Direct and Indirect Painting Techniques: Two Approaches

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There are two primary approaches to painting in oil. The first is the direct approach, the second is the indirect approach. 

Just about any painting technique you can think of could be classified as forming part of either approach. The two methods can be executed in not just oil, but a multitude of mediums. Including egg tempera, acrylic, watercolour and gouache.

Each approach differs in the interpretation of the subject matter, starting point, method and set of techniques used. Whether you choose to use one or the other, or even a combination of the two methods, you will be able to achieve interesting and disparate results.

Indirect painting technique

Johannes Vermeer: Girl With Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer: Girl With Pearl Earring

This is a painting approach that has been used for centuries. Many academic painters who have been classically trained will have at some point painted in this way.

What does the indirect painting technique involve?

The indirect painting method involves the artist applying layers of glaze onto a drawing or underpainting to subtly alter the colours and tones. 

Both the drawing and underpainting will be accurate, detailed and the light and dark areas will be established at both stages.

This is so that when it comes to applying the glazes, otherwise called the coloured layers, the artist only needs to change the saturation and harmony of the piece.

In doing this, the painter can render details and tweak values to achieve smoother transitions, complex colour palettes and better than realistic looking compositions. 

The paint will be made into a translucent glaze with the addition of a medium. The medium should increase the transparency and fluidity of the paint. Chelsea Classical Studio’s Fat Medium is perfect for using with this painting method.

What’s essential when using this approach is that in the resulting painting, some of the previous layers and occasionally even the toned ground show through the surface.

The layers of glaze all sit separately from one another. This requires the oil paint to be touch-dry and solid before the painter applies the consecutive layer. Oil paint can take up to a week to feel dry to the touch, depending on how thickly it has been applied. For this reason, an indirect painting will take time and patience to complete. 

The separate layers of pigments interact in a distinct way—they appear combined but they have not physically been mixed. The intensity of colour that can be achieved from this is more than if you had mixed the colours together on the palette. As on the palette, the colours start to muddy together and create a dull appearance, as if some of their individual qualities are lost.

This painting method requires foreplanning. The artist will interpret the light and tones of a scene or subject before thinking of colour. When it comes to applying coloured pigments, the painter will have to think about how they will relate to one another, before applying it. They should have an awareness of how colours alter one another and change when applied over different hues. 

The technique gives little margin for error. When direct painting, if you make a mistake you can cover it with titanium white or another opaque colour and no evidence of the mistake remains. With the indirect method, because colours are transparent, if you use the wrong colour glaze for example, it would be difficult to remove that layer, or to paint over it would create an obvious incongruence. 

How does the indirect painting approach work?

The interplay of light on the surface of an indirect painting is pretty spectacular.

On a direct painting surface, the light would hit the topmost opaque layer of paint and then reflect straight back, so what you see is the basic colour combinations.

On an indirect painting, the light hits the surface and travels through the layers of glaze.

It reflects off of an opaque layer below—the first opaque layer it comes to might be the ground. When the light travels back through the hardened oil layers, it refracts, disperses and diffuses through different areas of the painting surface. The overall effect is optically complex.

Using this method, luminosity can be achieved in a way that makes it appear as if parts of the painting are glowing, shadows look deep but transparent and scumbles create soft transitions between compositional elements in the visual plane. The opaque areas of the painting stand out. 

With knowledge of the physical properties of oil, the way in which colour pigments interact and a significant amount of experience working with the medium, a painter can intentionally create these extraordinary effects to give the illusion that the light is coming from within, instead of creating a representation of light from opaque colour. 

Where did this approach originate?

The first ever oil painting process that was devised and commonly adopted, ‘the Flemish technique’, was developed in Flanders and is an indirect painting method. 

The Flemish technique is an approach that has been tweaked slightly and continuously over the centuries. The method has stayed much the same, with the adaption from egg tempera to oil in the 14th century, then wood panel to canvas in the 15th century. 

By the 15th century artists such as Giorgione had begun to use stiffer brushes and incorporated an underpainting as one of the stages in the process. The resulting works were softer in appearance.

Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer all adopted this specific technique of the indirect method—the Venetian technique which is what is most commonly associated with and used as an indirect approach in oil painting to this day.

Learn the Venetian painting technique

Rembrandt underpainting
Rembrandt van Rijn: ‘Concord of the State’. In this oil sketch you can see evidence of the underpainting

If you’ve read the guide on the fat over lean rule, you know that paint that has been thinned with solvent should be layered underneath paint that has come straight from the tube or had oil added to it. 

If you like the structure and form of your paintings to be set out first, or if you’re executing a realistic or ultra-detailed work, first create a drawing. Charcoal, or even oil pencil work best for this.

The imprimatura is painted first, over the drawing. This is a layer of single pigment (usually an earth pigment) thinned with solvent, then spread across the surface’s ground in a wash.

The right colour for imprimatura will depend on your scene. You could choose one to contrast with the colours in your scene to liven it up, for example burnt sienna under a seascape, or magenta under a forest scene.

I usually use a colour that corresponds to the hues of the lightest areas of the subject. While the imprimatura is still wet, it’s optional to wipe away areas that you anticipate will be light, to establish the light source and passages in the piece. 

Then the tones are painted in, usually with a thinned monochromatic layer. This involves painting with a single pigment and white to establish where the dark and light areas of the painting will be. This is the underpainting. If greys are used this is called grisaille if you use white, black and yellow or green, this is called verdaccio. Traditionally painters would have used flake white, but titanium white mixed with zinc white is a good substitute if you don’t want to use lead. 

Layers of glaze, scumbles, semi-glazes, velaturas or washes are applied to the dried underpainting. Pigments are mixed with linseed oil, damar gum and turpentine mediums to create the glaze. Luckily, you can buy premixed glazing mediums.

The purpose is to create multiple separate layers of colour. It will involve applying a translucent layer of glaze to your painting that has a pigment dispersed through it then waiting for it to dry before adding the next layer. Often, single pigments will be used to alter the tones of the underpainting, as this keeps the appearance of the hues clean, pure and rich looking. This means that each subsequent layer of paint will alter the previous colour. 

The way that these layers of single pigments interact is quite unique—the values of layers beneath are used to complete the appearance. Shadows will darken, light areas are emphasised and the chroma will start to deepen. Opaque paint should be avoided as it hides underlying values. By using glazes, the complexities of detail in certain subjects become possible to portray, such as subtle variations in skin tone.

Highlights are added when the final layer of glaze has dried. The paint used for this step will be thick, fat and opaque. Often the whites are mixed with other pigments to alter the colours slightly. Titanium white mixed with zinc white works perfectly as an opaque white, or lead. The impasto technique is popular for this stage, as it creates the most opaque passage. Light will reflect straight back off the painting.

What are the benefits of this method?

With a touch dry surface to work on at the point of starting each layer, you can get clean lines and hard edges that are distinct from the other colours. This is especially useful when working on a highly detailed piece. Artists that create hyper-realistic works usually gravitate towards this method of painting.

The oil-rich glazes give the previous thinner layers depth and luminosity that cannot be achieved with layers of opaque paint.

Direct Painting Technique

Claude Monet: The Cliff and Porte d’Aval
Claude Monet: The Cliff and Porte d’Aval

This is a fairly modern approach that was pioneered by Flemish painter Frans Hals. More recently, famous painters that have used this technique include many of the impressionist painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Monet.

What does the direct painting method involve?

The direct painting approach involves laying down colours opaquely on the canvas with the same hues and tones as are perceived from the subject. The aim is to cover the canvas’ ground so that no whitespace remains. Then the aim is to match the colours from the reference scene from the offset, building in details and light with layers and the addition of titanium white paint. 

There are two different techniques that you can follow with this approach—the choice will depend on the artist and the session.

Direct painting technique 1: Alla Prima

Using the direct approach, you don’t have to wait for paint layers to dry before applying more paint. A technique you can use to get a painting finished in just one session is called alla prima (wet-on-wet). This way of working is incredibly fast and you could even get a painting finished in one session. It’s a spontaneous way to paint. You can swap the planning and scrutinising over detail for a fun, fresh and creative session. 

Many artists that paint alla prima also use the impasto technique. Where paint is layered thickly to create texture.

The challenge of this method is determining the value relationships between subjects and mixing colours to match these. Also if you are painting alla prima, values can muddy together and you will have trouble creating sharp, defined lines. For this reason you should work with thin paint first and apply thicker paint in later stages with light colours applied last. 

Alla prima sounds like it may be easy in comparison to the indirect approach, but it takes practice and finesse to do it well.

The aim of direct painting, is to place a spot of paint, in the exact colour, correct shape and placement as it is perceived from the subject.

Look at the work of John Singer Sargent for some alla prima inspiration.

John Singer Sargent: By the River
John Singer Sargent: By the River

Up-close the colours seem to swirl and muddle into one, with next to no hard edges defined, but when you take a step back, the subject becomes clear and the colours seem to merge in harmony. Painting in this way, using thick paint, alla prima with impasto brush strokes is like creating an optical illusion. 

A common way to start a painting alla prima, is, after having drawn out the structure of the piece in charcoal, to paint earth colours thinned with paint thinner, then fill it out with dabs of colour as you see fit.

Direct painting technique 2: blocking-in colour then working in detail

Another direct technique is blocking-in, whereby the basic colours of the scene are applied to the canvas, then the painter waits for this to dry before working in layers of detail. 

This is probably the easiest way to create a painting.

The purpose of the blocking-in stage is to create a composition of colour and form, without worrying about details. If you look at a scene with squinted eyes, so that your vision is blurred, this is what you should aim to paint at the blocking-in stage. Loose forms, but colours that are more precise.

If you are a beginner oil painter, a good tip is to paint colours that you see in the subject as being less saturated that you feel like you want to.

A mistake beginners often make is over saturating the paintings so that colours don’t harmonise. Learn how to mix a neutral palette and apply these toned down colours at the blocking in stage. It’s easier to increase the saturation as you go along, rather than the other way around.

In detailed areas, usually the darker tones are applied first, with thin, fairly translucent paint. Light areas are built out as highlights with thick white opaque paint mixed in consecutive layers.

Think of the leaves of a tree, the shaded areas are painted first, then the leaves that catch the light are applied after. The light colours mixed with opaque white should be at the very top of the piece to give the illusion of light.

What are the benefits of this approach?

This is an attractive approach for newcomers to oil painting to use, as it is immediate and it feels intuitive.

Paintings can be completed in a much shorter time frame. Using the alla prima technique, a painting could even be completed in a matter of hours. For this reason, this approach is well suited to painting plein air.

Colours are separate and distinct. Often paint is opaque rather than transparent, which lends itself to creating more vivid combinations and colour contrasts. Also, with the tendency to use thicker, opaque paint throughout the process, a greater surface texture can be achieved.

Finally

It’s worth trying both approaches, to get a feel for different oil painting techniques and see which you think produces the kind of results you want to achieve with your art.

If you’ve previously only painted with the direct approach, attempting a painting with a more indirect approach can completely restructure how you perceive a subject, the light and combination of colours.

Even if you try it and don’t like it, having the experience of painting with an alternative approach can enhance and improve your current technique. There might be qualities in the light or structure of a subject that you previously didn’t tap into while sticking to the one.

It’s important to note also, that the two processes aren’t always mutually exclusive. There would have been times where famous indirect painters such as Rembrandt would have painted wet-on-wet, as is evidenced in some of his smaller studies on wooden panel.

Elements from the different methods can be combined and used in the same painting. As long as you’ve used the correct layering techniques to ensure your painting is structurally sound, there is no problem and it’s even encouraged to add glazes to a dry and completely opaque surface.

Which method do you use already? Do you want to try a some new techniques? Let me know in the comments.

The feature image is a photo of the process of my painting ‘Silken’ which is available to buy through my art store

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