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5 Popular Oil Painting Techniques

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Ever since the 13th century, oil painting has been the most popular painting technique. Artists of different eras and styles were inspired by the variation of colors and their impressive luminosity. Whether portraits, landscapes, decorative art, or still life – the possibilities of painting, the color fastness and durability of oil painting are unique and unmistakable.  The versatility of the slow-drying oil paints provide an ideal amount of time to create your own experiments, for development of effects and textures, and the creation of details, as well as room for necessary corrections. Paints initially consist of a dry colored powder. Those pigments mixed with a fat, vegetable oil, usually linseed oil, until it shows the desired consistency. The colors remain smooth for a long time, so they can be spread, layered, mixed, or removed, while the artists can unleash their creativity on canvas. The properties of linseed oil are also one reason why oil painting is considered to be a supreme discipline among classical painting techniques.

Over time oil painting artists around the globe developed numerous techniques by experimenting with oil paint, which added on to the endless options painters can choose from during the creation process. Here are five oil painting techniques to consider for your next masterpiece.

Preparation For Your Oil Painting

Before you even take a brush in your hand, the first step on the way to your vigorous oil creation should be a little bit of brainstorming and organization. Get your ideas on paper and make a group of thumbnail sketches. After this is completed, pick your favorite sketch and think of a position on your canvas that works best as a starting point.

One method that has become increasingly popular, especially in modern wall art, is to paint on multiple canvases. When you start working up the sketches for a painting on multiple canvases, use the following procedures: 

  1. Figure out if and how you want to divide your vision onto three or four separate canvases.
  2. Once you have decided which section goes where, draw the design as new sketches according to the divisions.
  3. Pick your canvas dimensions.  The canvasses can be equally divided, lined up juxtaposed next to each other. If you want to take a leap and make some of them taller or wider than the others, sketch your idea in thumbnails first.

It is becoming more of a nice decorative quality in the work of art to separate the one scene onto several canvases, without losing the professional quality of the work. This, of course, is a matter of preference, but it may add some fun to your painting if you have never tried this approach before.

The Glazing Technique

Oil painting is ideal for painting with glazes. This painting technique was developed by the old Venetian masters and therefore carries the nickname Venetian style. A glaze basically consists of fine layers of highly diluted colors that are applied layer after layer. It’s a slow process and the color layers need to be almost transparent to correspond with each other. The particular luminosity of glazed images originates from the reflection of the light from the lowest non-transparent paint layer, which is often the primer or base coat. The visible color is formed as a subtractive mixing of all the layers in connection with the last, uppermost color layer. The glazing technique is for patient artists only. Each layer of paint needs to dry before another one can be applied to avoid an uncontrollable mix of the pigments. Painters, who can control the effect of the color layers through light in accordance the color theory, will achieve the best possible effect, for each layer absorbs more light , depending on the pigment density.

Take a look at Renaissance oil paintings. Notice how rendering and blending oil paint led to create the effect of as flat a surface as possible. With the intense rendering and color blending, the visual space effects sometimes looked 3-dimensional while the actual canvas surface was smooth - even glassy looking. So, a flat yet 3-dimentional surface was the goal.  Damar and other varnishes mixed with linseed oil in order to make the surface glossy, which helped to smooth out the brush lines as well. In contrast to Renaissance oil paintings, today oil paint can be applied to various surfaces, shapes, and with the desired effect to be a kind of a raised surface piece of work transforming the space into an inspiring artwork in relief. Relief can be added with objects glued into the art, painted over and applied as a collage style of decorative art for the end product design.

The Opaque Painting Technique

When painting with opaque colors, oil paint is applied directly from the tube onto the canvas. The color overlays provide characteristic and the high density of different colors creates a greater shine and a more visible contrast. Contrary to a widely expressed opinion, this painting technique can be much easier to learn than many other ones. Since oil paints dry slowly due to their composition, you will have a lot of time to rearrange the applied paint.

Since the late Middle Ages, water-soluble opaque colors were used for the design of oil paintings, because concepts and ideas can be expressed relatively quickly. First the basic colors of the motif are applied. The basic color is the background color of motives and the biggest part of a color. After everything has dried of completely the details can be applied with other colors. In this step it is especially important to use a lot of paint during application. The opaque colors can create bright and dark spots or in other words light and shadows, due to their solid consistency.

Advanced brushes and the latest colors with new oil mediums and thicker paint are a great advantage nowadays, which has resulted in a variety of discovered methods. Today we can buy a prepared canvas instead of applying rabbit glue to seal our canvas, as it was commonly achieved in the past. A great idea for creating a metal effect is to contrast a diluted black against a diluted white. You can use a pure white to make the last highlight.  Another idea is to make an instant background by applying paint as a wash with diluted paint on the background to produce a base color to work on.  This color gives depth to the work.

The Spatula or Palette Knife Technique

The spatula technique is a form of impasto painting and has many parallels to it. The spatula technique uses a special tool - the so-called palette knife. Since this requires a special consistency, not all colors are suitable for this method. The creamy texture and the long drying time of oil colors offer ideal conditions for the artist to achieve stunning effects on canvas. Past examples of artistically outstanding pieces utilizing this method are the works of the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. He used the impasto order to accentuate whole image areas and enriched the already known chiaroscuro technique by Caravaggio, with a sculptural effect. Even Vincent van Gogh’s paintings show clear traces of related procedures. A modern representative of the spatula technique is Frank Auerbach, whose images appear three-dimensional by compact applied oil paint.

The greatest works the Impressionists produced in oil were not just the result of prepared oil colors. Back in their days, the oil paint had to be made from scratch, hand ground into powdered pigments and mixed into oils for the color.  In fact, tube oil paints didn’t even come into existence until 1841 when John Goffe Rand invented the use of tubes for oil paint. New techniques only developed from first knowing the traditional art techniques in history. It was not until later in history that Impressionists like Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, and later Picasso and Van Gogh used tube oil paint. It was very new and wonderful for them to be able to skip the step of preparation and it is the reason why they could explore the expressive ideas they found, while working with the medium they had at hand.  Likewise, colors translated from their creative consciousness on the canvas in the same way we experience with the new mediums we have today. If you have access to the methods of art from the past, you will know to appreciate what we have in 2014.

The Wet-on-wet Technique 

Wet-on-wet, or alla prima (Italian, meaning at first attempt), is an oil painting technique that was adopted as early as the 1300s by Dutch painters, and throughout history has been commonly used by impressionists and more recently by iconic figures such as Bob Ross. Wet-on-wet painting can be found in many art galleries today, and demonstrated in under half an hour on the television show, The Magic of Oil Painting.  The traditional method uses a thin oil paint mixture in a neutral color for the base layer under-painting.  The finished color in the under painting should be lighter in tone than required in the finished work, because the overlaying glazes will lower the value, making the paint darker as it’s layered.  Using a thin mixture of a solvent like turpentine and oil gives a quicker drying paint.  While the under-painting will be still slightly wet, it should dry quicker so that colors can be layered and worked into and on top of it.  Likewise, each layer of paint will become more wet and workable and thinned less with solvent until the final layer has a nice deep rich saturation of color.  The final layer is a concentrated paint straight from a tube, which consists of pigment mixed with linseed oil.  Blending color is relatively easy with the wet-on-wet technique, as it is simply painting with a thin layer of paint that is still slightly wet and workable, which can then be blended and layered. See the example of this technique by Frans Hals in 1645, Jasper Schade van Westrump.

The Tole Painting Technique

The word Tole comes from the French word, meaning lacquered or enameled metal-ware or wood. In Traditional Tole, oil paint was, and still is, the medium used. Those who practiced Tole painting in the 1700’s were taught the ‘one-stroke’ method. This quick method of painting was practiced for commercial reasons. In order to speedily decorate furniture, pottery or glass in oil paint, the brush would be triple loaded, to produce highlights. The body of the color would be applied in the middle, and the darker highlights on the sides. The Tole painters of this time decorated commercially, articles like decorative Chippendale furniture, Tea Trays also known as Tea Boards, Derby Pottery (hand made tiles).  Today, you can find examples of Tole painting under the general title of Decorative Art.


I hope you have been inspired as I have by studying these Techniques in Oil Painting.  By trying various techniques on your own, you may discover your own work can be more rewarding, and find what style you enjoy the most.


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