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.

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