Learning a new skill and having a beginner mindset for oil painting

For awhile I have been almost craving the feel of oil painting again (having only done it perhaps twice before) probably because I have these romantic notions of it feeling like a “real artist” using oil paints. Yet despite this desire and having bought new paint I kept ignoring it due to the uncomfortable feelings that doing something new and different often brings.

It’s strange in some ways because at just 16 I painted what I believe was my first ever oil painting, a portrait, as my GCSE final and it really didn’t turn out too badly. About 2 years ago at 27, I fished the old paints back out and intuitively painted a scene from Lake Garda from my own photo – it too didn’t turn out too badly. This time I didn’t know where to start, I knew it wouldn’t be as good as the artists I’d been admiring and little things plagued me like how do you clean up after oil painting in a non-toxic, safe way?!


At some point though it was time to try. I started watching some videos. I googled some questions. Time to put paint to paper.

It felt fun, mostly. There was some struggle bits not looking quite right, doubts about the background but then it started to come together. My third oil painting, a hand study – hmm, it didn’t turn out too badly (in my humble, inexperienced opinion – image inset).

Now I’m on to another study this time a portrait and it’s harder definitely so we will have to see what the outcome is on this one!

The point is that I’ve been avoiding doing something that so far is actually really enjoyable for me to do for fear of being a beginner and sucking.

I will concede that I have some advantage by having a solid foundation in drawing that is transferable as well as already understanding colour pretty well from my design work and illustration.

I think ultimately that it is good to try something new and experience the beginners mindset which can be taken in to other areas.

Here are some pointers for learning particularly in relation to art and creativity:

  • I personally would recommend people develop their drawing and observation skills as well as colour knowledge – these are the fundamentals.

  • Watch some YouTube videos and see the many different ways people approach it, then try a few and see which feels comfortable or maybe combine approaches.

  • Do studies and exercises to improve. Eg. for drawing or painting try just doing an eye or lips or hands or one flower.

  • Work your way up by taking those baby steps. The first few times you do something you aren’t going to be the best no matter how much previous relevant experience you have so don’t be too hard on yourself.

  • Practice regularly and intentionally – look at what can you learn from and what are the takeaways of each work once completed. Honestly asses what works/what doesn’t.

  • Don’t compare yourself to someone ahead of you, instead look to them to see potential.

  • Start to share your work slighter sooner than you are ready, most people will be encouraging and you may get some valuable critiques or advice too.

  • There is often in every art/creative process what we call ‘an ugly stage’ you must learn to work through it on every artwork. You will also have periods of an ugly phase where you aren’t happy with any work you are producing, you can push through or you can take a short break to rejuvenate and come back to your practice unfortunately again you have to learn to work through it in the long run.

  • Start with cheaper materials (but not the cheapest) until you know you want to continue. I advise not the cheapest because your experience may well be very disheartening if the quality is so poor that even the best artist would struggle to create something good with them.

What are you feeling called to do? Be brave and see what lessons you can learn from being a beginner. Good luck!

Kirsty McGill