What is blocking-in?
The purpose of this stage is to cover the canvas, so none of the white from your gesso ground shows through.
When blocking-in, you don’t have to worry about the details of your painting yet. The aim is to establish the loose forms of different elements in your subject. Try to mix colours to match the tones and value transitions of your subject as you see them. This way, you will lay down the composition of your piece, so you can get a general feel for the atmosphere and impression you are creating from an early stage.
A good tip is to squint your eyes so your subject looks blurry, paint the prominent features you see in this blurry state, then add the details after this layer has dried.
How to use the blocking-in technique
Observe your subject or reference and start by mixing colours as you see them. If you are fairly new to oil painting, and you haven’t had much practice mixing colour, spend a bit of time experimenting with mixing. Alternatively you can read this guide on mixing realistic looking colours to help.
Don’t apply the colour to the canvas until you are happy you have a match. A good tip for beginners is to try and neutralise colours so they appear less saturated. It’s easier to gradually make the painting appear more vibrant in consecutive layers than to tone it down. Beginners often gravitate towards laying down intensely vibrant colours if they haven’t yet learned how to neutralise them.
Look in your reference for subtle shifts in value, tones and colour transitions. You will replicate this on your canvas, maintaining the shapes and forms as you see them.
Generally, you will be applying darker colours first to the shadows in your piece. This will be done with thinned, fairly translucent paint. If there’s a large area of your painting that is lighter toned with dark details, then apply the light colour first.
One instance where this may apply is in an ocean scene during midday sun, the ocean will appear to melt into the horizon, as it appears to reflect more of the sun at a distance. In this case you’ll block in the light blue colour and add dark accents for waves when you come to you detail layer.
Some of the blocked in areas may remain exposed once you’ve finished your painting.
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