Learn some new techniques to improve your oil painting skills. There are 12 on this list, ranging from common techniques, to lesser known traditional techniques used by the old masters.
A glaze in oil paint is the application of a very thin, transparent and oily layer that usually contains only a single pigment. This is spread over dried areas of the painting to create subtle shifts in hue, to create warm or cool areas, to enhance detail, deepen shadows and colour contrasts.
Glazing creates an incredibly unique effect in oil painting, as when light hits layers of pigmented oil that sit separately from one another, it reflects off of the first opaque layer it hits, then refracts through consecutive translucent layers of colour. This means that the colour on the canvas is mixed optically rather than physically. Due to the multiple layers of hardened oil, the appearance of the painting has incredible depth and an intensity of colour that a painter couldn’t achieve from mixing colour on a palette and applying it in one opaque, slightly matted layer.
This technique has been used for centuries, by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Look how their paintings seem to glow.
The Dutch old masters would have applied tens, sometimes even hundreds of layers of glaze to achieve the appearance of light in this way. Taking into consideration that oil layers take a little less than a week to dry, some of their paintings would have taken years to complete.
See this compared to a painting where colours are applied directly and opaquely to the canvas:
Can you see the differences? Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring has a softer, more luminous appearance, a result of using fine glazes. The colours in Freud’s painting appear more opaque, due to him applying colour directly without glazing. They are both masterful paintings, but this demonstrates the contrast in effects a painting can have on a viewer when different techniques are used.
The luminosity that can be achieved by painting with the glazing technique is what draws artists to paint in this manner, despite the time it takes to do so.
The glazing method can also facilitate the creation of details that would be difficult to achieve by applying thick opaque paint, such as transparent looking thin wisps of hair.
There are some drawbacks to using the method, aside from having to wait for each layer to dry, it’s difficult to predict the resulting colour harmony of the painting before each layer of pigment has been applied. Of course, each layer alters the last, so paintings can very quickly darken if care is not taken. Also, layers of glaze can blur the appearance of detail, so details should be applied after, or glaze should be selectively applied to enhance it.
If you want to try this technique, make sure you select transparent pigment to work with. Then you’ll need to mix a small amount of the transparent pigment with a medium until it’s fluid. Find some glaze recipes and further details about the technique in this glazing guide.
Glaze works well applied over a monochromatic tonal underpainting, to create the colour layers. However, you don’t have to use the technique throughout the whole painting, you can apply a layer of glaze or two in the final stages to alter colours and contrasts.
2. Alla prima (wet-on-wet)
In contrast to the glazing technique, Alla Prima, Italian for ‘all at once’, is an incredibly spontaneous, quick and direct method of oil painting. Lucian Freud would have used this technique in his portrait (pictured above).
The aim of this method is to finish the whole painting before the paint starts to dry. As oil paint takes around two days to dry, a painting that uses this technique throughout will be completed incredibly quickly. This technique therefore lends itself to more gestural and dynamic brushwork, which can evoke a feeling of movement, which is a signature of impressionists.
You could also choose to paint one section alla prima, leaving previous layers to dry first.
It takes great skill to apply paint to the canvas, in the exact colour and form that it’s intended to be quickly in this way—it’s a skill that takes years of practice.
You can see from the work of impressionists, that vibrancy wasn’t created from the appearance of light, as it is with artists that use the glazing technique, but by using contrasting colours next to one another.
Look at this painting by Monet, palettes of complementary colours are used to create the appearance of light.
Singer Sargent’s application of paint was very clean and intentional, with minimal mixing he created works that appear soft.
This technique has been used for centuries, but rose to fame in the 18th century when more vibrant pigments were available. Artists like Monet would take their canvases out on location and paint wet-on-wet attempting to capture the scene before the light changed, using thick brush strokes.
Layering is optional. Some artists choose to start with an underpainting, thinning the faster drying transparent pigments (usually darker colours like the earth pigments) to use as their shadows, then gradually laying on thicker more oil rich paint mixtures, finishing with titanium white from the tube, maybe mixed with another colour to alter the hue as the highlights.
The beauty of oil is that it stays wet for days at a time. This means that you can take time to blend colours into seamless gradients and create incredibly subtle hue and tonal transitions.
Train your eye to notice hard edges, soft edges and lost edges in a painting. Hard edges indicate a sharp transition from one element to another, a soft edge is a smooth transition and a lost edge is so smooth, it’s barely noticed. You can use blending to vary the edges in your painting and therefore the relationships between different sections. This way you can achieve realistic effects.
Think about the areas in your subject where the colours seem to blend into one another, like subtle shifts of warm and cool tones in skin, or graduations of darks and light in clouds or where the sea seems to fade into the sky on the horizon.
The effects you can get from blending in oil are unlike other mediums such as watercolour and acrylic. Painting in acrylic, you only have a small window to blend paint, usually only half an hour or so before it completely dries. This means that the artist either has to work very quickly, or create a scale of colours in between the two they are trying to mix to replicate a blended gradient.
Oil paint is usually applied to a surface with a relatively stiff brush, usually made from hog hair or a synthetic alternative, however this does depend upon the consistency of the paint. When blending, however, use a soft brush. A brush made from goat, sable, or a synthetic alternative works incredibly well for this.
A filbert brush shape is ideal for blending work because it’s relatively stiff and holds its shape at the ferrule (metal clamp on the paintbrush) but has a round, soft tip perfect for blending. With this brush you can get a more controlled and precise blend.
The technique itself is easy, apply paint to the surface with your normal painting brush. Make sure the colours you want to blend are both wet. Then get a soft, dry brush and blend the two colours together.
Scumbling is the technique of layering on an opaque lighter film of unthinned paint to a dry area of the painting. Because the paint will come straight from the tube, it will be quite thick on application. The resulting effect is broken brushstrokes. Use a stiff brush with this technique, as it will pull some of the paint from the surface, revealing the layer below.
From this technique, you can achieve a soft or light appearance in your paintings. Use it to soften the edges of landmarks in the distance, or to make clouds appear fluffy.
Create an impasto painting by applying paint to a surface in thick layers. Using this technique, a painter can achieve incredible texture in their work. A painter may use a palette knife or stiff brush to apply the paint and the brush or palette knife strokes are usually left visible.
Many artists apply their impasto brush strokes in swift sweeps, often mixing colours on the canvas. The overall effect is one of expressiveness and movement through the use of colour and texture.
Oil paint naturally has a thick and stiff consistency, so the addition of a medium isn’t necessary. Due to the long open working times of oil paint, especially in thick applications, impasto painters will add a medium to speed up drying time and give the paint more body.
When it comes to selecting a medium for impasto work, there are many.
For silky, thick and fast drying properties, add Liquin Impasto medium. Just bear in mind that this is an Alkyd, not an oil medium. To maximise surface adhesion of the paint, use Alkyd in each layer of the painting.
The addition of wax to a medium can give a thick matte appearance. This is not to be confused with encaustic (hot wax painting), as an oil medium, cold beeswax is used.
Cold beeswax dries fast and is very thick. It stays in the position you place it, as it doesn’t have self levelling properties and it can create ‘short’ paint, where it snaps from the canvas in a peak, rather than stretching or trailing. You can create some interesting effects by using this.
To learn more about this technique, read the impasto guide.
Monochromatic underpaintings can be used to establish values before colour is applied. The technique is also used to draw out the structure of the painting and the composition can be determined at this stage too. It’s almost exclusively used as a first step in the painting process, occasionally a toned ground will be painted before the underpainting.
This technique is commonly used in the indirect painting method whereby coloured glazes are applied on top of an opaque layer of tints and shaded areas.
Commonly, earth pigment is used thinned with solvent for this former stage in the painting process. This is because earth pigments dry faster than any other pigment, often drying overnight if applied thinly enough.
Because earth pigments are dark, if painted on a light ground, you could rub away the colour to show the lighter areas of your painting. Some artists will choose to use titanium white for their highlights.
Underpaintings can be used to create warm or cool undertones in a painting, or add some vibrancy, depending on which colour is chosen.
Whichever pigment you choose for the job, make sure it has tonal variety. Meaning that you can establish the dark and lighter areas with it. Using a colour like yellow wouldn’t work as it’s too light and can only really show highlighted areas.
Which pigments can you use for an underpainting?
You don’t have to use an earth pigment for your underpainting, a transparent pigment is best, one that can create a value range from light to dark.
Burnt Sienna is a brilliant pigment to use for seascape artists, as it is a deep orange brown pigment. This creates contrast with blue layers that are applied on top. Burnt Umber is a popular choice, so is Raw Umber, Magenta and Ultramarine.
Some types of underpaintings have their own names given to them. For example, Verdaccio is a mixture of black, white and yellow, resulting in a soft neutral green. This can be used to render a complete monochromatic underpainting before applying glaze on top.
You may have heard of grisaille, similar to verdaccio, black and white are used to form a complete monochromatic image. Grisaille is also used to emulate sculpture. Because black pigment, such as Ivory Black, has blue undertones, Grisaille is especially effective when layered on top of a warm ground, such as Burnt Umber. This way, when the paint is layered cleverly to show the ground through, a range of colour temperatures can be achieved.
7. Dry Brush
This technique gives a distinctive look that can create texture and movement in your work.
Paint is applied with a brush that is relatively dry, but still holding pigment. This technique works with paint that is highly viscous and thick, the brush is wiped on tissue paper before paint is applied to the canvas to remove oily residue.
A painting completed in monochrome with stiff hog brushes can give the appearance of charcoal.
8. Blocking in
Artists use this technique as a way to start an oil painting. By blocking in, you completely cover your canvas with paint so that no white from your gesso ground is showing.
To do this technique yourself, study the colours in your reference. You need to decide the base colours of different areas and shapes in your painting. For the most part, this will be a single tone to establish loose shapes of your subject. You don’t need to worry about painting any details at this stage, the idea is to get a rough picture, upon which you can layer the highlights, shades and details once it has dried.
To read more about this technique, take a look at the guide to blocking in.
Another term for imprimatura is toned ground. It is a stain of colour that is applied to a prepared surface. This is often the first stage of the process for oil painters, however many artists leave this stage out.
There are benefits to this technique. The first being that it’s easier to establish light and dark tones when working from a mid-toned canvas.
Another benefit is that depending on your painting style, not all your paint layers will be opaque. There may be transparent areas of your painting where you can allow the imprimatura to shine through.
You can also use an imprimatura to seal your underdrawing, making it easier to trace over at a later stage.
For imprimatura, just like underdrawings, artists commonly use earth pigments as they dry quickly. However, any transparent pigment that you can achieve a mid-tone from would work.
If you want to establish light tones at this early stage of the painting process, you could wipe away paint in areas where you anticipate that the light sources will be coming from.
This is the method of creating high levels of contrast in your painting. It is Italian for light-dark and is a compositional technique. Bold contrasts in shaded and highlighted areas create drama and affect the composition of the piece.
Leonardo Da Vinci was known for developing this technique, Rembrandt and Vermeer were known for using it in their paintings.
Supplies: Palette knife or brush handle
Sgraffito is a technique where decoration is applied to the surface of wet paint by removing areas of the paint film to reveal the layer below.
Use the end of a brush handle to scratch away at the surface, to achieve very fine details. Rembrandt used this technique in some of his portraits for very fine highlights in the hairs of his subjects. To scrape away larger areas of paint, use the side of a palette knife.
The technique will work differently if you are working on a textured surface, such as a canvas with a prominent weave. This is because some of the paint will settle in the weave, which you won’t be able to remove by scraping. This can give more of an uneven or grainy effect.
Supplies: goat mop brush
The literal translation of Sfumato from Italian is ‘softened’ or ‘soft like smoke’. This technique was developed by Leonardo Da Vinci, you can see the technique used in the dark areas of his paintings—look at Virgin on the Rocks.
The key to this technique is in creating gradual colour and shape transitions. Outlines appear soft and hazy and shapes seem to blend into one another. The purpose is to emulate how the eyes perceive subjects that are out of focus—the artist leads you to focus in on a particular area by making the details sharper rather than blurred. This is similar to the blending technique, but it is used for stylistic effect.
Feature image: an oil painting called ‘Tropical Waters’ painted by me! If you’re interested in checking out some of my oil paintings, I sell them directly through my shop.
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