3 Common Oil Painting Problems and How to Resolve Them

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Have you ever had a problem in your oil painting such as cracking or dull finish?

Have you found that your painting surface is under stress and have not found any solutions?

Oil painting is a pretty forgiving medium, but there are things that can go wrong and ruin your artwork if you aren’t aware of them.

oil painting problems
Oil painting is one of the most versatile and correctable mediums. Even the most serious of issues can be reversed with the proper know-how and techniques.

The good news is that the most common mistakes are easily avoidable by following a few rules. Some damage can even be repaired.

Oil painting is one of the most versatile and correctable mediums. Even the most serious of issues can be reversed with the proper know-how and techniques.

This article will cover the 3 most common oil painting problems and tell you how to resolve them.

The difficult part of assessing the quality of a finished oil painting is that it takes some time for it to dry and for the damage to appear.

More specifically, after the painting has had enough time to dry and sometimes even longer, cracking or drying out of the color can occur. In most cases the causes are easily identifiable.

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Here are the 3 Most Common Oil Painting Problems

Oil Painting ProblemResolution
#1. Dull Finish - The sinking of the top layer, which causes a dull finish.Oiling out is a process in which an all-purpose medium like thickened linseed oil diluted with 50% mineral spirits, is rubbed into the dull areas.
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#2. Cracking - When a layer of paint is significantly drier than the layer underneath it, the painting will most certainly suffer from a cracking effect.Using high quality mediums layered in the correct order following the "Fat over Lean" rules will prevent cracking.
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#3. Stress - Using too many different types of mediums, and/or creating your own mediums, can put a painting under “stress”.Using high quality solvents following the "Fat over Lean" rules will help you avoid putting your painting under stress.
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#1. Dull Finish

One of the most common and destructive effects of improper oil painting is the sinking of the top layer, which causes a dull finish.

This process occurs when the oil in the color evaporates too quickly, and as such causes the layer to sink into the previous layer.

You can tell your painting needs “oiling out” if your painting’s overall appearance or certain areas are dull after the painting has completely dried and is ready for varnish.

Not only does this drying out cause further concern of potential cracking, but it also creates an uneven, blotchy finish of the painting.

The main cause of a dull finish is from an incorrect ratio of drying oils to paint and solvents. More specifically, it occurs when there is too much of a solvent concentration in the paint.

This is okay for early layers, but will cause a dullness effect in the top layer. Another common cause is an overly absorbent painting surface. Be sure to use a well primed surface to avoid letting the paint sink into a porous surface.

Fortunately, “oiling out” is a way to regain the sheen of your surface.

Oiling out is a process in which an all-purpose medium like thickened linseed oil, diluted with 50% mineral spirits, is rubbed into the dull areas.

3 common oil painting problems
Oiling out is a process in which an all-purpose medium like thickened linseed oil, diluted with 50% mineral spirits, is rubbed into the dull areas.

Gently and sparingly rub in the oil mixture with a soft clean cloth and wipe off the excess, repeating until the painting has an even sheen.

Applying varnish on its own without oiling out will not solve the problem. However, after oiling out and allowing the painting to dry thoroughly again, you may apply picture varnish as usual.

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#2. Cracking

When a layer of paint is significantly drier than the layer underneath it, the painting will most certainly suffer from a cracking effect.

For example, if the underlayer contains more drying oils like linseed than the top layer, and if the top layer is diluted with too many solvents then the top layer will dry quicker and more brittle than the bottom layer.

In turn, the bottom layer will cause the top layer to crack as it dries at its own slower pace.

A cracked layer in an oil painting cannot truly be fixed. Applying more paint or mediums will only compound the problem. As such, it is best to avoid this situation from the beginning.

The easiest way to ensure that your painting dries at a healthy pace, so that no layers crack, is to layer in the correct order using the right mediums. A traditional rule used by oil painters is referred to as “Fat over Lean”, or flexible over less flexible.

3 common oil painting problems
The easiest way to ensure that your painting dries at a healthy pace, so that no layers crack, is to layer in the correct order using the right mediums.

In other words, when painting in layers, the proportion of medium used in each layer should be increased. To give you an idea of healthy mixtures that can be used when glazing layers, here below is an example.

First Layer – VERY DRY – mostly solvents, little color
Second Layer – DRY – a lot of solvents, more color
Third Layer – MEDIUM – a little solvents, some drying oil, some color
Fourth Layer – OILY – little or no solvents, drying oil, color

Please note that the drying oil I refer to means an oil like linseed that slows drying time of the oil paint, and does not speed it up.

If you choose to use a medium like Liquin that speeds up drying time, use it within the earlier or middle layers of the painting, or throughout the entire painting process.

#3. Stress

Using too many different types of mediums, and/or creating your own mediums, can put a painting under “stress”.

Damage is very unpredictable in this case. The easiest way to avoid putting your painting under stress is to adhere to the Fat over Lean rule.

Although technically all oil mediums are compatible with each other, only one type of drying oil and solvents should be used within each layer. When using ready-made mediums, do not combine them with others, only solvents if needed.

Use only one type of high quality solvent throughout your entire painting to ensure that you do not “stress” the work.

So most problems with oil painting can be easily solved or at least avoided.

If you have had experience with these or other oil painting problems and have dealt with them successfully, I would certainly love to hear about them in the comments section below.

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Comments

  1. I like using absorbant surfaces like timber that keep giving me a fresh surface to paint on but the finish IS patchy sometimes. I have been adding more and more medium. I thought you could use slow drying medium over a quick drying medium. Is this wrong in your experience?

  2. Susan Simmons says

    Hi,
    I am an artist that works in many mediums but I just finished my first oil painting. It had dull spots and shiny spots. After it dried I oiled it out with a mixture of 80% linseed oil and 20% turpentine. It has been over a week and it is still very very sticky. Will it ever dry? I’m worried.

    • Gary Bolyer says

      Hi Susan,
      Thanks for writing. You used a very high percentage of linseed oil in your mixture and that’s okay. It will dry. It may take 3 weeks or more. Since this is the winter, it is likely cold where you live and this may slow the drying process even more. If is very cold where you live, bring the painting inside and it will dry faster.
      Thanks again,
      Gary

      • Susan Simmons says

        Thank you so much!!! You made me feel better. It is a Christmas gift for my son. A painting of his daughter. I got the percentage of oil to turpentine from someone online that does a video about oiling out.

        Thanks again,
        Sue

  3. Liz Farley says

    I use rather thin oil paint with a Grumbacher medium. I tried to start with the fat over lean idea but am never sure of how much medium to use at a time or how to control it. I have several layers of paint on this painting because I changed my skin colors and shadows too many times. Now, as I add more thin layers, they don’t want to cover. When I look at it the next day the surface is very blotchy and melds with previous layers of colors. I don’t know if I can use thicker paint over these thin layers. Please advise.

  4. Melissa Taylor says

    I have just started with the wet on wet technique and wanted to know if once the painting has begun to dry and you have to leave it, can you later come back and apply some liquid clear and pick the painting back up? I have two paintings that I have had to leave and would like to be able to save them if at all possible. I have tried to find some answers everywhere I can think to look but so far I have been unsuccessful. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

  5. take what ever you’re using as a medium, i.e., oil, alkyd, etc., and rub just a little into the dry spots of the canvas to bring back the luster and value. Make sure it’s touch dry first. Doing this will allow you to match the area where you wish to continue so that when it dries later, you won’t have areas that are lighter in value. In areas where you are painting over old spots, you may want to add a little more oil in order to allow for the fat over lean principle. This, however, is not a big issue unless you are painting in glazes and or multiple thick layers. There’s no issue in continuing an “alla Prima” painting the next day or a week later or even a year. Do keep in mind, however, that an alla prima painting is just that – done in one session. David Leffel, however, continues work the next day or over multiple days if it’s a large piece. He just finishes one area and leaves it in such a way that it’s easy to continue on to the next the following day. Happy painting.

  6. kimberlyqae says

    Hi, I have an oil painting, and I used walnut oil as my medium. I completed this painting about a couple of months ago, and the surface is still tacky/sticky. I usually cover my finished and “dry” paintings with newspaper, and store them inside. I noticed today when I checked my painting that the newspaper was sticking to the painting. Is there anything I can do to get the sticky surface to dry?

    • Gary Bolyer says

      Walnut oil like all the natural oils take a very long time to dry. Two weeks is not long enough for this oil to dry and that’s why it’s still tacky. It may end up needing a couple of months or more to dry completely. You can add Japan Dryer to your oil painting mediums to speed up the drying process in the future. Be careful with Japan Dryer as it will burn the colors if you use too much. Just use it very sparingly.

  7. i commissioned a painting an used liquid clear linseed oil i oiled it out at the end to even the luster now it is way to shiny the customer doesnt like it how can i dull it down so hen he hangs it on the wall and looks from the side of the painting is not all glared up.

    thank you
    peter

  8. How do you fix spots of oil paint that are not drying in an unventilated bathroom. I repainted the bathtub with first a coat of oil based primer and then two coats of oil based enamel; one was plain oil based, the other was polyurethane. Just certain areas aren’t drying. It’s 3 days later, they haven’t hardened.

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