One of the most basic principles of oil painting states to keep your darks thin and your light thick. Unfortunately, people try to follow this rule without knowing why and may get a pre-conceived “law” in their head that they are scared to break for fear they are not painting correctly.
So, let me use some examples and discuss this principle, what it means and how to use it and get an answer to this question of “Should you paint your darks first and then your light, or your lights first and then your darks?”
First let me cover, what I think, is what most people mean when a teacher tells you to paint dark to light.
When you are painting an object such as an apple, it is not flat. The apple has depth. I’m going to assume you are not a “primitive” painter and you want to convey a sense of that three dimensional look of the apple in your painting.
So you can’t just outline an apple and mix one “apple red” color and fill in the outline with this red and get a dimensional looking apple. You need to paint the darker shadow red of the apple as well as the lighter red of the apple. Only this will make it look like it has depth on your flat surface.
Ok…now that the basics of how to make any object round are out of the way…That is what is meant by the dark and light of our oft-repeated statement “paint from dark to light.”
So the basic premise of painting dark to light is to paint in the shadow parts (or darker colors) of an object first and then paint the lighter colors afterwards. Shadow part of the apple, into the main red part of the apple, into the light parts of the apple.
The next question to ask is…
Why Should You Paint Dark to Light?
The reason to do this is because of white paint.
You see, white paint is the painters’ substitute for light. Therefore, to paint colors being hit by light means you will need to use white. As a general rule, the lighter the color, the more white you will use.
Simple enough, and basic common sense right?
But, what happens because of this, is the lighter an object, the more white you will use and thus the thicker your paint will be.
If you paint dark to light with wet paint, you will have to pile your paint on thickly to cover what is underneath. You will also have to be sure to apply the lighter paint with a light touch so it doesn’t “work up” the wet darker color that is underneath. Otherwise your mixture won’t be as light as you want it as it will get contaminated by the wet dark color.
If you paint dark to light with dry paint, you won’t have to worry about going as thick because you won’t contaminate the light paint with the wet darker color – being that the darker color has already dried. However, it would still mean having to go thicker.
This would also allow you to use what’s known as optical grays and get tonal transitions just from varying the thickness of your light color that you are placing over your dark color.
Meaning you wouldn’t have to mix every little variation to go from dark to light. You control these subtle varieties in tone through the thickness of your paint.
That goes beyond the scope of this article though, but I do cover this in courses inside “The Studio” which is my members area.
To show a visual example of this dark to light and going thicker stuff I’m talking about, below is an example of a portrait by Van Dyck where you can clearly see the light parts painted over the darker parts – and yes he followed the classic dark to light modeling of the form.
For example, look at the robe…on the right side of the picture (where the left shoulder of the subject would be, under the robe) there is a bright white light area. This white is painted right on top of the slightly darker “mass color” of the main part of the robe.
It is a pasty white that is applied like putty. It is applied very thickly so the real light in a room would reflect off this thicker paint and also so this very light tone won’t be “contaminated” with the slightly darker color of the color of the main part of the robe.
If someone worked the other way around and applied the light thinly first and then the darks thicker, you would have these pasty darks, the application of paint would be next to impossible or you would be following more of a watercolor technique. This would leave an oil painting looking “weak” and meager. It would look “dyed” instead of painted.
One of the fundamental characteristics of an oil painting is that the paint has body to it. It covers what is underneath it.
SIDE NOTE: You can indeed use a watercolor type technique with oils, but that is after you have "built" the picture with more opaque paint. this is done with glazing, veiling, etc and it is more common than you might think. If you would like to see videos of how to do this, I recommend joining "The Studio" members area
Here is a detail of the portrait by Van Dyck.
1) The green arrows point to the shadow area on the face. Since these are quite dark, not much white is needed in that mixture therefore the paint with the most body – the thick lead white paint the old masters used – is not there so the paint is not thick.
2) Shadow areas don’t show much detail, not as much as the light areas do, so they can be flatter – without texture. Therefore a thick paint isn’t needed
3) The red arrows point to, not only the light areas, but to some of the very lightest areas of the picture. Coincidentally, they are also some of the areas with the thickest paint of the entire picture. The thick parts of the forehead that convey a slightly furrowed brow – they are a putty like paint, with much white. The highlight on the lips, same putty like paint and thick. The light brush mark on the robe that the arrow points to goes right over the slightly yellower, darker colors of the robe – and of course, has to be thicker to cover it well.
So, in essence, one reason to paint dark to light – in what I consider to be the most commonly thought of meaning – is because that’s the procedure called for because of the nature of how oil paint works. Watercolor doesn’t work that way because of how different it is from oil paints.
NOTE: This does not mean that dark accents aren't thick. There are plenty of examples of very thick dark accents, but like most things, this is a generalization.
So Do You Paint the Whole Object Dark and Then Paint it Gradually Lighter?
No, you don’t have to lay down a large area of dark and then pile your light over this dark paint.
For example, if you are painting an apple, you don’t have to paint the shadow color of the apple over the whole apple and then pile on lights over this wet shadow apple color, that’s not what I’m saying. But, if you are mixing paint on your palette and you are going from the dark mixtures to the light mixtures your paint will naturally become thicker because of the addition of white as you go lighter.
So, in a way, you almost don’t have to try to purposely keep your darks thin and make your lights thick – it should happen automatically.
Dark to Light in Landscapes
Here is an example using a landscape painting I made.
Here is a landscape painting I did that really does follow the traditional procedure of painting dark to light.
The darker parts of just about everything were put in first, with the lights being built up gradually. The lighter something is, the thicker the paint was applied to cover what was beneath.
These lighter parts would contain more white.
Here is a detail image of that painting with arrows I added to point out some key elements that I hope will show you the use of painting dark to light.
You see those 3 red arrows? They point to the light parts of the painting – 3 different objects, but all created by applying thicker, lighter color, over darker paint.
The lights of the sky meant more white than the darker parts of the sky.
The light parts of the trees meant going lighter than the dark green of the shadow parts of the trees, so I had to go thicker to cover the dark and the mixture contained more white paint.
The building and a shine of bright sunlight hitting it in certain spots. The light finding it’s way through the trees. These very light areas are applied much bodied paint, thick enough to cover the darker parts of the building, created with thinner paint.
So How To Apply “Dark to Light”?
Now, using this knowledge in your painting procedure, when you are painting an object, the order to paint – and it’s all about the order isn’t it? What part of that apple do I paint first? Where on this painting of Jim’s head should I begin?
The answer…The darks.
Not the darkest darks, at least not for the way I teach. And, I’ve never seen any evidence that the old masters just painted from the darkest tone to the lightest tone. If your apple has a shadow area ( and, I’ll bet it does ), what you do is start with that shadow side and then gradually carry the modeling over to the light area of the apple. Eventually ending with the even lighter parts of the light and the highlight.
Same with your painting of Jim. Jim must have a shadow side – even if it’s a very thin area…or wait…maybe it’s the opposite and most of jim is in shadow with only a very thin part of his face in light. Doesn’t matter – whatever it is, the law of your materials says that it is easier for you to start with the darks and then go into the lights.
Another Meaning of Painting Dark to Light
Although what I explained above is, I believe, the most common thought of notion when talking about painting dark to light, I believe what I am about to tell you know is really where the saying originated from.
The old masters did not paint on a white ground. Yes, the base was probably a bright white, which is ultra smart to do, but before painting their actual picture they toned this ground. You may hear this toning layer called varying things. Here’s an example, sometimes it’s referred to as an imprimatura (which is just a non English word that sounds fancy to English speaking people to say it in the other language – sort of like how an underpainting painting in greys is called a grisaille – which is just french for greys)
Anyway, what I’m talking about is starting with a toned canvas, usually brown and then painting your underlayers on this from dark to light, but the main difference here is, you are bringing the painting out of the dark that is already the tone layer you began with.
The best way to picture this that I know of is, picture drawing with chalk on a blackboard.
Here is an unfinished work by Titian which demonstrates this.
All that brown is the blank canvas. It’s dark. Not the very darkest darks, but dark nonetheless. He brings his figures out of this darkness with, what is known as an optical gray by using his white paint. The lighter he wants to go the thicker he has painted to cover the original brown toning layer. There are parts of the figures that are barely covered with any paint at all as the brown toning layer plays a role in creating the figures.
Now, obviously, to paint this way you need that toned layer to begin, you could not start on a white canvas and do this.
You see, once you understand the “Why?” of the procedure you can use it and even adapt it to your own paintings.