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

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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.”

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Rembrandt van rijn

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add to cartsecrets of oil painting techniques made easy thumbnailThis page will discuss the paintings of rembrandt van rijn.

I will discuss his work from a painters perspective.

When mentioning the greatest artists of all time, Rembrandt’s name will come up on the list. Especially in the United States.

I venture to guess that the non art lover has heard of Rembrandt, but does not know his full name of Rembrandt Van Rijn. He is one of the few names in art history that we know by his first name, along with Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael.

Rembrandt is known for his dramatic lighting even though he was simply using the lighting techniques first made well known by Caravaggio.

The technical term for it is chiaroscuro. Large dark areas of a painting with sudden area of bright illumination. This adds to the dramatic effect.

Rembrandt van rijn’s later paintings and style are more well known than his earlier works and style.

But, let’s take a look at some of his earlier works first…

rembrandt painting 1639In looking at an early work, as seen in the image on the left, you can see, even in this small image, that he was trying hard to reproduce textures and was concerned with detail.

How the painting would look if inspected close-up.

Although he paid a good attention to detail in his early works, it’s his later works with their thick impasto, sketchy look, and distinctive application of paint that has made him famous in the present day.

He method evolved as many artists do as he made the change from his early to late periods, but this doesn’t mean that his procedure changed much.

Yes, he probably applied paint differently. Perhaps experimented with his paints and mediums, but even his later paintings still were first made following the procedure of his time.

Such as, an underpainting in dull or monochrome colors, with veilings and solid painting to follow over this preparation.

rembrandt portrait detailNow, on the right, this is a later painting. It was done about 9 years before Rembrandt died.

Unfortunately it is hard to see brushwork in these images, and you really need to see the paintings in real life to get a feel for the brushwork (so unusual for it’s time)

This work is still detailed, but it is not “photographic”.

Rembrandt is not concerned with “polish” or a smooth look.

You may say that his work is more “real” than a photograph because he is more concerned with presenting a true and expressive image.

After all, there were no photographs yet in the 1600’s.

Because of the roughness of the paint, you can almost get a feeling of the figure (this being a self portrait) in movement. His eyes, showing a little bit of worry or disdain.

Well, that’s a personal feeling about this painting, but as far the technical production of this work…

This work is produced with a lot of bodied paint that builds the figure.

I feel that the coloring is build up gradually over this “bodied” paint.

This painting is not completed in a modern way of painting…such as trying to make a finished appearance all at once as is so commonly done nowadays.

Rembrandt knew all about the procedures of layering a painting and building it up so he adjusted what he knew about the separation of drawing and color to his new style and methods.

Instruction Resources Learn Watercolor Painting Draw Realistic Portraits

Learning painting technique from Van Dyck

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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”


How to oil paint in layers

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Painting in layers presents a problem for the beginning painter. Eh, who am I kidding, it presents a problem for most intermediate painters too.

Who Should Paint in Layers

First, let me discuss who should be painting in layers?

I hate blanket statements, such as “All people”, but I will say just about every beginner should start out by learning to paint in layers.


There are so many benefits to painting in layers. I’ll list some that come to mind

  • You separate the problem of tone from color – thus making painting easier
  • You can have multiple layers of paint working together in your finished picture – thus a richer color effect
  • You can focus your mind on one thing at a time – thus making painting easier
  • You’re less likely to make “mud”

I think many people get stuck on painting in layers because you haven’t been shown how to do it, why you do it, and…this is a biggie…

It’s not just about painting 1 layer and then another layer and another…the physical part of applying the paint…

it’s about doing it with your mind, your thinking process.

I don’t believe in a systematic way such as 5 layers and you’re done. I have never seen any evidence that this was done in the past. Hey, Titian used to put thin layers on his paintings again and again. History says, sometimes 30 or more. But, don’t take that to mean he was systematically going through a 30 layer process in all parts of the painting. This just meant he was a perfectionist with his refining glazes, veilings, scumbles, etc and sometimes he did it 30 times in certain parts of a painting to get the effect he was after.

For Landscape Too?

landscape sketch

Should you paint in layers for landscape painting? Yes…for landscape, still life, people. Whatever it is. Learn to paint in a layered approach and as you advance, you can bend the rules you learned and make the layering process more in your thinking than in your actual application of paint.

If you’re “poo pooing” this because you saw someone paint in their sky in one very thin layer on some “special wet white” – then, yes this probably isn’t for you.

Layering is too hard and takes too long

Well, if you don’t want to do it that way. Fine, nobody will force you too, but I can tell you, you won’t ever achieve the effects you’re after.

Even more modern painters such as the impressionists painted in a layered approach, especially when they were learning. Renoir went back to it later in life because he realized it was the best way to achieve the color effects (like the old masters) that he wanted to.

Remember, painting is about painting on top of paint – whether the paint underneath be wet or dry, you will always layer paint over paint over paint.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest hurdles for students to overcome.

Note: a photograph is not layered. It is one layer of ink on paper. This is why, in my opinion, you can achieve a better look to your paintings when you paint from nature. Nature is not colored inks in one layer. A person’s skin is layers of skin on top of muscle, fat tissue, bone, with blood underneath, etc. A bunch of layers playing together that we see in real life. In that way, painting will always be more “real” than a photograph.

The How To

underpainted head in greenish

First, I am going to assume you have followed some of my instruction if you’ve seen it, as far as preparing your canvas so you are not painting on a stark white canvas. That, believe it or not would be the first layer.

Then, when you begin you will need some type of drawing. By a drawing I mean outline marks so you know where to start applying your paint. Not what you would think of as a “layer” but it is one indeed. Oh, and you don’t have to wait for that to dry.

Like, I will cover in a second, a layer doesn’t have to mean a dried layer.

Next, you focus your thoughts on tone and drawing. The actual paint colors you use is not overly important at this stage. What is important is how you are thinking. You should be thinking of “building” your picture.

Some people do this in only 2 colors. Some people do this in washed out variations of the final color. I won’t get into that right now but know that you should not be worried about the final colors now.

Forget them for the most part, you can fix or change them later.

If you paint slow, you can let this layer dry and re-do it to make any corrections you need. Using the veilings approach I teach in many videos and tutorials, you can unify areas of your tonal layer that are to contrasty (is that a word?) and then go paint and paint into them again.

There is no set rule. You don’t have to get this stage done in only 1 layer.

If you want to spend 3 layers on just the tonal values, go ahead and do it.

When you are satisfied, you can start adding the accurate color layers on top of this

Wet or Dry?

Believe it or not, you can add the more final colors on either wet or dry “underpaint”.

People think the old masters waited until everything was dry. I’m sure some of the time the underlayers were. But, not always. No way, no how!

There are stories of incredible speedy painting by such painters as Rubens, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano…and others.

For a second, forget that these people were artists. Think of them as businessmen fulfilling contracts. They had a product to make and it had to be done by a certain date. They could not always wait around for long drying times. They knew their mediums so well (or experimented) that they came up with mediums that would have the underlayers of paint set (but not dry – as oil paint really takes years to technically dry) so they could then paint overlayers over these “set” underlayers without any real mixture between the two.

In this post, there is hardly enough time to go into detail about the difference in how to add color layers depending on if the underlayers are wet or dry, but just know that it can be done both ways.

Don’t you add colors by glazing?

You can, but that’s not the only way and…many times…there is a misconception about glazing.

First, let me say this now. Do not think you paint your pictures in gray, glaze transparent color over it and it’s done.

That won’t work. You’re not tinting a photograph.

Glazing can be in varying thicknesses and it can be varying degrees of transparency.

It is perfectly fine to paint the finishing color layers in covering paint using your underlayers as a guide. No glazing needed.

With some practice and guidance, you will learn how to create great color effects just from varying the thickness of paint in your overlayers. With your underlayers beneath, you’d be amazed at the variations you could get by doing something such as if you were painting a face and you had the underlayers in grayish skin tones and then mixed a stronger skin tone for your top layers and simply applied it thinner or thicker in certain areas.

For Further Study

I highly recommend the oil painting with ethan members area which will contain videos and tutorials going into great detail about what this article talks about.

Or, if you’d like a 7 DVD set of oil painting instruction, check out oil painting formula.

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