Last Updated:
August 21, 2020

Many people look at complete paintings and want to know…”How was that done?” What was the oil painting process? What did the painting look like when it was being made?”

I will provide an answer, at least a general answer, to that question here.

Let’s take a John Singer Sargent painting  as an example.

Please remember, this reconstruction is not done so you can re-create only this painting, which unfortunately is something that is done too much these days. This re-creation is made to help you understand the process of oil painting, period.

Not the oil painting process to paint a fir tree or a snow capped mountain, but traditional painting, whatever the subject matter.

The exact same process would be used if Sargent were painting an apple or flowers.

—– sidebar —–

I have seen many “reconstructions” that are made so you can follow along and just paint that 1 picture. That sounds like a project my 5 year old brings home from art class in school. If you want to do that, I suggest getting a “paint by numbers set.”


Let me just say one thing first. Nobody ever can be 100% sure about how a painting was completed. I’m sure you understand that. But, through study and experience you can get really a good idea about how a painting was made just from looking at it and recalling your experience with paint.

The blank canvas would have been primed with white oil paint. This was done to convey a light feeling through the layers of paint that would follow.

It is a good idea to start with a very light priming if you are doing an impressionistic outdoor scene. This helps to add light to the painting  The bright white ground will shine through the layers of paint that are put over it. Painting on a bright white ground also helps the painting age well.

So, in 100 years, your painting won’t turn as dark and sink into the canvas. So it helps preserve your painting long after you are gone (if you care about that sort of thing.)

The initial drawing was made on the canvas with either charcoal or directly with some dark lines of paint.

The drawing stage was more for placement than making a finished drawing. He would keep everything loose in case he wanted to make any changes. Perhaps the areas which would eventually be black or dark would be indicated as well. But at this stage, placement was first and foremost in his mind. Not color, not the girl’s face, not the exact shape of anything…but placement on the canvas.

He was not thinking about drawing in the sense of a finished work of art that you just fill in, in one layer. Simply establishing a nice composition on the canvas was the important thing.

You can see this beginning looks almost like the drawing of a child.

That is fine, he was just building his foundation for what is to come next.

In using the word foundation, it probably will help you to think of a house and it’s foundation. When a house is being built, the foundation looks nothing like a completed house. The frame of the house goes on this foundation and it looks like a skeleton. The same happens with oil

When Sargent was satisfied with the composition it would be time to mass in (or lay-in) the painting.

The colors were mixed to the general overall tone of the masses such as the brown of the girl’s hair and the red of her sash and chain.

A general massing of color takes place in this stage. Details are not thought about yet. They will come later in the painting process.

Just like in building a house…you must put up a wall before you can put in a window. You have to put up the frame before you can put on the siding or bricks.

A general flesh color was established, and perhaps two flesh colors for the main areas of light and shadow. These were laid in on the girl’s face. As you can see, not much attention to detail at all in this stage.

As Sargent said, features like the eyes and mouth should be “drawn in” at the end. Edges are kept soft on purpose — they are a detail as well.

The process of massing in the main areas of color is now revised.

Now, this is only a beginning, as there is only so much I can fit here.

My 7 Parts Video Series covers the entire process in great detail by pulling back the curtain for you as far as techniques, processes, and all those secrets you want to know.

It’s the newest way of teaching old solid oil painting principles


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About the author 

Teaching oil painting over 20+ years. Love to help others reach their potential with oil painting. Keep on learning.

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