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P A I N T I N G  T E C H N I Q U E S :

There are a few ways you can use oils to paint. Each method serves a different purpose, and each have pros and cons.

Here's a quick breakdown of each one with it's basic principals:

-Alla prima:  Or  "wet on wet" and as the name suggests there is no waiting for paint to dry for this method. Typically this is for a looser look, with visible brush stokes and either a wash look or textured impasto look. A technique that really showcases the artists hand. The pros to this method include: not having to adhere to THE 3 RULES of oil painting, and being able to finish an oil painting in as little as one session. Cons include, not being able to build depth with glaze layers. This method is usually reserved for studies, and quick works to build an idea base and approach from. However there have been fine art oil painters throughout history that use alla prima for their completed finalized works for a painterly stylistic look- such as in the instances of many impressionist painters who needed to capture the elusive light quickly. Notable alla prima painters include: John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh. This technique differs from the more traditional method of painting layer on layer, allowing the paint to dry in between each layer. Artists would often build up many layers (sometimes over 50) before deeming the painting complete. Obviously, this was a very time-consuming method of painting, as oil paint can take anywhere from a few days to some months before being completely dry, making alla prima a nice option to quickly render an image in oils.

-Oil dry-brush: As the name suggests, this is where you use oils "dry"- as in without any medium. Since you need to use medium with typical oil application, this method allows you to use oil paint in a very thin layer by itself- sans medium. This technique is usually done using just black, where you achieve a range of values for a monotone work by using less oils on the brush to barely coat the surface to create a range of mid to light values, and more paint for darker to black.This technique must be done very thinly. There will be no texture. The end result looks something akin to a charcoal drawing. You can choose to do this technique on oil paper, canvas, linen, or any hard panel thats been primed (as oil paint- even in thin layers, will eat away at your substrate). The pros to this method include: not having to adhere to THE 3 RULES of oil painting, it is faster, and since it is flat and flexible, it can be rolled easy for transport and unlike drawings- once it is dried, it will not smudge. Cons include, not being able to build depth with glaze layers, not being able to add texture, and may not be recognized as an oil painting and mistaken for a drawing. This method can be used as an underpainting option if done in umber (or another desired underpainting colour, though a black underpainting would appear muddy it could still be used for greyscale tradition applications if you wanted. Learn more about dry brush here)

-Traditional: Traditional oil painting methods are typically done in layers. where you build up your painting over a series of days/weeks/months/years. This method is the most complex b/c there are numerous ways to approach it. the only real con aside from taking longer to create, and the complexity to learn, is that you must adhere to THE 3 RULES of oil painting. However once you can work fluidly through these rules, the pros to traditional oil painting are vast! There are numerous methods within this approach. This is where you can really make the medium work for you. Creating incredible depth and luminosity not seen in any other medium or technique, as well as achieving an incredible texture and physicality to the painting. From the moody, smooth and glowing portraits of Vermeer, to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, to the light and texture and brush control of Rembrandt - this is the mode of oil painting you think of when you think of oil painting as a medium. However like the comparison above shows, there is a vastness to which you can create like this. It's not either flat and blended, or textured and loose, it is EVERYTHING between. This is where you play with light, strokes, texture, and layers to convey what you as an artist are trying to say through paint.

It is in this mode that you will find different ways to approach each layer- starting with your underpainting (click here to see all the ways you can create an underpainting/first layer), to how you approach you mid layers, to your final layers. 

There are more techniques within this mode of painting than I could probably fit on this page, so I'll just give a short list to get things going:


-Glazing (This is a technique that uses a medium to dilute the paint so there is just enough pigment to create a tinted tone that becomes a semi-transparent layer you apply over other dry opaque layers. This transparent layer changed the tone/colour, value, depth, and luminosity of the layers beneath.  When glazing it is best to use paints which have a more translucent quality, as opaque paints tend to muddy the painting and do not yield the desired results. White for example is not great for glazing as it is very opaque. When there are multiple glaze layers, the colours optically blend as if they were all combined without the pigments actually mixing. This creates an interesting effect as light passes through each glaze layer and illuminates the layers- which is very effective for portrait painting, or trying to capture light.Glazing comes to play is when you see the glowing effect of a Vermeer painting. 

As there are many layers of paint, care needs to be taken in relation to the fat over lean rule. Each subsequent layer of paint should have more oil than the prior layer to avoid cracking in the paint. 

Many painters use both thin glazes and thick, impasto brushwork to create a variance in the painting. The impasto areas would appear pushed forward in the painting compared to the softer glazes.

Glazing is probably my most favourite and used technique. .Learn more here)

-Lifting (Rembrandt was known to use this technique, where you scrape the top layer you're working on to reveal the layers beneath- this can be a white sub layer to showcase fine highlights, or a coloured/toned sub ayer to add fine coloured details. You can use anything from the handle end of your paint brush to a thumb tack. Here's a video of me lifting up paint to create toned highlights revealing a light yellow sublayer. You can even use this technique for minor corrections LIKE THIS)

-Scumbling (the technique of applying a very thin amount of paint using a stiff bristled brush in a kind of broken glaze. The result is a textured effect which leaves some of the underpainting exposed. Scumbling is a dry-brush technique where little or no additional medium is used but in conjunction with other layers of oil painting.. Scumbling is different to glazing in that you do not want a smooth application of paint over the entire surface. You want a broken application of paint which leaves areas exposed.This technique can be perfect for creating an atmospheric depth in your paintings.

-Chiaroscuro (Italian for "light dark". In drawing and painting, it refers to the balance and structure of light and dark in the artwork. Chiaroscuro originated from the Renaissance period where artists would create strong contrasts between light and dark to render three-dimensional forms to dramatic effect. Generally, chiaroscuro is only mentioned of artworks with a dominant contrast between light and dark.

Some of the prominent artists associated with chiaroscuro are, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573–1610) and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn I (1606-1669).

Caravaggio went on to become a figurehead in the Tenebrism art movement, where chiaroscuro was used to dramatic effect with violent contrasts between light and dark with a spotlight effect.

Rembrandt also used this technique to create many dramatic portraits.)

-Impasto (generally used in reference to paint which is applied in a thick and bold fashion with clearly visible brushwork, but it can also refer to the more subtle textures created by delicate brushwork on a more smooth surface.

By using an impasto technique you can add another dimension to your painting by adding increased texture to areas of significance. This can enhance the illusion of three-dimensional representation.

There are a number of ways you can use the impasto technique to improve your paintings: 

  • The impasto area of paint will create areas of actual shadow on the painting depending on the light source. This gives another element to your painting and can really add some depth depending on how it is used.

  • The protruding areas of paint will be more visible from side angles.

  • You could use the impasto technique to give the illusion of distance, with close areas being more built up and distant areas being more smooth and soft.

  • By using impasto brushwork, you can help guide the viewer as you please around the painting using directional lines. These do not have to be obvious and could be something as simple as subtle lines in trees directed towards your focal point.

One artist who is famous for using a very impasto technique is Vincent van Gogh. His brushwork was extremely dominant in his paintings and a real signature of his work. His brushwork gives a sense of activity and movement in his paintings.)

-Grisaille (a monochrome painting executed entirely in different shades of gray or a grayish tone.

'Gris' is a French term for gray. Paintings in a brown scale are referred to as brunaille and paintings in a green scale are referred to as verdaille.

Grisaille was typically used during the Renaissance period as a stand-alone painting technique to imitate sculpture. It can also be used as a preliminary painting stage, where the grisaille forms an underpainting which can then be glazed over.)

-Blending (a painting technique where two different colours are slightly mixed together when wet, giving a smooth transition from one colour to the next. The transition colour will be a product of the two blended colours (i.e if you are blending blue into a yellow, the transition colour will be a green).

Blending requires the paint to be wet, which is a problem when painting with acrylics as the paint tends to dry extremely fast. The blending technique is much more popular with oil painting, as the paint stays wet and versatile for much longer.

Blending is probably one of the most used techniques by new painters these days, especially with the increase of attention to hyperrealism, as they aim to create a very smooth and 'realistic' painting. However, too much blending can easily result in the painting having a very plastic and overly-refined appearance.Do not feel that you must blend every part of your painting.

Blending is much more effective when used sparingly when necessary. Brush strokes and colours should otherwise be left unaltered for a more "painterly" feel. Whilst up close the painting may look rough, as one steps back from the painting all the brush strokes and broken colours will optically merge and create the illusion of form.

Do not feel you need to make the painting look perfect from up close. If you are not sure what I mean, then take a look at some of John Singer Sargent's paintings. Up close, they seem like a mess of bold strokes and colours. But as you step back, the painting all comes together.

-Oiling out  (A technique used in oil painting when the oil sinks into the lower layers of a painting, leaving the top layers lacking vitality.

Often sinking occurs in patches, rather than over the whole painting due to varied drying times of the paints used (some colours dry faster than others).

Oiling out is not a technique which beginners should be worried about. It is more of an advanced technique and is not a necessary part of learning how to paint. It is however, a useful technique once one becomes more advanced with oils.

In practice, oiling out would involve dabbing a very thin amount of artist quality oil medium over the areas of the painting which have sunk in using a fine cloth. This should only be done once the painting is dry to touch, as you do not want any mixing of the colours. If you are a beginner and the drying/ uneven tones are messing with your ability to properly assess values and tones, then watch this first to get a better understanding. If you don't have or don't want to use linseed oil, you can also use galkyd and a brush, and only put a small amount on your brush.)

-Block in (refers to an initial painting process of blocking in the general colours and shapes on your canvas. 

The purpose of blocking in is to lay down the general composition and colour harmony without having to worry about the tedious details. You can really get a feel for where the painting is going with this technique. Generally, very large brushes and thinned paint are used for this.

The end result of blocking in will be a no-frills painting - what you would see if you squint. From there, you can start to add details and make any adjustments.

For blocking in you will usually start with toned down versions of the main colour you are blocking in. You can then build up the saturation of the colour as needed later in the painting. If you block in the colours with too much saturation, the painting could be overwhelming and you would spend the rest of your painting time trying to tone it down.

Sometimes, much of the blocked in area is left exposed in the finished painting.

Blocking in is a very popular technique for plein air painting as it allows you to cover the canvas very quickly with the general layout and colour harmony. Check our more on block-ins here

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