This video below is as close as you can get to going to the museum with me and looking at a painting together.

I’m going to point out points that I think are important that will help you to understand the painting process. Specifically the process used by Van Dyck so you can add these techniques to your own arsenal.

Just a little background first: Van Dyck was the painter that basically set the path for the British School, and thus the American school. From the mid 1600’s all through the 1700’s and into the 1800’s. He was Flemish, but found a lot of fame painting the royal court of England. He was the top pupil of Rubens whom he learned his craft from.

You know all those paintings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and all those other dead famous Americans? That grand style was started by Van Dyck.

Here is a video of a portrait painted by Van Dyck that is in the Metropolitan museum of art with notes and things to look at, under the video.

1) If you pause the video around 12 seconds you’ll see a screenshot like the one below.

Screen shot 2013-01-18 at 6.41.30 AM

What I’m trying to capture is how he painted the hands and his use of, what is known as, the optical gray.

Note: Van Dyck used a layering process. One layer of paint over another over another and he had to use a certain medium to achieve this. This is not simply a guy who is scrubbing on his color on an absorbent surface (like so many students do today). He could paint very thinly, yet by his use of the right medium his paint didn’t look weak. In fact, his skin is made in such a way, it was like he was painting with “pink milk”
If you’d like to learn to understand painting mediums, like a master – check out my Action Plan “All About Mediums”

There are many “academic” procedures around today and a lot of ways of instructing students that go into a lot of premixed tones.

Sometimes a large value scale from pure white to pure black with ultra fine nuances in between is given a number scale from 1 – 10. 1 being white and 10 being black and 8 variations between those 2 extremes.

Other ways that are taught are to use bit by bit modeling where the painter mixes every nuance of color on the palette and then applies it, working inch by inch – in basically one layer of paint.

This is clearly not how Van Dyck worked. It’s not the traditional way. He would get the variation of tone by applying his paint in varying degrees of thickness over an undertone.

If you can’t see this at the 12 second point in the video, I have other footage of the hands at around 16/17 seconds and another time as well.

2) If you pause the video at 32 seconds, you’ll get a screenshot like this:

anthony van dyck technique of painting hands

What I discussed above is very clear here too. This hand is not painted with 1 layer of solid paint modeled all the way around. That grayish area near the inside of the wrist is not a result of first mixing a grayish color and then blending that with a more flesh like mixture in the same paint layer.

There is an underlayer that shows through the overlayers and color and tonal adjustments are made at the end with veilings, scumbles, etc.

3) Mass tones: He uses the mass tone all over. Meaning the general color and silhouette shape carries the bulk of the form in it. Sometimes with just slight additions of lights and darks.

Look at this screenshot from around 7 seconds in.

van dyck painting of a face

Besides the face also showing signs of modeling by the use of varying paint thickness – which I cover and go over in detail in my Instruction Manual The Secrets of Oil Painting Techniques Made-Easy – look around at the hair, the clothes the sitter wears, etc. His use of mass tones is very substantial and holds most of the painting together. But, you’ll see no “cut out” look from him (yes, I know lots of you have problems with that, but that’s very correctable as well, also covered in the instruction manual)

For Further Study

If you want more in depth instruction about oil painting mediums then go order yourself a copy of The Action Plan – “All About Mediums”