Painting the Traditional Way
– Part 1
When painting the traditional way, the most important thing to consider is that patience, finesse and forethought should be part of every stage of the painting. Cutting corners jeopardizes the whole, as well as your reputation as an artist.
There are actually many ways to paint and I don’t always follow a set path. But this post is about a basic method that I used to build up this oil painting.
What is the old master painting method?
The old masters did not necessarily use a single fixed recipe as their traditional painting method. There have always been, and continue to be, many cultural, stylistic, technical and individual developments in art. That is why art is always evolving.
Traditionally, in Western art, the old masters painting period falls between the murals and frescos of the 1300’s, through the Renaissance, to the Romantic period of the 1800’s. See also: old masters by theartstory.org
Some would say the beginning of the Modern art period began with Impressionism, where there was a break away from the ‘Academic’ style of painting that ended with the Realists.
Historically, there were two main schools of old master painting methods: the Venetian and the Flemish masters.
These two schools of painting were stylistically and culturally very different, but began to influence each other, as artists carried their technical discoveries, materials and ideas across Europe. See: The secrets of the old masters by oldholland.com
Though influenced by all the old masters (as well as more modern painters), for this figure painting tutorial, I’m taking inspiration mostly from the Italian masters.
What were typical characteristics of the Venetian school?
• Painting on canvas instead of wood panels.
• Using stiff hogshair brushes, as well as soft brushes which allowed greater control of edges and brushstrokes.
• Using scumbling as well as glazing techniques.
• Painting on a warm-toned ground.
• An emphasis on rich, bright colours, drama and lighting.
• Inter-weaving compositions with a greater sense of spacial dynamics than the generally ‘flatter’ compositions of the Flemish school.
Titian is one of my favourite artists of all time.
But some other favourite old masters from the Venetian school are Bellini, Veronese, Giorgione and Tintoretto. Though Rubens and Van Dyke were Flemish, they were heavily influenced by the Italian painters. See: Rubens and Titian by David Freedberg.
How do you start an oil painting?
Consider your many options and plan ahead.
You can paint on board or canvas, use a toned (coloured) ground or just paint directly onto the white primed surface.
You can create an under-drawing in charcoal, or under-painting with your brush. Paint directly wet into wet if you wish, or build up layers methodically.
You can use thick impasto, or delicate glazing. Paint from light to dark, dark to light, or use both. There are many choices and creative ways of achieving your artistic goals through different materials and methods.
Experimentation is the best way to learn and I think it’s important for artists to really understand their pigments, supports and other materials.
One should know how to utilise them fully without unfortunate cracking, delamination, or other terrible mishaps.
Different subject matter or creative expression may call for using different methods sometimes too. The more you experiment and the more you understand about painting, the more options you’ll have before you.
Besides the style you want to paint in, or the support you want to paint on, consider also the size of your painting. Would this type of painting be best suited for a large format, medium or small?
Consider the layout. Portrait way or landscape, square or even a rondo (round canvas)
Most importantly, consider the composition. That’s a whole subject on its own.
Important tips for starting an oil painting
There are three important rules one should remember when starting an oil painting:
1. Don’t use poor quality products
Use products that you can trust, and try to buy the best you can afford. This is common sense. You don’t want to waste all your time painting, and then your materials let you down.
But on the flip side, I wouldn’t use expensive artist quality paints to tone a huge canvas or paint a thin underpainting. What’s the point of wasting such expensive paint for tasks like these?
Also, sometimes, I use cheap brushes that I don’t have to be so precious with, for certain things like scrubbing or scumbling. So use your discretion. Use the best quality primer that you can, and the best paints for the main work.
2. Remember the ‘Fat over Lean’ rule
This is basically the one oil painting rule that art teachers are always whining about. ‘Fat’ refers to the thickness of your oil paint layer on top of the preceding layer. It also refers to the amount of oiliness of your paint layer.
‘Lean’ refers to a thinner paint layer, or one that contains less oiliness and perhaps more solvent.
The important thing to remember, is to always have a more flexible, oilier layer of paint on top of a less flexible, leaner layer of paint.
Remembering this rule prevents cracking and delamination. And it means your painting can last for generations, because it’s allowed to dry properly, and is more chemically and physically stable.
3. Use the correct primer
Despite what online artists advise about using oil paint on top of an acrylic, I would say don’t use an acrylic primer for an oil painting. It may cause paint film issues later on.
And definitely don’t paint with acrylic on top of an oil painting. That’s even worse!
For oil painting, it’s better to paint on canvas that has been primed with an oil-based or alkyd-based primer.
Better yet, paint on board or panel. Or stretch your canvas over a rigid support. This is the best way to mitigate a cracking or peeling paint film and ensure that your painting lasts.
How to size a canvas for oil painting
After stretching the canvas over stretcher or strainer bars (or ideally, a rigid support), it’s very important to ‘size’ the canvas.
Sizing the canvas, means painting a barrier layer of diluted glue over the raw canvas. The size acts as a sealant.
The linseed oil from oil paints is rather corrosive on natural fibres as it oxidises. So, sizing is necessary for protecting the canvas or board from the oxidative effects (linolenic and linoleic acids) of linseed oil.
An easy way to size the canvas is to use two coats of glue size with acrylic matte gel medium diluted with a little water.
You may have heard of rabbit skin glue. In the old days, artists used glue size made from boiling rabbit skin or animal hides. It creates a powerful glue, which when applied to the canvas, shrinks when dry and stretches the canvas tighter. Hence the term ‘sizing’.
Nowadays, we have better and more reliable products than hide glues. Acrylic resin solutions and mediums, and archival PVA sizes are a much more stable option. They are less hydroscopic, more flexible than hide glues, and less prone to mould and insects.
To size the canvas, use a ready-made PVA size made for the purpose. Or make your own by diluting acid-free wood glue or acrylic medium with enough water to create a milky, but not too runny, size medium.
Lay the canvas facing up on a table or on the floor, and brush the size across the raw canvas with a stiff, flat hogshair or house painter’s brush. Make sure you get the size in between all the fibers of the canvas.
You can even size the sides and the back of the canvas too, in order to make sure the canvas is properly protected from the corrosive effects of linseed oil.
You may want to paint the size in one direction for the first coat, and then cross directional for the following coat.
To check that the canvas has been sized correctly, hold it up to the light and make sure you’ve filled in all the little ‘pin-holes’ of light coming in through the fibres of the fabric.
Give it at least 2 coats, allowing a day between for the glue to dry.
After a few days, you can then start priming the canvas.
How to prime a canvas for oil painting
Stretching, sizing and priming your own canvases ensures that you have a far superior painting support than the commercial canvases available in art stores.
Having made your own canvases, you can also be confident of the quality of the materials and primer used.
Commercial canvases are usually very cheaply made. They are primed with cheap acrylic primer (or fake gesso), or only primed with a maximum of 2 coats.
After sizing the canvas with acid-free PVA glue size, it’s best to use an oil or alkyd based primer for an oil painting.
The easiest way to prime a canvas, is to either lay it flat on the floor, or on a large table, facing upwards.
Use a large, flat, natural hair house painter’s brush, and paint the primer thinly across the surface of the canvas. Work in either a horizontal or vertical direction.
Make sure you cover every bit of the canvas with a thin layer of primer, including the sides of the canvas if you so wish.
Give the canvas at least 3 to 4 coats of primer, allowing a few days of drying in between coats, and painting each coat cross-directional from the last coat.
After priming the canvas and allowing it some time to ‘cure’, you may want to lightly sand the surface of the canvas to make it smoother and get rid of any burrs or imperfections.
Some artists mention leaving the canvas to dry properly for 6 months before painting. But this is not really necessary, and I would generally leave the canvas for a few weeks before using it.
An alkyd-based primer dries even faster, so you could start painting within a few days.
You can feel when the primer has cured, when the paint film feels not only touch dry (obviously), but also when it becomes slightly hardened, and not so soft and spongy.
I normally prime my canvases about 4 times. Generally I like a slightly smoother surface with only a little bit of ‘tooth’ because I don’t normally paint too thickly.
I find with a rough texture, the paint just gets wasted sinking into the canvas and the brush doesn’t ‘travel’ very smoothly over the surface.
After priming I sanded down the canvas:
What is painting on a toned ground?
The application of a flat tone or base colour to a white-primed canvas is called a toned ground. This can be either a transparent wash of oil colour (like an imprimatura), or a more opaque tint. The painting surface of the canvas is also known as ‘the ground’.
A toned ground helps to set the colour temperature and to balance your colour harmonies. It is generally the middle value of a painting between the darks and the lights.
Once the toned ground is properly dried and durable, a charcoal or chalk underdrawing can be done on top of it.
Or the drawing can be done on a white canvas, and then a transparent coloured imprimatura can be painted over the drawing. This seals in the charcoal drawing and adds a coloured tone for the painting.
Here is an example of the kind of yellowish ground that Rubens used in most of his paintings, an oil on canvas sketch of the Lion Hunt:
What are the best pigments for toning the ground?
Pigments that are suitable for toned grounds are ochres, siennas and umbers, mixed with a bit of titanium or lead white and sometimes a bit of ivory black.
These are all fast-drying pigments, have hard and strong film properties and are not too oily for the layers that go on top of them.
They create a nice stable ground to work on.
Think earth colour = ground.
If you are painting a transparent imprimatura over a drawing, avoid the use of white, as white makes the paint more chalky and opaque.
I try not to use zinc white, as it’s very brittle, and is known to cause cracking and weaken the film strength of other pigments that are in contact with it.
I also don’t like lamp black either because it takes forever to dry.
The colour temperature and value of the ground will affect the rest of the painting that is painted on top it. For example, the artist can use a warm toned ground such a burnt sienna, or a cool tone such as yellow ochre and black (creates a cool olive tone).
Because of the transparency of oil paint, the colour of the ground influences the paint layers above it.
But often, the coloured ground is deliberately allowed to show through the brushwork, even into the final layers of paint. See works by Rubens or Rembrandt, where the artist allowed the warm coloured ground to show through.
Thinking about the colour temperature or perhaps the dominant colour in the composition, or even the complementary colour to the dominant, I generally use either greys or earth colours; yellows, oranges, pinks or reddish colours, or even olivey greens.
These different grounds all affect a painting in different ways, create different moods, and especially, influence skin tones.
How to apply a toned ground to the canvas
Applying a toned ground is similar to priming the canvas. Mix your desired pigments on your palette, or bulk mix a whole lot of paint and store in a paint tin.
If your ground is opaque and contains lots of white (a tint), use a large flat hogshair or house painter’s brush to apply the ground.
Be careful not to leave any thick brushstrokes. You can soften the texture of the freshly painted surface by going over it with a large soft hake or mop brush.
If you are painting a thin wash or transparent imprimatura, use a softer brush and apply the paint very thinly.
A good idea is to also wipe the excess paint off with an old rag. This can lighten the value of the toned ground as it thins the paint layer, especially since the canvas was originally primed white.
When using earth pigments as a toned ground, be careful not to paint the ground too thickly, or the absorbent ground will suck in the oils from the layers of paint above it.
Earth pigments, such as umber, tend to act as a clay (they are made of iron oxides and silicates) and so absorb oil quite readily. They tend to have quite brittle film characteristics, which can cause cracking. So keep the layer fairly thin.
Don’t make it too oily either, or it will feel slightly slippery for the next layer to come. Remember the fat over lean rule. You just want a nice thin coating of colour that creates a texture like smooth stone or an ostrich egg.
I don’t normally use turps or white spirit very much in my painting. But if you want to, you can mix a small amount of genuine turpentine and some refined linseed oil in a little container.
Wipe it over your canvas with a rag prior to painting on your toned ground. This will help with the spreadability of the paint.
Alternatively, you can use a palette knife to smear the paint on all over the canvas. Then, use a rag and rub the paint smoothly into the canvas. This creates a nice texture and a thin, economical layer of your toned earth ground.
Using a pink ground
I chose to mix up a middle value pink for my toned ground. The reason for this, is that I will be painting a warm, fleshy woman against a cool blue/green background.
Allowing the pink ground to show through the painting, especially in the rocks and cool blue/green water, thus ensures there is balance in the colour harmonies. Warm pink is also complementary to the cool background colours.
So, I mixed a little bit of permanent rose with raw umber and titanium white. I painted this toned ground with a large hog hair filbert that had seen better days. I wasn’t afraid therefore, to scrub the paint right into the weave of the cotton-duck canvas.
Once completely covered, I went over the wet paint with a large, soft, natural hair house painting brush. This smoothed out the texture and softened the brush strokes.
By the way, permanent rose (or quinacridone red PV19) is a synthetic pigment. It has soft film properties and is not as strong as the earth colours. But, it has a high tinting strength, so I didn’t need to use very much.
And besides, the raw umber will help speed up the drying time and strengthen the paint mixture overall, so I wasn’t too worried.
This is the way in which my mind works when I’m using paints. I generally consider the physical and chemical properties of the pigments. When you’ve been painting for a long time and studying the characteristics of different paints, it all becomes second nature eventually.
Letting things settle
I left the canvas to dry completely for about a week before starting the charcoal underdrawing. The toned ground must be set and allowed to cure properly before drawing over it.
When drawing the charcoal underdrawing of the female figure, I tend to wipe out any of my mistakes with a rag, and the painted ground must be able to withstand this rough treatment.
Sometimes, I simply paint a drawing directly onto the canvas in thin paint and forego the charcoal step. But, for this painting, I used vine charcoal to get the composition down.
You can view this process in the follow up post to this one, or check out another figure painting series I did: Painting the Figure – Part 1
When painting the traditional way, another technique, is to do your drawing in charcoal on a white canvas.
Then go over the drawing with sepia ink or very lean oil paint to seal the charcoal drawing.
Once the ink is dry, you can then paint an imprimatura over the drawing.
The imprimatura is a transparent layer or thin glaze of colour or tone, allowing the drawing to still be seen. It means ‘first paint layer’ in Italian.
In my case, I’ll be doing a drawing on top of an opaque toned ground. My imprimatura will really be just a thin paint layer sealing the charcoal and adding a little more tone to the woman’s body.
Some examples of using a toned ground from the old masters
Before toning your painting the traditional way, study some of the paintings of the Old Masters.
In many examples, you can see the ground showing through in the painting and unifying the colour harmonies. See also: The evolution of preparations for painting on canvas in sixteenth century Spain by the Museo del Prado
Rubens often used a yellowish ground made from yellow ochre and raw sienna.
Rembrandt, where he used a reddish ochre ground, overlaid with a grey made from lead white and charcoal.
El Greco also used a reddish ground.
Leonardo da Vinci also generally used a pale grey or brownish ground.
Spanish artist, Alonso Sánchez Coello, used a light grey.
And check out John Constable’s beautiful English landscapes which he usually painted on a pink ground.
The next step in this traditional painting process, is to start the underdrawing. In Painting the Traditional Way – Part 2 – The Underdrawing, I explain all about drawing with charcoal on canvas, and how to transfer and fix a charcoal drawing.
Thanks a lot for reading, and please send me any questions or suggestions in the comments below. If you need any help with these painting techniques, please let me know.
You can also check out some of my figure paintings here.