methods & techniques

How to oil paint – draw and apply color


van dyck portrait

The most common way of modern painting has painters drawing directly with their brush in color. The artist that I immediately think of that explains it best is John Singer Sargent.

When this method of painting is followed, color is thought about right away and drawing and color are not separated at all.

In my 25 years plus of study, I have found that this is a radical change from how paintings used to be made.

How Were Old Master Paintings Created?

A painting used to be constructed, in general in the following way…so yes…here it is…the secret method of the old masters…

Simply paint the underpainting, using one or just a few tones, concentrating on the drawing and tone values (varying degrees of light and dark). Then, after the underlayers have dried, apply the color on top in a masterful way.

Re-read that again.

That is a one sentence summary of the old master way of painting. Maybe it’s not detailed and of course there are more things to get into with each stage, but that’s the general idea. Nothing magical. Nothing fantastical. Just a set method that produced wonderful results.

In my experience working with oil paint and studying the old masters I have seen what I described above time and time again.

Take the Flemish baroque masters such as Rubens and Van Dyck. When you look at the lips on their portraits for example, it does appear that they just placed pink touches on top of something else that was already down on the canvas or panel.

There are exceptions of course. As a master becomes more skilled they will adjust processes and rules to suit their personality. Or even change it for practical reasons such as to paint faster to keep up with commissions.

When Rubens paints eyes, sometimes, it looks like the drawing was taken care of underneath the top layers that we see and the color was just added to the eye area on top of the form that was created in the underpainting.

The problem that comes about for the oil painting student happens when you make an outline drawing and just fill it in, in one layer, very carefully.

This makes a painting that looks harsh and weak, dull and flat and a whole host of other, not so flattering adjectives.

Even when a house painter paints walls, they don’t use one layer. They use at least two layers.

When you make an underpainting first, you create the form. The superimposed color that you apply on top of this then has something substantial underneath it to hold it up. It has another layer that can be used in the final effect. One solid layer of paint can’t get the same effect as multiple layers working together.

Of course, how you apply this color is very important and will help the quality of your painting. If you just paint over everything completely and cover it all up, you might not even see the underlayer in the finished painting.

But, if you apply the color in a more masterful way. Some places thickly, some places thinner, the underlayer plays a huge role in the final painting.

Have you ever seen people who have an olive complexion to them? You can’t really get this effect using one layer of color. But, if you make an underpainting in a grayish greenish tone and then paint a more rosy colored flesh on top of this after the underlayer dries, you will get the playing of layers in your paint. And all of a sudden…

You’ll get a look to your flesh that you never had before or could get any other way.

The old masters would apply the color layers into a wet surface. Depending on their medium, the colors would automatically melt together, and make softening automatic.

If this superimposed color layer is put on very deftly with some bravado, you get an result like Frans Hals.

The impressionists were a little different.

Besides their paints being different – being more similar to the more modern tube colors we have today they also did not paint into a film of medium like the old masters did thus you can see in their portraits that the paint was drier and are not softened together.

They also didn’t underpaint nearly as carefully and in as finished away as those artists who came before them, but many of them did keep the old traditions. Degas and Renoir come to mind.

When you are learning I encourage you to separate drawing from color. If not, you may wind up with a painting that looks like a paint by numbers set.

If you simply draw and by draw I don’t mean an outline only, I mean using only 1 or 2 colors like you would if you were drawing with charcoal, or a conte crayon.

Emulate with paint, what you do with a drawing tool and then fill the color in with oil paint over this layer. That’s the old master method in a nutshell.

Further Study

If you want to go more in depth on oil painting techniques, I highly recommend checking out my virtual classroom

Hey There!

I'm Ethan

Teaching oil painting for over 20 years. I love to help others reach their artistic potential. Always keep on learning!

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Show Comments

  • I have just become a painter– I think. Anywhy I love to do the play with oilpaints on canvases. Some horrible and other I kind of like.
    But I love your letters and have already lerned a lot og the cemesty.
    Thank you Ethan

  • well i looked at some the various pictures just 1 artist, he has my blood boiling just to learn. His paintings where fantastic. i will see the rest as i go along each day. But I will not be able to paint like him,, he is so good and professional at their job.

    take care Ethan

  • This is great , I feel very impressed how putting these ideas in real touches on canvas never seen such lovely way to teach painting that have not seen before ,,,God bless..

  • I still enjoy your DVD’s and study the books that I bought over the intenet : Secrets of oil paintings and ‘formula’

    God Bless!

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