oil painting technique – what’s it all about

When people want to know about oil painting technique, what does this really mean?

What was the technique of Rembrandt? What was the technique of Monet? What do they want to really know and understand?

Well, let’s first define the word technique. It’s definition is as follows: A way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure / method of performance; way of accomplishing.

So, when we ask to learn the technique of oil painting, another way to say it would be “How do I go about the task of creating an oil painting, can you show me the method to do so?”

If you notice, the words technique, method and procedure are used alot. I have found that in general ll of these words can be used interchangeably to mean the same thing when people want to learn about painting technique. Being in art school all those years, I can confidently say that is the number one thing the students want to learn – A method to use to be able to execute their oil paintings.

No student wants to just “wing it” with no method, no procedure, and just hope it all works out in the end.

jaimeMany well known artists had differing methods. Many artists that belonged the same “movement” in painting followed similar procedures to each other. Of course there were some slight differences as all people are different and everyone does things differently, that’s just life.

For example, most neoclassical painters painted with a similar method to each other. Most impressionist painters painted with a similar method to each other.

But, before you can get into the “fun” part of painting technique I have to say – when you want to know the technique of oil painting, it actually starts with the pre-painting technique.

That means, if you want to replicate the technique of certain old masters, before you even make a stroke of paint on your canvas, you have to know if the materials you are using are similar to the materials they used.

I know I know…

Learning about materials, for many people, can be boring, but there really is no way around it.

In fact, I’ll tell you why it’s so much easier to have the surface of your paintings look more like modern painters…

Impressionist Technique

You know why it’s easier for you to obtain a similar surface look to more modern painters? Because you are using the same materials they used. Picasso and Matisse used paint that is very similar to what you can go buy today.

There may have never have been a Monet or impressionists at all if it wasn’t for the invention of the paint tube.

The technique of the impressionists is very direct and simple. If you want your painting surface to look like Monet’s painting surface you simply have to take your paint from palette to canvas very directly, over and over matching the colors and shapes as you see them.

It’s all on the surface and there is nothing underneath that is hidden from view.

Yes, there are some slight nuances, and as you get more advanced, these may interest you. Like Monet was said to have drained excess oil from his paint by squeezing the paint on absorbent paper before putting it on his palette. This made his paint dryer and helped him to get the look he was after. Or, you may wonder if he used bristle brushes or sable brushes, or other nuances like that but for the most part his technique was very direct. Mix opaque paint on your palette and bring it from palette to canvas. It’s not complex, not layered and fairly easy to grasp.

This is not the case with other painters

Old Masters Oil Painting Technique

Rembrandt, Titian, Joshua Reynolds, whoever you want to name, couldn’t go order their tube colors and canvas from dick blick.

Therefore when talking about the technique of oil painting, as far as the old masters go, it helps to break it up into 2 areas. Painting techniques, and pre-painting techniques.

Yes, those materials again…

I know that no matter how many times I will talk to people about taking the time to prepare your own canvas or even try to grind your own paint, many of you will just not do it. That’s fine, but if this step is part of the technique for the look you are after, you won’t achieve that look – plain and simple.

If you’re cooking a thanksgiving turkey and you want to get juicy breast meat, but you simply won’t take the time to brine the turkey or prep the turkey in other ways and just shove it in the oven without any prep work at all, you’ll never get that juicy breast meat the way you would if you followed the pre-cooking techniques.

These painters applied paint in a less direct way with materials that were more different then the ones we can buy today.

A list of techniques and procedures to learn

So as far as the actual painting technique I have a come up with a list of notes below of the process of making a painting that I think will cover the confusion people have about oil painting techniques. Then…the real biggie will come after that.

1) The drawing stage – meaning what are the first marks to make on the canvas. Do you use outlines? How detailed are these outlines and what do you use to make these lines?

2) The layering procedure – indirect painting – This way of painting is not simply match exactly what you see and apply it on canvas in 1 layer and you’re done. If you are going to paint in more than 1 direct layer you have to know the layering method. You have to understand how you are going to build up the painting from a blank canvas – starting with the toning layer of the canvas.

3) The first application of paint – By this, I mean other than making your first drawing lines from number 1 above. Before you even get to the actual application of the paint, where on your picture do you start? The middle, the top, The area that is furthest back in your painting? Once you know where to start, how do you apply this first application? Do you scrub it on the canvas very thinly, apply a more solid layer of paint, etc.

Also, you what brush do you use for this application of paint, what colors and mediums do you use?

4) Further applications of paint – When you are painting in a layering method, are the layers planned methodically so you have to stop at a certain point and let a layer dry or do you paint as much as you can in one sitting and then have to know how to proceed if a part of your painting has dried before you wanted it to.

Those are the 4 most basic and generalized main steps of the procedure of carrying out the task of making a painting using the “old mater painting technique” that I can think to break it all down into.

Now, embedded in those 4 main procedural steps are isolated techniques as I’ll call them. I touched on them in the 4 steps above by asking some questions after listing what those 4 steps were, but they are all under the umbrella of one main problem…

How do you apply the paint

When it boils down to it, this is THE BIG QUESTION. Numero Uno.

I could almost reduce this entire article that talks about oil painting techniques, and questions people have such as “What was the technique of Rembrandt?” etc to this one simple statement.

How did “so and so” put the paint on the canvas, and you can change the “so and so” to your favorite artist.

Let’s use an example…How about Titian? Even if he isn’t your favorite artist just go with it for a minute to understand what I am saying.

So, what is the oil painting technique of Titian? Meaning, how did Titian apply his paint to canvas.

Well, let’s assume you have followed a similar procedure to his pre-painting technique and your canvas was a warm brown to begin with. Now he had to do stage 1 from above and do his drawing stage. How did he apply this drawing, what paint, what brushes, mediums, etc.

What layering procedure did Titian use. This article isn’t going to be an in depth report on Titian’s technique, but for the purposes of understanding oil painting technique I will sum up his layering process this way…

Titian used his first layers of paint to establish tone values and his colors were not what the final colors were going to be. Those final colors would come later in the “further applications of paint” (number 4 of my 4 stages from above ) He knew this, so if a woman was to have a strong blue cloth draped over her, the underpainting layers would not have this strong blue and that was fine, he was using this layer to get the darks and lights of the cloth the way he wanted it, without the real final colors.

Ok, so he knows his layering process, now…So back to the main question – how did Titian apply his paint ( and remember, that paint was not like our paint of today )

From my own research (and I’ve done a ton of research on him ), I can tell you Titian used a lot of rubbings with bristle brushes to apply his paint. For instance, he didn’t use a soft sable brush and lay on his paint in a very methodical manner in the way some painters from the 1700’s and 1800’s did. He more likely used his brush and paint like you would use charcoal on paper. He would work from dark to light – or in his case, the dark of the canvas to bright lights made with a thicker application of white –

Now, certain isolated oil painting techniques (rather than the general constructing procedure ) that you would have to learn to be able to paint like him – How he would apply the paint inside those 4 procedural steps would be

How to paint shadows – meaning what colors, what thickness of paint, rubbing them on, making your surface wet with medium before applying the paint? etc.

how to paint highlights? – same as above.

how do you blend – how did he get his soft edges, and many times his paintings have very soft edges.

How did Titian use veilings (called velaturas in Italian) and glazes – these are all special ways to apply paint to the canvas that produce certain effects. If you know what the effects are, you can add them to your own arsenal of oil painting techniques ready to use when it would benefit you.

The technique of oil painting is broken down to the procedure to produce an oil painting and how to apply the paint within that procedure.

The isolated techniques of applying paint are like the letters of the alphabet and the general procedure is like combining the letters together to form words.

How to mix colors for oil painting

This article will cover different meanings of “How to mix color for oil painting” such as how to get the right color, the physical mixing of the paint itself and more.

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2 Color Philosophies

First, as a background, it is important talk about two different color mixing philosophies, for lack of a better term.

The first one would be, from what here on out, I will call “formulaic color mixing”. So, let me explain what I mean by this…The old masters did have formulas for mixing colors.┬á It’s quite obvious when you look at their paintings. I mean the skin color of many of their figures are the same no matter who they actually painted. Most of Rubens’ women all have the same skin color, same of Rembrandt, Titian, I could keep going, but you get the picture.

rubens painting of a woman 1Remember, they were making many commissions and were running workshops. They were not how we think of the painter today, alone in his studio sitting at his little easel. Their workshops were like factories producing products. I think everyone can understand that a factory has to be very efficient otherwise, it would go out of business. Plus, their paintings, many times, were of very important people such as Kings, Queens, Duke’s and all that nonsense. These people either could not, or would not sit for long periods of time and multiple sittings. When they did grant the artist a sitting, the artist used the time to establish a likeness with a drawing and made “color notes” such as a purple robe, or if the person had more ruddy skin or olive skin.

Then, they could rely on their formulas for the colors later in their studio. The sitting with the model could be done to establish tones and once you have the right tones, you could put any color in those tones. Maybe they had three different skin mixtures they relied on and depending on the person’s skin they would use whichever was closest.

This formulaic color mixing would be for landscapes too. They would have certain basic mixtures they could use over and over again. A certain green for foreground trees and maybe a different bluish green for background trees to give the impression of distance. On those large pictures you say with landscapes in the background, you can be sure Titan wasn’t walking through the park trying to find a scene he liked and then painting the landscape outdoors.

And of course, he couldn’t photograph it and use it later.

Even for still life they wouldn’t so much focus on the exact color they saw, they would focus on representing the color they saw with the color paints they had. If the final painting of a bowl of fruit didn’t exactly match the color of the fruit they used, who cared?? The painting would be viewed on its own rather than next to the subject matter so people could compare it to the real thing.

Remember that sentence people!

Okay, this formulaic color mixing all changed in the 1800s when painters started to observe nature more closely and started to paint outdoors more and started caring more about representing what they actually saw. The older formulas of applying paint were not used as much as a direct application of paint.

Artists such as John Constable and Camille Corot were among the artists who really took the painting right in front of nature to the next level. They would still finish off their pictures back in their studio but they were more concerned with getting the actual observation of nature and applying paint to mimic actual light effects and colors.

Of course, the impressionists took it even further. They started painting the complete picture in front of the subject so they were really less concerned by applying painting in a formulaic way and by mixing colors in a formulaic way. They essentially forgot what the subject matter was and just painted, very directly, what the light did to the subject matter and it’s local color.

So when they were painting Jimmy outside in bright light under a tree, Jimmy’s skin color may be strong, but dappled with shadows from the leaves. But, if they then painted Jimmy in their studio in subdued light, Jimmy’s skin color would be totally different.

Bye bye skin color formula.

I’ll refer to this as the impressionist color mixing to distinguish it from the formulaic color mixing.

So there you have it.

1) In the old way, (formulaic mixing) they relied on their formulas, such as – I’m going to paint Jimmy, so here’s my normal shadow color mixture I use and here is my normal body tone mixture, etc. Premixed colors, applied by formula.

2) The new way made painters more aware that color and light effects can be fleeting and more people became concerned with capturing the actual colors rather than painting by some mixed premixed color formulas.

Physical Mixing of Paint

So how about the actual physical process of combining paints on your palette. Well, most of the time it is simply dipping your brush into one color and bringing that color into a clean area of your palette and then dipping into another mound of paint and bringing that into the same area of your palette and then swirling the colors around with brush until the mixture is achieved.

Nothing too complicated there, but here are some tips and notes on the actual physical mixing together of colors.

1) When you are mixing a color with white, start with the white always and mix the color into white. For example if you are making pink, don’t start with the red and add white into it. Start with the white and add the red.

2) As a general rule, start with the lighter color and mix the darker color into it. And, there is nothing lighter than white.

3) Know the tinting strength of your different colors. How much of a color do you need to change the color combination you are mixing. As an example – Venetian red is a strong color. A little of it goes a long way. Even more of it will turn your first color venetian red as if you didn’t even start with the other color. So when you using a color like that it’s beneficial to start with the weaker color first and take ever so slightly little amounts of the stronger color and add that into it.

4) If the paint globs up at the ferrule of your brush (the metal part holding the hairs) – clean your brush before you apply the mixture you just made. You’ll be much happier ­čÖé

How to get the color you want

Another meaning of how to mix colors for oil painting is “what colors do I mix to get X” Where X can be anything from skin, to hair, to trees, to sky.

Just a note: Like I said above, sometimes you’re better off using the color that you need rather than fussing around trying to get the actual color that you see. That goes beyond the scope of this article and it will be covered in my other instruction.

The 3 properties of color

There are three properties of every single color. These are the things you have to get right if you want to get the color you want. If you get these 3 things right, you’ll get the right color.

First, the body color, prismatic color, color family – any of these definitions will work. This means is it orange, red, blue green etc.

Second, the tone of the color. Meaning how light or how dark it is. There are dark reds and there are light reds.

Third is the intensity of the color meaning is the color strong or is the color very grayed down.

Knowing these three properties, how to think about them and how to see them, etc will help you to mix any color at all.

This applies to both color mixing theories the formulaic one and the more impressionistic one.

redheadAs an example if you want to paint the hair of the redheaded person, I think you would agree as an example, you might aim toward an orange color because a redhead is usually in the orange family as far as their hair color goes. However you just couldn’t dip into something like cadmium orange and paint the person’s hair, you’re going to have to know how to darken the orange to paint the hair in the shadows whether you are using the formulaic color method or the naturalistic color method. Of course, you’re going to have to know how to lighten the orange as well.

And don’t forget – is it a very strong orange or a duller orange?

Indirect mixing of color

I just want to touch on this briefly here. When you lay your color┬á on in layers over an underpainting you can get a lot of color variation from just one mixture of paint simply by varying how thick or thin you apply that color. The layer underneath will show through a lot, a little less or not at all and it creates variations in color that can’t be obtained any other way.

Personally I love painting this way. It is done using the layering process and underpainting and all that sort of thing. But, in a way it makes painting as close to “drawing” as I have seen.

For Further Study

If you want more in depth instruction, videos, tutorials, and more then check out the oil painting with ethan program

Or, if you’d like a 7 DVD set of oil painting instruction, check out oil painting formula.


Girl in gray painting for article on how to oil paint in layers

How to oil paint in layers

Painting in layers presents a problem for the beginning painter. Eh, who am I kidding, it presents a problem for most intermediate painters too.

Who Should Paint in Layers

First, let me discuss who should be painting in layers?

I hate blanket statements, such as “All people”, but I will say just about every beginner should start out by learning to paint in layers.


There are so many benefits to painting in layers. I’ll list some that come to mind

  1. You separate the problem of tone from color – thus making painting easier
  2. You can have multiple layers of paint working together in your finished picture – thus a richer color effect
  3. You can focus your mind on one thing at a time – thus making painting easier
  4. You’re less likely to make “mud”

I think many people get stuck on painting in layers because you haven’t been shown how to do it, why you do it, and…this is a biggie…

It’s not just about painting 1 layer and then another layer and another…the physical part of applying the paint…

it’s about doing it with your mind, your thinking process.

I don’t believe in a systematic way such as 5 layers and you’re done. I have never seen any evidence that this was done in the past. Hey, Titian used to put thin layers on his paintings again and again. History says, sometimes 30 or more. But, don’t take that to mean he was systematically going through a 30 layer process in all parts of the painting. This just meant he was a perfectionist with his refining glazes, veilings, scumbles, etc and sometimes he did it 30 times in certain parts of a painting to get the effect he was after.

For Landscape Too?

landscape oil sketch

Should you paint in layers for landscape painting?

Yes…for landscape, still life, people. Whatever it is. Learn to paint in a layered approach and as you advance, you can bend the rules you learned and make the layering process more in your thinking than in your actual application of paint.

If you’re “poo pooing” this because you saw someone paint in their sky in one very thin layer on some “special wet white” – then, yes this probably isn’t for you. You can do it that way but if you are trying to get an old master look in your work, you won’t ever achieve the effects you’re after.

“But layering is too hard and takes too long…”

I have heard that reasoning in the past.

Even more modern painters such as the impressionists painted in a layered approach, especially when they were learning. Renoir went back to it later in life because he realized it was the best way to achieve the color effects (like the old masters) that he wanted to.

Remember, painting is about painting on top of paint – whether the paint underneath be wet or dry, you will always layer paint over paint over paint.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest hurdles for students to overcome.

Note:┬áThis is one big way that painting is different than photography. A photograph is not layered. It is one layer of ink on paper. Also, because of the layered nature of painting, you can achieve a better look to your paintings when you paint from nature. Nature is not colored inks in one layer. A person’s skin, for example, is layers of skin on top of muscle, fat tissue, bone, with blood underneath, etc. A bunch of layers playing together that we see in real life. In that way, painting will always be more “real” than a photograph.

The How To

head in oil underpainting

First, I am going to assume you have followed some of my instruction,┬áif you’ve seen it, as far as preparing your canvas so you are not painting on a stark white canvas. That, believe it or not would be the first layer.

Then, when you begin you will need some type of drawing. By a drawing I mean outline marks so you know where to start applying your paint. Not what you would think of as a “layer” but it is one indeed. Oh, and you don’t have to wait for that to dry.

Like, I will cover in a second, a layer doesn’t have to mean a dried layer.

Next, you focus your thoughts on tone and drawing. The actual paint colors you use is not overly important at this stage. What is important is how you are thinking. You should be thinking of “building” your picture.┬áSome people do this in only 2 colors. Some people do this in washed out variations of the final color. I won’t get into that right now but know that you should not be worried about the final colors now. Forget them for the most part, you can fix or change them later.

Note the head that I painted in the image above in greenish tones. I did not concern myself with trying to “get it all done” because I know that painting is done in layers. As I go on I will add things, modify, make corrections, and colors, etc.

If you paint slow, you can let this layer dry and re-do it to make any corrections you need. Using the veilings approach I teach in many videos and tutorials, you can unify areas of your tonal layer that are to contrasty (is that a word?) and then go paint and paint into them again.

There is no set rule. You don’t have to get this stage done in only 1 layer.

If you want to spend 3 layers on just the tonal values, go ahead and do it.

When you are satisfied, you can start adding the accurate color layers on top of this

Wet or Dry?

Believe it or not, you can add the more final colors on either wet or dry “underpaint”.

People think the old masters waited until everything was dry. I’m sure some of the time the underlayers were. But, not always. No way, no how!

There are stories of incredible speedy painting by such painters as Rubens, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano…and others.

For a second, forget that these people were artists. Think of them as businessmen fulfilling contracts. They had a product to make and it had to be done by a certain date. They could not always wait around for long drying times. They knew their mediums so well (or experimented) that they came up with mediums that would have the underlayers of paint set (but not dry – as oil paint really takes years to technically dry) so they could then paint overlayers over these “set” underlayers without any real mixture between the two.

In this post, there is hardly enough time to go into detail about the difference in how to add color layers depending on if the underlayers are wet or dry, but just know that it can be done both ways.

Don’t you add colors by glazing?

You can, but that’s not the only way and…many times…there is a misconception about glazing.

First, let me say this now. Do not think you paint your pictures in gray, glaze transparent color over it and it’s done.

That won’t work. You’re not tinting a photograph.

Glazing can be in varying thicknesses and it can be varying degrees of transparency.

It is perfectly fine to paint the finishing color layers in covering paint using your underlayers as a guide. No glazing needed.

With some practice and guidance, you will learn how to create great color effects just from varying the thickness of paint in your overlayers. With your underlayers beneath, you’d be amazed at the variations you could get by doing something such as if you were painting a face and you had the underlayers in grayish skin tones and then mixed a stronger skin tone for your top layers and simply applied it thinner or thicker in certain areas.

I’ve been teaching painting for over 20 years and I don’t believe in the “just plow along and learn by your mistakes approach.” I believe in showing you methods and procedures that you can use over and over again. I also believe in teaching you how to think like a painter so you can solve your own problems.

How to paint in layers may seem confusing at first, but I have gone over it in detail in my video course, oil painting formula.

oil painting formula pic

It’s video training that I call the oil painting instruction I always wish had been around when I was a student. I’d love to send you a copy on DVD or I also have an online version where you just log in and you can start learning by watching the videos right away.

The colors of your palette

This video is taken directly from a longer video I made about color.

When I say color, I’m talking about the colors you will choose to put on your palette. I also talk about the paint itself.

It’s important to know why you are using certain colors and why you should have certain colors on your palette.

It seems many oil painting students just buy a bunch of colors without really knowing why and don’t really know when and how to use them.

If you liked this edited version of the video, and you want to see the full version as well as tons of other videos you’ll love the material inside the Oil Painting With Ethan program.

About oil painting canvas

In this post I have a video that gives an introduction to oil painting canvas.

I like to call this, step 0. I used to say that how to prepare a canvas was step 1, then I thought about that for a bit. Before you can prepare a canvas, you should know a little about the material of the canvas itself. So I called learning about this, step 0.

I mean, think about it for a minute. What would be the absolute first thing you learn about when learning to paint. There’s no definite right answer, but I think the surface you are going to make most of your paintings on is a pretty good place to start.

In all my years of art school, I didn’t have a class where we spent time learning about canvas. What it is, the different ones available to buy, what those differences are, etc.

Why wasn’t it taught, you ask?

I’ve no idea. Seems ridiculous if you think about.

You are making these paintings on canvas, but you never learn about the canvas itself? It’s like a carpenter who never learned about different wood.

Anyway, watch this video, use those like button thingy’s to spread it around on your social media outlets’s like facebook, pinterest, etc.

Recommended Further Study

And, if you like this video and want to go further…you’ll get much more detailed video instruction, with┬ámy 7 DVD Set Where I Teach You To Oil Paint.