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linseed oil paintIf you’ve ever found yourself in an atelier-or art shop-you’ve probably noticed that most of the oil paints that you can purchase there are of the linseed oil paint variety. Ever wonder why that is? If you’re hoping to dabble your brush in oil paints–by far, the most popular painting method among both the masters and today’s students of the medium–then consider knowing about linseed oil paint as the very first item in Oil Painting 101.

We will talk about what linseed oil is, why it is so important to the painter who uses oils to do their work, and how you can use this knowledge to your benefit if you plan on emulating Holbein or Matisse.

Linseed Oil: What it is and What it Does

Linseed oil is derived from the seeds of the flax plant, and is sometimes referred to as flaxseed oil. It is golden colored and while certain grades of linseed oil can be used in cooking, it usually isn’t. What makes linseed oil unique is that it is considered a “drying oil” in that it will solidify through a process that is known as polymerization. Because of this property, linseed oil makes a perfect vehicle for pigments, which is a fancy thing to call–that’s right–paint.

It isn’t just oil paint that gets the linseed oil treatment, although that certainly is its claim to fame. Because of it’s unique properties, linseed oil makes a great base for all kinds of things that you’ll find when the creativity bug finds you. It makes a great wood finish, since it shrinks while it hardens, giving wood grain its moment in the spotlight. It can also be a glazier’s best friend, since it mixes well with chalk to make an excellent window sealant.

Should you want to try your hand at gilding–or applying gold leaf to a surface–than linseed oil is just what you need. Because it dries so slowly (and we’ll talk about that more in a moment) using it to adhere delicate sheets of gold leaf  to a canvas or other objet d’art just makes sense; you’ll have maximum workability and adherence with linseed oil.

Linseed Oil in Paint and Painting

We touched briefly on how linseed oil’s main claim to fame is as a vital ingredient in linseed oil paint. Because it dries so slowly, linseed oil is the perfect vehicle for natural and synthetic pigments and the paint that it creates has been a hit with artists quite literally for centuries! There is even recorded information that we have from the Greeks that mentions using flaxseed oil as an emulsifier in oil paints. Talk about your art history, huh?

What makes linseed oil such a natural choice is both it’s polymerization and slow drying time. Because it dries as a solid form, there are lots of oil painting techniques that you can learn that take advantage of this property. Impasto, for example, is a term that refers to the three-dimensional quality you can achieve by using a lot of paint and building it into layers before using heavy brushwork to create a textured effect.

Because it dries so slowly, you can work and rework parts of your piece over without worrying about permanent mistakes. This process is known as wet-on-wet and refers to applying fresh paint to areas of your painting that have not yet dried. This also means that you can preserve your paint on the pallette, which is useful if you’ve painstakingly mixed colors together to get just the right shade.

Besides just being the vehicle of choice for oil paints, you can purchase linseed oil separately at your local atelier and add it to your paint in order to increase its flow, or viscosity. You can think of this as essentially diluting your paint, allowing you to apply more and get the most out of those precious little tubes. By doing this, you are also causing the paint to dry even more slowly, which will give you lots of time to perfect your masterpiece.

What About Other Oils?

Of course, linseed oil isn’t the only “slow-drying” oil there is. There are lots of others that you can find and use in your oil painting experiments, though linseed oil remains the most popular choice by a wide margin. Here are some other oils that you can consider for their slow-drying and polymerization qualities:

Why is it important to know what other oils you can use in oil painting? Well, it isn’t uncommon or even difficult for artists to mix their own paints from scratch. Besides being economical, it gives your work that additional personalized feel. Next we will show you how to mix your own linseed oil paint to create works of art that are truly one of a kind!

A Quick Linseed Oil Paint Recipe

If you are interested in making your own linseed oil paint, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll walk you through the basic process of making your own paint. First let’s go over what you’ll need to get started:

That’s it! Dry pigment is what gives paint its color and can be found in most art supply stores. They are typically derived from minerals or plants and come in powder form. You can also find synthetic pigments as well. Some common ones are sienna, which is derived from iron oxide, and pthalo blue, which is actually a synthetic blue made from pthalocyanine. You can choose whichever pigment you wish.

To make the paint, simply put a small pile of pigment on a nonporous surface like a plastic artist’s pallette, and add a few drops of linseed oil. Use a brush or pallette knife to work the two together until you reach your desired consistency. That’s it–really! Remember that a little oil goes a long way, and before you know it you will be mixing your own paints like a Renaissance master.

So there it is: a quick and dirty guide to linseed oil paint. From here, you may want to look into some other painting techniques like water color. Or perhaps you’ve decided to go tech instead; there’s a lot to learn about digital painting-no linseed oil required!

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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