Methods and Techniques

Something that excites me a lot when I talk about oil painting is to remember the great possibilities and advantages it has over many other types of paintings.

The oil spreads gently over the surface making the painting a truly relaxing moment as we do not have in mind the anguish that would be generated if the paint dried quickly. It is as if time stops while our hand dances rhythmically with the brush.

It is also truly wonderful when we mix the colors to form new ones, as if we were performing an act of magic, linking them and generating transitions so smooth that we cannot perceive when one color becomes another.

We can give our canvas layers as thin as glazes or as thick as impastos, make a work meticulously elaborated in several sessions and with previous studies, or a fleeting but well achieved work in “Alla prima”,

And as I already mentioned some terms that might be unfamiliar, we will see a brief description of these oil painting techniques, which we will explain in detail and with practical examples in future articles.

These techniques usually complement and overlap each other, but for your understanding we will describe them separately.

Methods according to the number of sessions and layers of paint

Indirect painting, wet on dry or painting by layers
This is the technique in which several layers of paint are applied during several sessions. First, thin layers are painted and then progressively thicker ones, applying the already seen rule of grease on lean.

It requires patience and some planning of the work, as you have to wait for the layers to dry before continuing with the next ones. It is the most applied method by amateurs and professionals, because of its enormous possibilities, results and flexibility, allowing to dedicate to several paintings at the same time.

Usually the first layer constitutes a pre-painting to give the canvas a base colour, either uniformly over the whole surface (tonal base), as a monochrome base that marks the tonal values of the composition (grisaille) or a base that marks the base colours for each object in the composition.

It can be used only as a guide or also as an integral element of the final result leaving it as a visible background. Its importance lies in providing luminescence to the work and in giving a unity to the painting with a dominant colour.

Most of the great classic works are painted with this method, due to its delicate details, definition in the brushstrokes and also because they still had a palette with few colors that prevented a faster execution, having to make different mixtures to reach a certain tone.

Direct painting, alla Prima or wet on wet

It refers to the fact that the painting is done “at first”, that is, at the first attempt, in a single continuous painting session, without waiting for any layer to dry before continuing with the next one. Base coats are applied and the others are applied when the first ones are still wet.

Given its complexity and required skill, it is generally done for smaller paintings and by more experienced artists. If you remember the famous chapters of “Painting with Bob Ross” you will understand better what “Alla Prima” painting is all about.

Optical techniques


In English it is known as “glazing” by derivation from the French “glacer”, and has been translated as veladura or glazing. It consists of applying a thin layer of transparent or semi-transparent colour on top of another generally opaque and lighter colour, but always on top of totally dry layers.

This is why it is for truly patient painters, as well as for the more experienced ones, since the desired colours are formed by the addition of these layers that are superimposed, so it is necessary to study and know how the final result will be reached, as well as the opacity and transparency properties of the pigments. The paint is mixed with a good amount of medium to make it very transparent.

The great masters of painting practiced and perfected it, giving their works a great enhancement of color that otherwise cannot be obtained. They used it to obtain beautiful skin tones and incredible realism to canvases and other surfaces.

Let us bear in mind that although it is said that the most experts apply it, those of us who are in the process of learning and discovering oil painting can use it and experience it, to know in our own flesh the most intimate secrets of this majestic oil painting technique.

A variant of the glazes consists of extending a color whose consistency is medium or light on the desired surface and then removing it with a brush or clean cloth, dry and rough. In this way the paint remains in the grooves or deeper parts of the surface on which it is painted, helping to correct some colours and giving a sensation of distance and darkness in the rubbed section.

When we see an extraordinarily realistic portrait, with skins so real that it is difficult to differentiate the image from a photograph, as well as beautiful silky fabrics, satins, veils or the outside light passing through a curtain, we can undoubtedly deduce that the artist applied a few layers of glazes to achieve such magnificent results.

Scrubbing, dry brush or scumbling

It is obtained by applying the oil on another layer of dry paint. The color is usually used without medium or thinner, with a dry brush smeared with little pigment, for which the loaded brush is rubbed on a paper or cloth to remove the excess, and then applied in the desired place lightly and smoothly.

In this way, the most prominent parts of the surface are painted. It is used for effects such as fog, sunshine, aged objects, grass, tree leaves, rough objects, etc. It is usually applied with an opaque colour on top of another opaque colour but with a darker tone, in a circular, linear, dotted form, etc.

Textured techniques and other effects


This technique for painting in oil provides a great richness to the work, since in addition to perceiving its color allows us to delight with textures and reliefs, taking the painting to limits close to the sculpture.

It is done by applying generous amounts of thick paint, either with a painter’s spatula or with a brush.

It is often used as a base for some glazes.

Vincent Van Gogh used in his works impastos applied with brushes loaded with paint.

Contemporary painters such as Leonid Afremov (Belarus 1955) and Barbara McCann (USA 1954-2011) use the impasto technique with a spatula in almost all their works.


It is the technique of giving texture with the help of non-absorbent paper or other materials. A thick layer of paint is applied, rubbed with the paper either smooth or wrinkled, and then carefully removed, leaving interesting effects on the surface. This painting technique is widely used in the most modern paintings and abstracts.

The technique of applying the paint and then removing the excess with a soft cloth is also called rubbing or frottage.

Other techniques

There are other techniques to give textures to the paintings, such as using sand and paste to model among other materials. As for the techniques to paint with oil the possibilities are immense, it is only a matter of daring, experimenting and following some basic guidelines.

As an example of the textures in the paintings, there are the contemporary artists Andre Kohn and Alexander Sigov. Their technique has not been widely revealed, but it can be seen that they give a certain relief to the canvas before proceeding with the painting. They probably apply to the canvas a layer of modelling paste and/or gesso. Alexander Sigov besides oils uses acrylic paints and other techniques to reach such impressive results.