discusses Plein Air Painting and the technique of painting wet into wet


Wet into wet is considered to be the most difficult technique for the beginner to master. However, all methods will owe their origins to wet in wet somewhere so there is no escaping it. Whatever medium you choose, watercolour or acrylic, wet into wet is always step one. The problem for most artists using oil is the length of time it takes to dry before proceeding with dry brush or layers.

I understand that it is just one reason why many painters choose other mediums to explore their creativity. Sometimes as an oil painter it pays dividends to be patient. Instead of cursing the drying time, use it; let it work for you not against you. Having paint that can still be reworked the next day can add new dimensions, allowing you to move things, adding many elements that are lost when you add wet over dry layers.

Working with Liquin will speed drying - if added when you are mixing your oil colour it will give you a dry enough surface the next day. Winsor & Newton’s Griffin Alkyd range is a fast drying oil (quicker than traditional oil, but slower than acrylic). You may prefer to work with water-soluble oils or acrylic as they are mixed with water which, in some cases, may be easier to deal with outside.

Get outside

One way to compel oneself to paint wet into wet is to venture outside and paint en plein air. By taking a compact set of materials into the field and painting what you see, your paintings will become fresh and un-laboured reactions to the subject. The Impressionists, in their pursuit of direction and the acquisition of prepared paint in tubes, showed us the way. In this series we are using oils, but all mediums work well with plein air.

To start with keep things simple. Take a small easel and a small canvas board, use a restricted colour palette, then get into the garden and find something to paint; or venture further afield to find a scene that inspires you. Take a sketch book and make a few simple sketches; it’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the scene.

Working oil in this way has to be conducted methodically; oils and acrylics alike can get messy and much care is needed, so have plenty of rag/paper towel handy - keep clean in your working practices. Equally have some means of transporting your finished work home at the end of your day. I built a wet panel carrier for this job - makes it all so much easier.

For this project I chose a landscape with distant, middle and some foreground interest. I found this field full of poppies and asked the farmer’s permission to go onto his land - the field had recently been sprayed so I had no time to waste!

Two helpful rules for plein air painting

One - when working outside the light is constantly changing. Whilst painting, do not chase the light. If you are lucky, you may have one to one and a half hours of good working time before the light changes too much. If the panel and subject allow you to complete within this time great, otherwise you need to repeat the visit in similar conditions to complete your work. Make notes and take photos before you start painting.

Two – be prepared! A wise artist will have checked their equipment before leaving home. My palette for this painting is limited to two sets of primaries and a couple of indulgences. When I opened up my kit I found I was missing some colours including my main Ultramarine Blue; I had two tubes of Cobalt instead! I was not pleased as it made the darks hard to achieve - a valuable lesson learned.


I often paint contra jour (against the light). Painting into the light reduces the colour range of the work and it also shades your canvas and palette making it easier to see and mix your values.

Field of poppies

It was a windy day and the light was constantly changing. The two images (above) show just what I had to contend with. Establish your basic structure and light source and do not chase the light.

1 Drawing directly with the brush, I placed a thin violet/blue mix to indicate the distant horizon.

Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Blue gave me a bright green with which I merely suggested the foreground.

I mixed my brightest bright, White and a hint of Cadmium Yellow, and applied it just above the horizon as the most intense part of the sky.

2 Rendering the sky, I mixed puddles of Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Red Light and Alizarin with Cobalt Blue.

I added a mere hint of Light Red to both. I carefully observed the cloud forms as they dominated the upper foreground and formed strong moody bases to the nearest clouds.

Then with increasing amounts of White and Cobalt Blue the tone and value became less significant as the clouds receded near to the horizon, whilst becoming smaller in size. I mixed Cobalt and Cerulean Blue with White for the blue sky between the clouds. I also added my brightest colour to form the top of the clouds. All my pigments so far have been applied with a half inch flat brush.

3 Using a small fan brush I softened the edges of all the cloud forms and continued to render them from my observations, and lowered the horizon.

For the middle ground I used my puddle of blue/violet to push in the distant hills and added a little tint of Light Red to separate the ranges, and added greens with Cobalt tints for the start of the many fields.

I then shifted the colour to a green mixed from Yellow and Cerulean as they came closer. I suggested some of the many tree forms in a darker blue/violet and Cadmium Red mix.

My palette layout minus a few colours, and one of my plein air easel set-ups - the SAA provide a good variety of outdoor painting equipment for all mediums so there are no excuses for not getting out there and making good paintings from life and nature.

4 Careful observation of the scene told me where to add cooler blue green values, pushing back the fields, and yellow brighter values warming up those nearer the foreground.

The structure of fields was carefully placed. I added a mid cool green in the foreground as I felt this value would react best with the poppies when they were introduced.

I placed a few dashes of Cadmium Red Light, just to confirm my thoughts.

5 I continued to refine with a quarter inch flat rendering all the fields and hedgerows. Cloud shadows were added across the fields and the hill using a mix of Cobalt, Alizarin and Yellow, keeping very cool against the bright value.

Finally adding the poppies, I used Yellow and White and a lot of Cadmium Red, making the value bright and light, and then added pure Cadmium Red to act as the deeper shadow area of the flowers, adding weight to them.

I applied them randomly; be careful when doing this as it is easy to form unwanted patterns. e.

6 For the final stage I checked everything, added the church in the village and some distant smoke as it rose in the landscape.

7Finally the next day I modified a few values in the studio, just tweaking the cool and warm values in the fields; I felt they needed some further distinction - this was easy as working in oil the medium was still wet and able to be reworked and wiped off if necessary.