Should You Oil Paint Dark to Light or the Other Way Around?

van dyck portrait to teach dark to light painting

Want to see a video about a great way to add color to your oil paintings? Watch this free video about a technique used by the old masters to add color to their paintings.

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 right.

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, right? The apple is round…it has depth. I’m going to assume you are not a “primitive” painter and you want to convey a sense of that 3 dimensional look of the apple on your painting. So you can’t just outline an apple and mix 1 apple red color and fill in the outline with this red and get a “realistic” 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 round 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 well heard 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) 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.

Why Should You Paint Dark to Light?

The reason to do this is because of white paint.

You see, white paint is the painters substitutes for light. Therefore, to paint lighter colors 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?

The more white you use, the thicker your paint will be. The thicker your paint will be, the more it will cover the paint that is underneath.

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 gets 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.

van dyck portrait of a monkThis 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 show you how to do this in my 7 Video Instruction Series.

To show a visual example of this dark to light and going thicker stuff I’m talking about, to the left, 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, my 7 Video Instruction Series is recommended.

Here is a detail of the portrait by Van Dyck.

van dyck portrait to teach dark to light painting1) 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, 1 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.

landscape painting example

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.

showing painting dark to light on a landscape painting

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)

BTW: if you’ve ever had formal art instruction, have you ever had someone who just loves to use those non English terms like they are revealing a mysterious mystical secret by using the non English name over and over. Like if making a statement they make sure to include the terms imprimatura and grisaille like this – “We are going to start with our im-pree-ma-tooouur-a and construct a greeee-zeye. The traditional greee-zeye is made with black and white and of course the traditional greee-zeye is what we are after.

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.

titian painting unfinished

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.

 

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17 comments

  • Pat McGriffin December 27, 2012   Reply →

    I really liked the explanation you gave for dark to light. Every painting that I have done with this method has really turned out well. It looks so much more 3 dem. than trying to darken something on a light background. When I first started painting that was the only way we painted. Your way is much superior in all respects. Thank you for the explanation. Pat

  • Pat McGriffin December 27, 2012   Reply →

    Keep up the good work!!!!!

  • Ron November 19, 2013   Reply →

    Ethan, an enlightening and lucid presentation on dark to light. Illuminating, no pun intended.

  • Kacyn Fisher January 11, 2014   Reply →

    Hi Ethan

    Is your book a book in print or a downloaded version only that must be printed out by me ?

    Thanks for your response

    • Ethan January 12, 2014   Reply →

      Hi Kacyn. Currently, both versions are offered. I can do the printing for you (the printed version), although the higher price reflects the cost of supplies and time involved.

      If you have other questions let me know

  • H.L.Dressler June 10, 2014   Reply →

    Hi Ethan,when you paint like this,adding more and more white,do you use a medium?
    Can I use a debitcard for paying with paypal?

    • Ethan Semmel June 10, 2014   Reply →

      No. the thicker you go you really don’t need medium in your paint. To put it very generally, the first job of medium is to thin the paint…to make it easier to apply to your canvas. as you build up thicker light, adding medium would be counter productive.

      I think paypal will accept a debit card if you can enter the card number.

  • Leslie February 9, 2015   Reply →

    Agreed — very clear! Thank you!

  • sai May 26, 2015   Reply →

    Hi Ethan,

    That was a very useful bit of information. Thank you.
    I have a question. I started following this and I am using some medium when I am painting my darks. When I try to apply a puddle of white paint on that, like to bring out feathers of goose, the white doesn’t seem to stay as a puddle, it kind of blends in like a plain layer ( at least when I am trying to blend it with a blending brush). What do you suggest I do ?

    – sai

  • Wimal Lokuliyana July 6, 2015   Reply →

    Hi, Ehtan!
    I like old portraits very much. I examined them carefully and thought there should be a reason for darkening back grounds in most of such paintings. I could not find the reason for this and thought most of Western countries get less light and the weather is cold. Therefore, the artists used there studios instead of using outdoor. And the artists used lights by some other source more than sunlight to give desired amount of light which was steady and not producing changing shadows like sun light. This was my imagination until your article and few other in internet. I did not get much instructions for this kind of drawings from our teachers at the university since the trend there at that time was towards abstract paintings. After studying life drawing with Pencil, Charcoal and water colour I happened to forget about the old style arts which I really loved to learn. Here in Sri Lanka, we get lot of sun light and I turned towards water colour which you have to use other way round. But I know some famous artists like W. Turner, Constable etc., have used water colour in dark manner. My oil paintings too got this influence of light to dark as I am used to take more water to lighten colours. I used a lot of turpentine and always I got unsatisfactory results. Thank you for explaining everything, as you teach to a child, in your article. I wish to write you further in the future, if you allow me to do so. Wimal Lokuliyana

  • Eboni January 16, 2016   Reply →

    I’ve always been taught the opposite (paint light to dark) and it never made any sense to me, especially as I though of light (white paint) as being cast on (top of) objects in shadow. I always found it easier to use dark paint to pick put the key contours, then extruding it. My art teacherd in school HATED me for reasons such a this preference. Perhaps this is because I am a drawer NOT a painter and prefer to smudge from the contour to the highlight allowing the graphite to create a natural gradient. Even though I understand the principles of tone, painting is still a mystery to me and frustratingly allows you less control than the fine lines of a pencil despite allowing you sweeping broad strokes. Maybe this is more applicable to oil paint than thinner ones like watercolor, though when painting with india ink, I always prefered shadow first, perhaps because it satisfied my worries over showing the depth of the image in my head from the off: no point in having beautiful color and line work if it all looks flat, 3 hours into your work.

  • Alva March 28, 2016   Reply →

    Thank you Ethan 🙂 you changed þý painting 🙂

  • Darryl Morby April 19, 2016   Reply →

    May I just say your explanation has saved me lots of research and gives easy and great detail. Just a quick explanation, as although I painted over 30 years. I have had 2 brain injuries and one coma and lost totally over 10 years of memory, but your explanation is very simple fopr me to understand and remember. I just think the new day comes after/following the nigfht so I start dark.Possibly sounds silly but I used to be a policeman so needed to do and remember lots. Your explanation has made me stop putting it off and pick up my brushes, palette, oils and stuff even if only for 5-20 minutes at a time. Thank you for being an inspiration agan.

  • Gabrielle Flynn October 22, 2016   Reply →

    Thank you! Great explanation! Very clear.

  • Stephanie Weirathmueller October 23, 2016   Reply →

    Thanks, great read, and it was nice to spend time reflecting on this technique…looking forward to more posts

  • Caroline December 7, 2016   Reply →

    Light bulb moment! Thank you so much for explaining this Ethan. I’ve been trying to work out what my art teacher meant by start with the dark first and searching the internet for this explanation and you’ve given a really clear explanation. I am working on my first portrait and from what you say I think that instead of mixing a whole lot of very varied paint colours I can mix the dark tones carefully and then add white – and sometimes a bit of yellow – to get the lighter colours. I can now get on with my portrait when I get back from work this evening – I’m so grateful.

  • Zarana Patel January 16, 2017   Reply →

    Excellent, clear explanation. Also ties into the “fat over lean” mantra. I got brave enough today to begin my first oil painting with a fancy “impratura,” which is not a grisaiile in my case, but a bright, light orange which I hope will bring the best out of my bright blue sky in later layers. This is fun. Thanks for making my next steps more obvious.

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