Artist stretching canvas, painting the traditional way
Stretching canvases before painting the traditional way.

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.


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-in-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.


Oil painting the traditional way – 3 important reminders

You may be wondering then why I called this post Painting the Traditional Way when it seems there are as many ways to paint as there are artists. Perhaps I should be more specific and call this post ‘Just One of my Methods of Creating an Oil Painting’ but even so, there are three important rules one should remember when using oil paint.

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 that time and then your materials let you down.

But on the flip side, I wouldn’t use expensive artist quality paint to tone a huge canvas or paint a thin under-painting with. 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. So use your head. 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 rule that art teachers are always whining about. Fat refers here 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 on top of the ‘drier’ layer underneath it.

Remembering this rule prevents cracking and delamination and means your painting can last for generations because it’s chemically and physically stable and it dries properly without flaking etc.

3. Use the correct primer

Don’t be a dork and paint an oil painting on top of an acrylic painting on canvas. Don’t use an acrylic primer for an oil painting. It will cause issues later on.

And don’t be even more of a dork and paint an acrylic painting on top of an oil painting! That’s just stupid. That’s all I’ll say.

Leave acrylic paints for people that like acrylic. Oil painting is something special and the advantage is in its longer drying times. It requires patience and careful use of materials and know-how. It’s better to paint on canvas that has been primed with an oil-based or alkyd-based primer.

Better yet, paint on board for rigidity, strength and the best way to prevent cracking.


Priming canvas, painting the traditional way
Priming the canvas with oil-based primer after two coats of sizing. It’s important to do this stage properly when beginning a painting.

Sizing and priming the canvas

I may write a more comprehensive post sometime about preparing supports and surfaces in the future. How to stretch, use size and prime a canvas, or how to prepare a board for painting.


In this post, I’m starting off with a canvas that I had already stretched. I then gave it two coats of glue size with acrylic matte gel medium diluted with a little water.

The size acts as a sealant. Linseed oil is corrosive on natural fibres as it oxidises. So it is best to protect the canvas or board with size.

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.

I sized the large canvas carefully, trying to make sure I had filled in all the little ‘pin-holes’ of light coming in through the fibres of the fabric. I gave it at least 2 coats, allowing a day between for the glue to dry.

After a few days, I then started priming my painting.


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.

That’s why I generally don’t like commercial canvases. They are usually very cheaply made, primed with acrylic, or only primed with a maximum of 2 coats.

After priming I sand down the canvas to make it smoother and get rid of any burrs or imperfections.

Sanding canvas after primer, painting the traditional way
Sanding down the canvas before the final coat of oil-based primer. I do it outside because of the dust.

What is painting on a toned ground?

A toned ground is when you add a base colour instead of starting a painting on just a white canvas.

A toned ground helps to set the colour temperature and balance your colour harmonies. It is generally the middle value of a painting between the darks and the lights.

After the final priming, I left the canvas to dry for about two weeks. Then I mixed up some paint to add a coloured ground.

Pigments to use for toning the ground

Thinking about the colour temperature or perhaps the dominant colour in the composition, or even the complementary colour to the dominant, I use either greys or earth colours; yellows, oranges, pinks or reddish colours, or even olivey greens.

Pigments that are suitable for toned grounds are ochres, siennas and umbers, mixed with a bit of titanium white (or lead white if you’re able to get that) and sometimes a bit of ivory black.

These are all very fast-drying pigments, have hard and strong film properties and are not too oily for the layers on top of them. They create a nice stable ground to work on. Think earth colour = ground. (I don’t use zinc white if I can help it. I hate that pigment. It’s very unstable. I also don’t like lamp black either because it takes forever to dry).

Applying the toned ground to the canvas

Don’t paint the toned ground too thickly or the earth colours will ‘drink’ in the colours above them. Also, 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 suppose – if that makes any sense.

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, and wipe it onto 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 to create 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 the colour on 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 bristle-hair house paint brush to smooth out the texture a bit and blend and soften the brush strokes.

Toning the canvas pink, painting the traditional way
Toning the canvas ground.

By the way, permanent rose (or quinacridone red PV19) is a synthetic pigment and 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.


Painting the traditional way, toned ground
Pink ground completed.

Letting things settle

Now I leave the canvas to dry completely for about a week before I start drawing on it. I’ll be drawing a woman in charcoal over the pink ground and it will have to be set and dried properly before doing so.

I will probably be rubbing out my mistakes a lot with a rag and the painted ground will have to be able to withstand this rough treatment.

Sometimes I just paint my drawing directly onto the canvas in thin paint and forego the charcoal step. But I generally plan all my steps out beforehand and this time I feel more comfortable starting off in charcoal.

When painting the traditional way, another technique is to do your drawing in charcoal on a white canvas, then go over it with sepia ink or very lean oil paint to seal the charcoal drawing. Then you can paint an ‘imprimatura’ which is a transparent layer or thin glaze of colour or tone, allowing the drawing to still be seen.

Imprimatura means ‘first paint layer’ in Italian. In my case, I’ll be doing a drawing on top of a toned ground. My imprimatura will really be just sealing the charcoal and adding a little more tone to the woman’s body.

Some examples 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.

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. Leonardo da Vinci also generally used a pale grey or brownish ground. Or check out John Constable’s beautiful English landscapes which he usually painted on a pink ground.

Next week I’ll show the next part of painting the traditional way.


Check out my figure paintings here.


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