Layering your paint. Do you know how?

by Ethan

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One of the biggest things to learn, that seems to never be taught is layering paint. And using a definite procedure to do so.

You know, those great paintings you see in museums were not painting with just 1 layer of paint. This combining layers gives beginners a huge headache.

I was never taught this layering process in school. In fact in one class I was in, we used to paint by drawing outlines and carefully filling in these lines, modeling form as we go. We always used small soft haired brushes and would just mix a little and apply the paint using these very small brushes. Even when the canvas was very large. We would start in one little area and just lay the paint on inch by inch.

But, I knew from my visits to the museum that all the artists I admired didn’t paint this way.

I asked the instructor. “I can’t imagine Rubens or someone of his time painting like this. His paintings don’t show that he painted like this.” The teacher response was…”Oh well, he used a complex set of layers with glazing.”

“Bingo!” I thought to myself. “That’s what I want to learn”, I said.

The instructor  kind of chuckled and said “yeah yeah.”

And, I never was taught that complex layering method.

I was usually just left to plow along making mistakes and have the teacher tell me where they thought a mistake was.

You know, the ol’ method of teaching by pointing to your painting and saying…”this area is too dark” or “that part is too green”.

Somehow this was magically going to make me a better painter.

It never did of course.

Take a look at this:

underpainting in brownThis is an underpainting of a woman that is in the National Gallery in Washington D.C.

It is not by any truly famous painter.

I had to take a picture of the nameplate because I hadn’t heard of this painter before.

Van Ceulen was his name.

But look at how this “no name” painter knew his craft.

Ask yourself a question…

Do you think he was following some procedure for painting this picture – such as first making a monochrome underpainting…

Or do you think he was just muddling along with his teacher telling him “That hand is too big” or “Her head is too dark”?

He was using the layering process and it looks like the underpainting was just about complete.

Now began the process of overpainting.

Now, ask yourself another question…Would you know what to do next? How to begin the next layer?

Here is a pretty famous work by Vermeer. Do you think he knew what to do next?

Judging by the final work, I believe so. I think he understood the layering process very well and new just how to get from the image you see above, to a finished work like you see down below. And he could repeat this over and over again, with confidence, and without an instructor telling him to “make that hand darker”.

vermeer painting

It doesn’t have to be a secret and you can finally know how to use layers the right way.

More Resources

underpaintingvideo1For At Home Instruction on Layering:
Check out Ethan’s new DVD “Underpainting Solved”


oilpaintingformula2To End all your confusion about oil painting techniques and materials, check out Ethan’s newest At Home Training Program “Oil Painting Formula


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

saraiiNo Gravatar August 2, 2008 at 8:46 am

I do not have website. It seems like you have answeres for some of my oil-painting problems. I started painting 2 yrs ago and like playing with paint and colors. In the class I was encouraged for my creative activity but not any step by step instruction. I got to believe that painting requires the practice and knowlege that comes by time and trying. but each painting peace is a unique experience and does not help me for the second one. I just appy paint to my drying , sometimes totally lose it and have to do it again and again. It is painful, to have to change and change until magicly look right or I have to convince myself “that’s it!”. I guess you have been through all this and have found the formula and if you have the formula , this is what I want. I use griding for drawing. thanks saraii

Cathy SchubertNo Gravatar January 20, 2009 at 12:11 am

Thank you for your poignant email regarding the airplane in New York. With God all things are possible! We should NEVER give up!

Anne PoirierNo Gravatar March 26, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Hi So very sorry about the death of your mother. My prayers are with you. I ordered one of your courses a few months ago and downloaded it and cannot fine it. Thank you Anne Poirier

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