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Techniques and ways of painting in oil, a summary of the most used techniques

I’ll allow myself to recapitulate and make a small summary of the most common and used techniques of how to paint with oil, all of them are valid, functional and contrasted by time (I clarify it for the skeptics).

TECHNIQUES We can find two basic ways or techniques of oil painting: the works that are elaborated slowly and laboriously with several or even many successive layers of paint, and that sometimes can take years to be finished, and the painting that is usually finished in only one session, also called “alla prima”, using opaque colors that darken what is underneath, if there is anything.

Alla prima. There are many if not almost all landscape painters who paint alla prima. The landscape studies of Constable (1776 – 1837), show the advantages of this technique. The painting is exciting, freely applied, and often the freshness of the colour expresses the moment better than many of his more elaborate studio works. The key to this method is the ability to apply the paint quickly, quickly and with confidence.

This method was used very effectively by the Impressionists, a great exponent of this method was Van Gogh. He liked to paint in front of the model, usually outdoors and almost always completed the work in one.

Pre-painting. Whether the sketch is drawn or not, pre-painting consists of applying some fundamental colours and tones, to later elaborate the painting with glazes and layers of opaque paint. In this first layer, it is interesting to use few colors and to dilute the painting; the best thing is to use big brushes.

Glazes. Oil is a fantastic medium for applying thin layers of transparent paint, “glazes”. They can be done on the pre-painting, the opaque colored areas or the impastos. The effect is totally different from the one that would be obtained by mixing the two colours.

The light that passes through the transparent layer and is reflected in the opaque colour underneath produces a special depth and luminosity. Glazes are usually applied on light colours – especially white or neutral grey – because they reflect the light best. Next to these parts, the opaque paint seems to recede, thus giving the painting a three-dimensional quality.

Impasto. Thick paint, applied massively with a brush or spatula, is called impasto. This technique is often used to create texture and give the painting a three-dimensional quality. Entire paintings can be painted with impasto. However, one of the main applications of this technique is for pre-painting before glazing. Light impastos – especially white and grey – are often used in this way. For this same purpose, both Titian and Rembrandt used spatula impastos.

Scrubbing. This involves applying opaque paint over another opaque layer of a darker colour or shade, in an irregular manner so that part of the lower layer can still be seen. Traditionally, rubbing is done by moving the brush in a circular direction, but the same effect can be achieved with scratches, brushes, stains, dots, or any other combination of marks that do not form a flat layer of paint.

Scratches can be applied with any type of brush; some artists use a brush, mixer or fan, placing the canvas on a table and painting with the brush perpendicular to it. Others do it with a rag, or even with their fingers, removing the excess paint.

Wet on wet. Monet, Sisley and many other impressionists, painted or rubbed on a layer of paint still wet, and sometimes tried to melt the colors with each other. This is a feature of many alla prima paintings. The colours must be mixed with the same medium. ( My favorite and without complexes )

Rubbed. Effects of rich irregular texture can be created with the rubbing technique, introduced by Max Ernst (1891-1976). An opaque stain is applied to the canvas and covered with a non-absorbent surface, such as glossy paper. The paper is rubbed and then carefully removed.