Best Ideas for Oil Painting Every Painter Should Try

by Damian Osborne


So, you’re wondering what you should paint? Here are some of my personal favourite ideas for oil painting:

Throughout the history of painting, artists have found inspiration for their art from these universal and personal subjects.


Jean Malouel, Virgin and Child with Angels, circa 1410. One of the oldest surviving oil paintings on canvas
Jean Malouel, Virgin and Child with Angels, circa 1410. One of the oldest surviving oil paintings on canvas.


What were the most popular genres of painting?

When academic art flourished, particularly in the 19th Century, there were 5 common genres or subjects for painting, listed in order of importance:

History Painting (Paintings that narrated a historical, allegorical, or religious message. This genre had the highest prestige in the European art academies, usually contained a lot of active figures, and were generally grandiose in scale and emotion.)

Portrait Painting (Generally a head and shoulders portrait painting of the sitter, but could also be a full length portrait, a self-portrait, or even a group portrait.)

Genre Painting (These were paintings of everyday life depicting ordinary people doing their thing.)

Landscape Painting (Paintings depicting views of the scenery as the main subject matter, and not simply as a backdrop.)

Still Life Painting (Paintings of inanimate objects, either man-made or natural, set up into an interesting arrangement.)


These 5 formalized categories or genres, simplified paintings into their different subject matter, and often an artist would become famous for specializing in one particular genre. See also: The emergence of new genres by the National Gallery of Art.


Claude Lorrain, Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682. An example of a 'history' painting combined with a landscape.
Claude Lorrain, Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682. An example of a ‘history’ painting combined with a landscape.


How do you find inspiration for painting from your own life?

In another video and blog post, Where Do Artists Find Inspiration?, I spoke about creating artwork from things that you personally experience. 

This is such an important step in any artist’s path. And generally the most important factor in ‘finding your voice’ as an artist.

Your personal life may seem completely ordinary or even boring to you. But, remember, to anyone else, it is a source of great inspiration or intrigue. As humans, we are always curious to know how other people live.

We feel a certain pull towards the personal stories of others. Being human is about communicating and sharing experiences. It’s in our DNA. We’re social. 

So seeing the world through another’s eyes is immensely fascinating to us. We identify with the narrator, the viewer, or the protagonist in the story, and briefly step out of our own lives into theirs.

This is why books, movies, music, paintings, and art in general, is still so popular since the days when the first humans recorded their experiences on cave walls. 

Besides finding inspiration from your own life, actually painting from life is really important, since we can so easily become overly reliant on photographic references.

I believe that artists who can draw or paint from life (or from their imagination) have a far greater advantage than those who just rely on painting from photos. 


Spring in the Garden, oil on canvas, Damian Osborne, 2008
Spring in the Garden, oil on canvas, 2008. An early painting I did in the garden just outside my studio.


Landscape painting

Landscape painting was one of the first genres I dove into as a budding oil painter.

Since I grew up close to semi-rural wine farms, mountains and beaches in Cape Town, I was naturally inspired to do many plein air paintings and drawings of the beautiful surroundings. 

The advantage of painting landscapes en plein air, is that it teaches you to observe and paint from life. The quickly changing weather and lighting conditions compel the artist to work quickly and to anticipate the changes. 

One develops a sensitivity and appreciation for nature and for beautiful vistas. As well as for the transient nature of the environment. 

One also develops skill in rapidly capturing a scene before it is lost. 

And, you get pretty fit carrying around your canvas, paints and easel up and down fields, mountains, vineyards, and forests.


Morning Mist over the Valley, oil on canvas, Damian Osborne, 2010
Morning Mist over the Valley, oil on canvas, 2010. I trekked up this hill a few times to paint the vineyards en plein air.


Seascape painting

If you’re lucky enough to live near the ocean, then you have an endless source of inspiration to work from. 

You could literally set up your easel in the same spot everyday and paint the ocean in all its glory; its changing moods, colours, lighting conditions, weather, rhythms and tides.

Painting seascapes has all the advantages of plein air landscape painting, with the added benefit of there being something particularly magical about the ocean. 

Most of us connect with the sea in a deep unconscious way. It is a source of endless fascination; looking out at the rhythmic dance of the waves and the infinite horizon.

I love painting seascapes because of the way the sea is constantly moving. It takes careful study to paint the waves from observation — you’re relying a lot on memory and imagination.

It’s like painting a moment that is both a fraction in time, and an endless ever-flowing dance.


Muizenberg Seascape, oil on canvas, Damian Osborne, 2010
Muizenberg Seascape, oil on canvas, 2010. After walking on the beach one evening, I went home and painted this seascape from memory.


Still life painting

In my early years of oil painting, I set up and painted loads of still life paintings.

Still life painting is certainly one of the best genres for artists to develop their painting skills, especially as a beginner. A still life can be an arrangement of organic, or man-made objects.

They are very popular and easy to set up. You can paint your favourite everyday objects, from life, in the comfort of your own home or studio, and easily control the composition, the lighting and the textures, designs and colours. 

In this Alla Prima Still Life Painting Demo, I talk more about the benefits of painting a still life in one sitting.


Still Life of Vibrating Objects, oil on canvas, Damian Osborne, 2008
Still Life of Vibrating Objects, oil on canvas, 2008. I set up some objects into an interesting arrangement on a table.


Figure painting

Since the days of Paleolithic cave art, painting the human figure has always had a special significance in art.

I have always been captivated by figure painting. 

Though, I think, figure painting is fairly challenging as a painting genre. 

Learning and practicing anatomy can be very helpful. As well as, painting and drawing from a live model as much as possible. 

But the practice and study is definitely worth it.

Painting the figure is a celebration of our humanness. We identify with the unspoken language of the body.

See more on Why I Love Figure Painting and how figure painting is gaining popularity.


Ode to Prussian Blue, oil on canvas, Damian Osborne, 2016
Ode to Prussian Blue, oil on canvas, 2016. This was an alla prima figure painting I did from a photo in just a couple of hours, as I was experimenting with a different colour palette.


Self-portrait painting

One of the best ideas for an oil painting, is to paint yourself!

I first started painting and drawing myself several years ago. It’s interesting to see, firstly, how I’ve aged, but also, how my drawing and painting has improved considerably.

My first self-portraits were horrible.

Painting yourself in the mirror is very challenging since it’s very difficult to keep your head still while painting. 

But, you don’t need to pay a model. Nor are you so affected by the time pressure you may feel when you have someone sitting for you.

And painting yourself is the easiest way to improve your portrait painting skills generally. So you’ll be a lot more skilled and comfortable when faced with a ‘real model’.

Doing a self-portrait every year can be an interesting record of your life. (Think of Rembrandt’s fascinating self-portraits.) 


Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, Damian Osborne, 2019, best ideas for oil painting
Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 2019. Doing regular self-portraits from life is one of the best ideas for practicing oil portrait painting.


Painting portraits of your friends and family

Another of my favourite ideas for oil painting portraits: when you can’t afford a model, ask a friend or family member to sit for you. 

Not only is painting their portrait great practice for you, it can also be a very memorable experience for both you as the artist, and for the sitter. 

Painting the people you care about is a very worthwhile endeavour, especially since it’s infused with so much personal meaning.  

And an oil painting of their portrait can be a beautiful and intimate gift.


Jana, oil on board, Damian Osborne, 2017
Jana, oil on board, 2017. Jana was my landlady for 14 years. I painted her here in her kitchen.


Painting animals

Animals and pets are great subjects for painting. And it’s a cool challenge to paint or draw an animal from life.

If you have a pet at home, wait until they are resting before attempting to draw or paint them. Animals are very tricky to draw when they are constantly darting around, scratching, or generally being annoying. 

Animals are beautiful in their own unique ways. And to capture their likeness can make for a really fantastic painting. 

Doing a painting of your loving and affectionate pet can be really special.

I love to draw and paint my cat. Since, I’ve been living with, and drawing him for so long, I’ve gotten to study him really closely. (Drawing or painting anything makes you really see something in a much deeper way.)

It’s a good idea to do a lot of really quick drawing studies of the animal before doing an oil painting.

Take a few reference photos if you need to (animals rarely keep still for more than a minute). But be careful that you don’t rely to heavily on your photos. The colours and forms can be badly distorted by the camera, and you may not even notice.

I love taking my sketchbook to draw the mounted animals at a museum. That way you are able to study them very carefully. 


Rupert, oil board, Damian Osborne, 2020, dog portrait
Rupert, oil board, 2020. I painted a posthumous portrait of my mother’s dog for her.


Dreams, fantasy, mythological, allegorical and imaginary painting

Dreams are an endless source of artistic inspiration. By recording your dreams and tapping into your subconscious, you’ll have plenty of material to work with.

Imaginary paintings can be extremely expressive, and be loaded with symbolism and meaning. 

Contemporary fantasy art is very popular, especially among younger artists and in the gaming community. But non-realistic, or fantastic art has been popular for centuries.

The magical paintings of shamanic rock art, Egyptian tombs and ancient Greek and Byzantine murals, through to Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Salvador Dalí, and Odd Nerdum, show that spiritual and mythological art has always been part of our human psyche. 

Indeed, the very ability to express or imagine the abstract, or a world beyond what we can see with our own eyes, is what makes us so uniquely human. 

Imaginary paintings may express what we hope or wish for. Or we may not consciously know why we wish to express something.

Mythological, religious or allegorical paintings represent our deepest (sometimes unconscious) beliefs and passions. 

They symbolize or represent these intangible forces through artistic expression, so that we can explore, question and try to understand them. 

Isn’t that one of the highest ideals of art?

Painting the magical, the spiritual, or the fantastic is a way to go into the deepest part of ourselves and bring these things into the light. To make material that which is immaterial. 

Thus, painting is itself a form of magic. 

It also teaches us to paint without needing to slavishly copy a reference. The image comes from within. 

This not only encourages and develops the imagination, it also pushes our artistic skills and visualization to the limit. Or beyond our limits. 


Moonlit Bridge, oil on canvas, Damian Osborne, 2010, fantasy art
Moonlit Bridge, oil on canvas, 2010. A painting I did completely from imagination.



Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you like to paint, or if I’ve left out any other great ideas for oil painting. Send any questions or comments below. It would be nice to hear from you. 


Also, check out my Sirens series which are my latest series of figure paintings done both from life, and from imagination. 


Latest posts by Damian Osborne (see all)

5 thoughts on “Best Ideas for Oil Painting Every Painter Should Try”

  1. I have been oil painting for years and got BFA in studio art from Texas State University. I enjoyed looking at your works on your website, especially “Moon Light Bridge”. I have been struggling with finding subject matter from original sources, such as my own photographs. I know that I should paint from life, but it seems to look dull and ordinary. I have “borrowed” images from painters such as George Inness, but I know that copying others peoples paintings isn’t quite right. I’ve done portraits, landscapes, still life, and ocean scenes (and won best of show in local exhibition).

    1. Hi Terry, thanks for your comment.

      Sorry if this is a late reply. I didn’t know I had issues with my website’s comment section.

      There’s nothing wrong per se with copying, especially if it’s the amazing works of George Innes. It can inspire and teach one a lot. You’ll learn far more by copying an Innes painting rather than just paging through a book on Innes’ works. But in order to go out and form your own ‘voice’ or create your own original works, perhaps try to look at your own work through the eyes of someone else or future generations. What was once contemporary or even boring to folks looking at quotidian paintings of the 18th or 19th Centuries, we now think of as classical. So it’s a matter of time. place and context. Your own ‘boring’ life could be highly interesting to somebody else in another time, culture or place. We all love to live vicariously through others. It’s a human trait. Think of your life as a story you want to tell others or leave behind for your great grandchildren (if you have kids) or the next generations. Paint from your own life, what is important to you personally, not what you think will impress others. Be authentic. We live in a ridiculous Instagram/Pinterest culture where you just start to feel deflated by so many ‘awesome’ artworks. In reality, they are hardly interesting or original. Paint from your dreams, or try to capture your thoughts in a painting. A ‘boring’ still life can be highly narrative, emotive or loaded with meanings. Give yourself time to figure it out. Art isn’t just making pretty pictures. It means being vulnerable, thinking deeply, processing, self awareness and environmental awareness, searching for personal meaning and trying to make sense of the absurd world (especially now) we live in. Go within. Get off your phone and stop comparing your life to others. Paint for you.

      All the best,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.