Are old master techniques still relevant? Or should they stay in the past?

From anonymous artists of 7th century AD, to the Jan van Eyck in the 15th, the invention of oil paint was a turning point in art history. Painting became more stable, portable and ultimately made painting accessible to more artists. Mixing pigments with an oil binder created artworks that have and will endure centuries, far outlasting the artists that created them.

There are two many methods of painting, the direct method and the indirect method. Here I will explain both techniques, the advantages and pitfalls for each. 

In the month of November 2022, I am launching my first Patreon painting lesson exploring the difference between the two techniques. In future months I will be exploring these in greater detail, and exploring how these can be applied to more order painting styles. Check out my free lessons on Patreon, you just need to create an account to access my 5 ways sketchbook challenge.  

What is Indirect Painting?

Indirect painting refers to the process of creating a tonal underpainting, with colour added in transparent glazes in subsequent layers. The resulting effect is a painting that is luminous, with light seems to emanate from within.

Where does this fit into art history?

Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer in the 17th century, all adopted this Venetian technique of indirect painting. They created paintings that emphasised form and tone, with figures often emerging from a dark background, with a directional light source. 

Advantages of Indirect Painting

  1. Composition, tone and texture can be applied accurately, without the need to think about colour. 
  2. Smooth transitions of tone and colour can be achieved easily.
  3. The layers sit separately from each other, with light refracting between each layer defusing it. This creates the illusion that light is emanating from within the painting.

Disadvantages of Indirect Painting 

  1. Each layer needs to be touch dry, before applying the consecutive layer. This is time consuming. 
  2. Composition and proportion errors are hard to fix after the underpainting is complete, as multiple glaze layers are almost impossible to match.


What is Direct Painting?

Direct painting is the technique where artists match colours, tone, texture and composition as they complete the painting. One form of this technique is alla prima, which is an Italian phrase for “all at once”. This describes when a painting is completed in one sitting, or before subsequent layers are dry, also referred to as wet-on-wet technique. The paint used is typically opaque, with colours mixed to match the subject directly, utilising highlights, mid-tones and shadows. 

Where does this fit in art history?

The Baroque painter Frans Hals pioneered this technique, in the 17th century, with the impressionists, 29th century, including Claude Monet bringing it into the modern era. With the invention of paint tubes artists had access to pre-mixed colours which could be applied directly to the painting. 

Advantages of Direct Painting

  1. It is a fast way of working, often used by plein air painters to capture fleeting weather or light conditions.
  2. It is more spontaneous and expressive as it can be painted more quickly, at once, rather than spending additional time on an underpainting.
  3. It is easy to wipe out correcting mistakes quickly.

Disadvantages of Direct Painting 

  1. It requires the artist to be decisive with brushstrokes and contour form with appropriate texture as they paint.
  2. It takes skill in colour mixing and matching tones.
  3. Paintings can become muddy quickly, with lack of sharp edges or details. 

So which approach is right for you??

This depends on your temperament and the genre of artwork you create. If you are a fast paced artist and enjoy the texture of paint, you could prefer the direct method, painting wet-on-wet. Also, if you work from life the direct approach is faster, which would enable you to finish more quickly, this is popular for landscape and portrait artists. However, if you enjoy planning and are patient, then an underpainting with glazing is a better choice. For artists that want to spend time making subjects appear more realistic or classical then this method is perfect for you! 

Over the coming months, I will be going into further detail on these processes and bringing them into modern styles. 

For now why don’t you check out my free Patreon lessons, using the link below…