Painting of a Street Scene – in stages

Here is a painting I did for a show I am having. I took photos of the work in different stages so you can see how the painting process works. One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring painters make is thinking that you just draw it and then try to carefully fill it in. Almost in the way you would if you were coloring in a coloring book picture.

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oil painting technique – what’s it all about

When people want to know about oil painting technique, what does this really mean?

What was the technique of Rembrandt? What was the technique of Monet? What do they want to really know and understand?

Well, let’s first define the word technique. It’s definition is as follows: A way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure / method of performance; way of accomplishing.

So, when we ask to learn the technique of oil painting, another way to say it would be “How do I go about the task of creating an oil painting, can you show me the method to do so?”

If you notice, the words technique, method and procedure are used alot. I have found that in general ll of these words can be used interchangeably to mean the same thing when people want to learn about painting technique. Being in art school all those years, I can confidently say that is the number one thing the students want to learn – A method to use to be able to execute their oil paintings.

No student wants to just “wing it” with no method, no procedure, and just hope it all works out in the end.

jaimeMany well known artists had differing methods. Many artists that belonged the same “movement” in painting followed similar procedures to each other. Of course there were some slight differences as all people are different and everyone does things differently, that’s just life.

For example, most neoclassical painters painted with a similar method to each other. Most impressionist painters painted with a similar method to each other.

But, before you can get into the “fun” part of painting technique I have to say – when you want to know the technique of oil painting, it actually starts with the pre-painting technique.

That means, if you want to replicate the technique of certain old masters, before you even make a stroke of paint on your canvas, you have to know if the materials you are using are similar to the materials they used.

I know I know…

Learning about materials, for many people, can be boring, but there really is no way around it.

In fact, I’ll tell you why it’s so much easier to have the surface of your paintings look more like modern painters…

Impressionist Technique

You know why it’s easier for you to obtain a similar surface look to more modern painters? Because you are using the same materials they used. Picasso and Matisse used paint that is very similar to what you can go buy today.

There may have never have been a Monet or impressionists at all if it wasn’t for the invention of the paint tube.

The technique of the impressionists is very direct and simple. If you want your painting surface to look like Monet’s painting surface you simply have to take your paint from palette to canvas very directly, over and over matching the colors and shapes as you see them.

It’s all on the surface and there is nothing underneath that is hidden from view.

Yes, there are some slight nuances, and as you get more advanced, these may interest you. Like Monet was said to have drained excess oil from his paint by squeezing the paint on absorbent paper before putting it on his palette. This made his paint dryer and helped him to get the look he was after. Or, you may wonder if he used bristle brushes or sable brushes, or other nuances like that but for the most part his technique was very direct. Mix opaque paint on your palette and bring it from palette to canvas. It’s not complex, not layered and fairly easy to grasp.

This is not the case with other painters

Old Masters Oil Painting Technique

Rembrandt, Titian, Joshua Reynolds, whoever you want to name, couldn’t go order their tube colors and canvas from dick blick.

Therefore when talking about the technique of oil painting, as far as the old masters go, it helps to break it up into 2 areas. Painting techniques, and pre-painting techniques.

Yes, those materials again…

I know that no matter how many times I will talk to people about taking the time to prepare your own canvas or even try to grind your own paint, many of you will just not do it. That’s fine, but if this step is part of the technique for the look you are after, you won’t achieve that look – plain and simple.

If you’re cooking a thanksgiving turkey and you want to get juicy breast meat, but you simply won’t take the time to brine the turkey or prep the turkey in other ways and just shove it in the oven without any prep work at all, you’ll never get that juicy breast meat the way you would if you followed the pre-cooking techniques.

These painters applied paint in a less direct way with materials that were more different then the ones we can buy today.

A list of techniques and procedures to learn

So as far as the actual painting technique I have a come up with a list of notes below of the process of making a painting that I think will cover the confusion people have about oil painting techniques. Then…the real biggie will come after that.

1) The drawing stage – meaning what are the first marks to make on the canvas. Do you use outlines? How detailed are these outlines and what do you use to make these lines?

2) The layering procedure – indirect painting – This way of painting is not simply match exactly what you see and apply it on canvas in 1 layer and you’re done. If you are going to paint in more than 1 direct layer you have to know the layering method. You have to understand how you are going to build up the painting from a blank canvas – starting with the toning layer of the canvas.

3) The first application of paint – By this, I mean other than making your first drawing lines from number 1 above. Before you even get to the actual application of the paint, where on your picture do you start? The middle, the top, The area that is furthest back in your painting? Once you know where to start, how do you apply this first application? Do you scrub it on the canvas very thinly, apply a more solid layer of paint, etc.

Also, you what brush do you use for this application of paint, what colors and mediums do you use?

4) Further applications of paint – When you are painting in a layering method, are the layers planned methodically so you have to stop at a certain point and let a layer dry or do you paint as much as you can in one sitting and then have to know how to proceed if a part of your painting has dried before you wanted it to.

Those are the 4 most basic and generalized main steps of the procedure of carrying out the task of making a painting using the “old mater painting technique” that I can think to break it all down into.

Now, embedded in those 4 main procedural steps are isolated techniques as I’ll call them. I touched on them in the 4 steps above by asking some questions after listing what those 4 steps were, but they are all under the umbrella of one main problem…

How do you apply the paint

When it boils down to it, this is THE BIG QUESTION. Numero Uno.

I could almost reduce this entire article that talks about oil painting techniques, and questions people have such as “What was the technique of Rembrandt?” etc to this one simple statement.

How did “so and so” put the paint on the canvas, and you can change the “so and so” to your favorite artist.

Let’s use an example…How about Titian? Even if he isn’t your favorite artist just go with it for a minute to understand what I am saying.

So, what is the oil painting technique of Titian? Meaning, how did Titian apply his paint to canvas.

Well, let’s assume you have followed a similar procedure to his pre-painting technique and your canvas was a warm brown to begin with. Now he had to do stage 1 from above and do his drawing stage. How did he apply this drawing, what paint, what brushes, mediums, etc.

What layering procedure did Titian use. This article isn’t going to be an in depth report on Titian’s technique, but for the purposes of understanding oil painting technique I will sum up his layering process this way…

Titian used his first layers of paint to establish tone values and his colors were not what the final colors were going to be. Those final colors would come later in the “further applications of paint” (number 4 of my 4 stages from above ) He knew this, so if a woman was to have a strong blue cloth draped over her, the underpainting layers would not have this strong blue and that was fine, he was using this layer to get the darks and lights of the cloth the way he wanted it, without the real final colors.

Ok, so he knows his layering process, now…So back to the main question – how did Titian apply his paint ( and remember, that paint was not like our paint of today )

From my own research (and I’ve done a ton of research on him ), I can tell you Titian used a lot of rubbings with bristle brushes to apply his paint. For instance, he didn’t use a soft sable brush and lay on his paint in a very methodical manner in the way some painters from the 1700’s and 1800’s did. He more likely used his brush and paint like you would use charcoal on paper. He would work from dark to light – or in his case, the dark of the canvas to bright lights made with a thicker application of white –

Now, certain isolated oil painting techniques (rather than the general constructing procedure ) that you would have to learn to be able to paint like him – How he would apply the paint inside those 4 procedural steps would be

How to paint shadows – meaning what colors, what thickness of paint, rubbing them on, making your surface wet with medium before applying the paint? etc.

how to paint highlights? – same as above.

how do you blend – how did he get his soft edges, and many times his paintings have very soft edges.

How did Titian use veilings (called velaturas in Italian) and glazes – these are all special ways to apply paint to the canvas that produce certain effects. If you know what the effects are, you can add them to your own arsenal of oil painting techniques ready to use when it would benefit you.

The technique of oil painting is broken down to the procedure to produce an oil painting and how to apply the paint within that procedure.

The isolated techniques of applying paint are like the letters of the alphabet and the general procedure is like combining the letters together to form words.

how to oil paint in layers - oil painting with ethan

How to oil paint in layers

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

  1. You separate the problem of tone from color – thus making painting easier
  2. You can have multiple layers of paint working together in your finished picture – thus a richer color effect
  3. You can focus your mind on one thing at a time – thus making painting easier
  4. 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. You can do it that way but if you are trying to get an old master look in your work, you won’t ever achieve the effects you’re after.

“But layering is too hard and takes too long…”

I have heard that reasoning in the past.

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: This is one big way that painting is different than photography. A photograph is not layered. It is one layer of ink on paper. Also, because of the layered nature of painting, 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, for example, 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.

Note the head that I painted in the image above in greenish tones. I did not concern myself with trying to “get it all done” because I know that painting is done in layers. As I go on I will add things, modify, make corrections, and colors, etc.

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.

I’ve been teaching painting for over 20 years and I don’t believe in the “just plow along and learn by your mistakes approach.” I believe in showing you methods and procedures that you can use over and over again. I also believe in teaching you how to think like a painter so you can solve your own problems.

How to paint in layers may seem confusing at first, but I have gone over it in detail in my video course, oil painting formula.

It’s video training that I call the oil painting instruction I always wish had been around when I was a student. I’d love to send you a copy on DVD or I also have an online version where you just log in and you can start learning by watching the videos right away.

painting of a girls head

Step by Step To Begin Your Oil Painting

I had the following question sent to me – “Pretend it’s the very first time you tried to paint, could you give me a step by step method to get started?”

That’s something many people can relate to. The person also told me the reason for this question…”That blank canvas is rather unnerving!”

So, let me answer the question because I’ll bet many of you have the same question.

First, is the preparation of your painting surface. Most of the time this is canvas, but it can be a wooden panel, even paper. I won’t cover the steps to properly prepare your canvas here because that is it’s own VERY IMPORTANT lesson.

Let’s assume you have the painting surface prepared properly, you most likely will want to get rid of the harsh white of the canvas.

(There are sometimes when you may want to keep the white of the painting surface – for example…When you get more advanced or when you want a very high keyed – bright looking work – Like some impressionists used for their outdoor scenes)

Let me first tell you why I want you to start with a toning layer.

The most important reason is that it will help you and make things easier for you. The old masters did many things out of logic and necessity. Toning your canvas to get rid of the white was logical.

This tone value will play a role in the building up of your underpainting that you are going to start with.

In the beginning layer of paint, when you either leave this dark tone layer to show on it’s own or lightly cover it will play a role in the painting.

1) I want you to start with a monochrome underpainting.

This is the traditional way and it makes things easier for you and I am all about making things easier for you.

You see, dividing the painting process this way separates all the parts of making a painting into their own sections. You don’t have to deal with all the problems all at once. So, for a beginner I want you to start with a dark brown toned canvas. Again, I can’t cover exactly how to tone tone your painting surface here, I am just giving you the basic steps that you will follow to begin your painting.

2) Squeeze out some white paint (a fast drying white) and black on to your palette.

Note: If you ask “how much?” my answer is enough to use. Don’t get so worried about something so trivial. You squeeze out enough paint to use. If it’s not enough, squeeze out more.

You are going to let the darker tone of your canvas play an important role in your underpainting.

Using one of your smaller bristle brushes and mix up a light gray.

To make this mixture: Start with the white and slowly add the black into it instead of starting the opposite way. It’s easier to make a light color darker, than make a darker color lighter.

3) Start Making Your Drawing.

You will now take that smaller bristle brush and start placing some outlines to make your “skeleton” drawing. (this is just one of the ways you can place your drawing) You can use one of the methods and techniques I demonstrate for you in my “How to begin?” course for how to get a good composition and other ways to get your drawing on your painting surface. I won’t cover that here.

Your painting surface, properly prepared will make the application of paint very easy…much more so than if you were to just buy one of those cheap canvases in a craft store, rip open the packaging and begin.

I will say over and over again – bad preparation and bad materials lead to bad paintings.

If you need to, dip your brush into a little bit of your medium to make the paint you are using a little bit thinner and more flowing, only if you need to.

Don’t just add medium blindly, or because someone told you once that you have to. Only use it if you need it…

The same way you wash a pot by pouring some liquid soap into it, add water and then judge if you need more
water or not.

Do not take much paint on your brush while you are doing these steps. You will build up the amount of paint as you go. Of course, don’t be so scared of using too much paint that you barely make a mark on the canvas.

DO NOT: make one outline and think you are doing something wrong if you adjust it. Nothing is final yet. This is not a paint by numbers set.

You are using just white and black so there are really no mistakes you can make.

You can mix up a light gray and use it thinly so that the dark tone of your canvas shows throw or you can lay the gray on a little thicker to cover the dark tone layer and you will see what a variation of tone values you can attain just by varying the thickness of your gray mixture. The thicker your mixture, the more your toning layer will be covered. The thinner your mixture, the more your original toning layer will show through.

Think of drawing with white chalk on a blackboard.

The picture at the top of this article, was created with the procedure I am describing. If you look at the girls face in her cheek and chin, as well as some other places, you can see the gray underpainting showing through.

4) Divide everything you see, in your mind, into light and dark.

You do not care about the color of any object right now, only the tone values the lights and darks.

You can pick if you want to start with darks or lights of the objects you are painting and then work toward the opposite end…

Dark to light or light to dark.

In the darker areas, you will leave the darker tone of your canvas to show through.

You can add a gray that is darker than the tone value you already have and use this mixture for the darkest darks. And, you can use the light gray mixture that you started with and apply thicker for lighter areas.

For the lightest light you may want to use just pure white and lightly add it into the paint you already have on the canvas.

Do not be scared of making mud, as it’s impossible to do just using black and white.

This would be the beginning of your painting…the underpainting – step 1.

You would continue the painting process which would include going over the underpainting again and making things more definite…adding the coloring layers with glazes and veilings and some direct painting. The adding of details would come later on.

But this covers an overview of a definite step by step procedure to use from scratch. It gives you a way to start from your blank canvas that you can use over and over again to produce any painting.

Further Study

If you liked this introduction, I have an “Action Plan” course  called “How to begin?” that you can check out here

Click Here to check out the “How To Begin” action plan

Keep on learning.

Ethan Semmel


brushes screenshot

Buy oil painting brushes – which ones?

Looking to buy oil painting brushes? Or would you just like a little primer about brushes and which ones your should have and why? I have posted a video tutorial for you which will cover which brushes are a good start if you are not sure where to start.

After all, buying oil painting brushes can be expensive. Actually, they should be pretty expensive because cheap brushes will fall apart fast and will end up costing you money in the long run.

Watch this video tutorial about buying oil painting brushes and you’ll see which type of hairs and which number of brush is a great place to begin.

Remember, a piece of advice I always give is buy the most expensive oil painting brushes you can afford. Cheap tools lead to frustration as well as cheap looking paintings.

Do you want more in depth instruction on those confusing tools of oil painting, check out my instruction manual – The Secrets of Oil Painting Supplies Made Easy