Watercolor vs. Oils: Which Should be Your First Medium? Learn Oil Painting First!

Learn oil painting first? That is my usual reply when I am often asked which art medium should beginning painters start with.

So, let us assume that you already draw well, you understand the principles of drawing--such as proportions, tones, and composition, and you have the right drawing aids to help you sharpen your drawing skills.

What comes next? A popular myth has it that painting with watercolors is easier than with oils, and that watercolor should be your first medium when you are learning to paint. And another popular misconception is that amateur painters should never touch oil paints. After all, didn't we play with watercolors in school as kids? So, a lot of beginning artists dive into watercolors assuming oil painting is only for experienced painters.

My advice—based on my own experience and my observations of my students—is this: Do not pick up watercolors until you have studied in another medium for at least a year. Instead, learn oil painting first.

Am I biased? Yes and no.

I dabbled in watercolors before I learned how to draw well. I did not know what I was doing, and as a result, I did not make significant progress. It wasn't until I developed solid drawing skills and set my mind on how to learn oil painting that my watercolor painting ability really took off.

As a matter of fact, my first medium was soft pastels. I chose them because I was intimidated by oils and thought, like everybody else, that beginning students should avoid using oils. Oils, I thought, were only for advanced painters. I thought I would learn oil painting much later but not then.

Years later, I was required to learn oil painting because it was the medium that my art school in Italy was using. Since I was comfortable with pastels by that time, I went there thinking that oil painting would be fairly easy. Instead, I had some struggles.

Eventually I learned color mixing, brush control, glazing, scumbling, composition, and working with a limited paint palette and a small selection of brushes. When I got back to drawing in pastels, I discovered that I had a deeper understanding of how painting should work. It was then easier for me to learn watercolors, oil pastels, and acrylics on my own.

Oil paints are forgiving. They allows much of abuse in handling. You can fix your mistakes easily—paint in and scrape out any number of times.

You can lay one color over another one. You can construct and reconstruct with very little difficulty. The slow drying time of oils gives you plenty of room to correct your mistakes and contemplate what to do next.

In watercolors, it is quite the other way around. The speedy drying time requires a masterly knowledge. The transparency of watercolors allows very little room for radical corrections of colors, values, or composition in the painting. How colors will turn out in watercolor painting depends on how direct the colors are applied or washed in.

In order to achieve solidity, form, and color transitions in watercolors, one must be extremely skilled. If you have seen John Singer Sargent's fluid, effortless watercolors and thought that watercolors were easy, think again. He achieved his mastery in oils first, and then the watercolors were just a natural outgrowth from that.

Artists choose their working medium for different reasons. I, too, had my reasons for switching from pastels to oils.

Two of those reasons are that oils have no dust, and oil paintings are easy to frame. Now I can even use water-soluble oil paints so I don't have to mess with mineral spirits or harmful solvents.

If the slow drying time is your reason for not using oils, or if you don't want to have to handle the solvents, then I can understand. But if you are just starting to paint, and you want to learn the mechanics of it, then oils are the ideal art medium to begin with. It does not mean you have to stick with oil for the rest of your life.

I teach my students oils first, because I can teach them a lot about color, value, and composition in one swoop, and I do not have to fret about drying time, dust, or control of water flow in brushes.

So, let me encourage you, regardless of your reasons for avoiding oil paints, to set aside any preconceived notions.

Treat learning oil painting as a wonderful aid that will usher you into some other, even greater, creative adventure. You will be saving a lot of time and avoiding some really steep learning curves; after all, watercolors are a master's medium as the known American plein air painter and teacher John Carlson stated.

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