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Oil Painting - Notes for new users

WHAT IS     Wet-on-wet  ;  Build-up  ;  Open Canvas  technique?

Wet-on-wet is an advanced technique which takes quite a bit of painting experience. It is a painting done  in one-three days (before the paint begins to stiffen). The artist must be able to mix colors rapidly and with clear understanding of color theory; have a good grasp of  form development; and expertise with brushwork. Starting with an oil sketch (or light underpainting) is very common to establish composition and tone, but this layer is usually dissolved or over-painted as the painting progresses. The painting can be adjusted slightly with glazes and highlights after it dries; but essentially this is an un-layered type of technique

John Singer Sargent John Singer Sargent


The build-up technique is a layering process which  involves placing the whites and lightest parts last in thick layers of white-tinted paints or light colors on the top of the painting (lighter layers are painted on top of dried layers). Generally the body and highlights of the painting are done in opaque paint layers, and light reflection is not only off of the pigments; but also highly influenced by the texture of the brushwork. Note that the entire painting is usually opaque.

Mary Cassatt George Wesely Bellows


Underpainting, particularly tonal underpainting, is very applicable to the build-up method, and is an effective way to add luminescence to the overall effect. This is also a layering technique; top opaque layers painted over dried transparent layers, leaving areas of the underpainting "open" so that the glow of the transparent layers underneath can show through. One advantage of this technique  is  the bottom layers dry fairly quickly and the painting progress to the finishing stage rapidly. Note that the backgrounds are transparent.

Rembrandt J W Waterhouse


Open Canvas technique is more of this same idea; starting with a transparent underpainting, and leaving areas of it uncovered whatever other techniques are used. For example: as with the build-up/ tonal approach above; or with wet-on-wet brushwork on top; or with scumbling and glazing layers on top. The important thing with "open canvas," is that the underpainting itself is a dominant feature. Open canvas also tends to utilize scumbling and glazing as a primary application tool, rather than only as an adjustment tool.   TUTORIAL

Scumbling / Glazing is a method of applying very thin layers to the painting. It is effective for very smooth gradations, and also for adjusting dried layers. It can be used to great advantage to manipulate the reflective or absorptive light qualities inherent in pigments. "Scumbling" is scrubbing on a dryish layer of thick or stiff pigment. "Glazing" is the opposite: adding a very transparent tinted wet medium layer. Scumbling tends to stick to the top of the canvas fibers (and the under-laying color shows through a bit) whereas Glazing tends to settle in the crevices of the canvas texture (the top can be wiped off to show the original color, but the glaze down in the texture will alter the color tone of the original hue). Therefore, both Scumbling and Glazing are transparent painting techniques.  TUTORIAL

WHAT IS  an under-painting?                                             See the TUTORIAL for illustrations.

Generally this is a transparent "oil sketch" which is made mostly with pigment and turpentine, and which remains underneath the finished painting. It can serve several uses ranging from being a simple composition guide; to being an integral background element visible in the finished painting.. It may be a very rough sketch, or a finely rendered image. It's chief value is in creating luminescence in the painting, since light reflects through it from the back of the canvas; and also for uniting color values in the overall painting by adding a subjective dominant key color.

Under-paintings can be tonal, or color blocked. See the tutorial for illustrations.

Tonal Ground
The entire canvas has a single transparent color evenly applied (or as a gradient), showing through as the shadow color to the painting. This creates luminescent shadows, and tones the entire composition.
Tonal Under-Painting
Contrast only has been painted with a  single transparent color. The lightest areas show the naked canvas underneath. Notice how much brighter these highlights appear as more colors are applied. This method can give you very bright and pure top colors and gives you a strong start on developing the form of objects, plus uniting the painting with a dominant color tone.
Color-Block Under-Painting
Contrast only is painted, but with the local color of each object or area. This also gives you the bright highlights and jump on developing form, but you can use color composition instead of tonal unity.


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Jess Bates
PO Box 497 Aspen CO 81612
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