Methods Of The Painting Masters

Artists have been painting for thousands of years.

Over this time a number of methods have developed that are recognized as being the mainstay of the artist’s repertoire of techniques.

Learning and understanding the various methods will significantly add to the student’s arsenal of skills.

It will provide flexibility to adapt to whatever challenges a painting may set before him.

Alla Prima Painting

When painting alla prima, the student intends to complete a painting in one session. This means that the work will be done wet-in-wet, as glazing requires paint to dry between coats.

For the watercolorist, this is not an issue as the paint dries very quickly. An acrylic painter who is using thinned paints may have limited time to blend colors on the canvas. If he is working in an impasto method, his paint will remain wet for a longer period. This allows him to work wet-in-wet without any problem. The oil painter will not have to worry that his paint may dry prematurely. He can dawdle as much as he likes and still have fresh, juicy paint to blend and alter as he wishes.

How long a session lasts is up to the individual painter and his skill level. Another consideration is the size of the support. Modest size canvases are a good choice for the student aiming to complete a painting in one session. By setting a time limit on the work, it generally pushes the student to be more decisive in his painting, perhaps developing a looser style than painting with no thought of time constraints. This can be a valuable tool to help students stop focusing on minutia and work to develop the big picture quickly.

Paint A Detailed Compositional Drawing

This type of painting is very necessary for painting highly detailed or complex subjects. When interpreting a subject in a realistic manner, this method of painting requires that a correct drawing exist to be painted in after the fact.

The drawing may be created directly on the support, or drawn on paper and transferred to the support by several different methods. Using this method, the artist works out compositional challenges and has time to plan the coloration for the entire piece.

The painting will only be as good as the drawing, so if the student lacks realistic drawing skills, this type of painting will improve as the student’s drawing skill increases.

Color Blocking

This is a popular method of painting. If the student has a good idea of what he is going to paint, this method is direct and immediate. Lay in the general colors of the components in the composition. In this technique, work on the entire painting simultaneously. Develop the shapes and negative spaces organically, expanding the depth of color and intensity as the work progresses. This painting can start loosely and develop details as areas are refined and pulled together.
This kind of painting technique is very free flowing and is as great way to loosen up and experiment with composition and color.


This is not a technique for the nail biter. It requires patience and thoughtful contemplation. The artist should consider the tone he wishes to portray in the painting. The underpainting acts as a base for the subsequent layers of transparent glaze with which he will refine the painting. Since the underpainting will not be covered with opaque medium, it will reflect through the coats, imparting its color to the final work. The underpainting can act to heighten the local color intensity. If a monochromatic underlayment is used, it will give a unified appearance to the painting.

To implement this method, a student will do an underpainting of the entire composition before glazing the work. The underpainting is typically done in one of two ways. The artist may elect to do a monochromatic version of the painting in a neutral tone, such as burnt sienna or burnt umber. Alternatively, he may select local color to complete the underpainting. In either case, his painting should reflect the same degree of work that he uses with the glazing.

Each layer of paint must dry before adding an additional layer of glaze. This method has been used for hundreds of years, and many of the Renaissance masters painted using this technique. It is time consuming, but the realist artist will find that its luminous quality brings his painting to life.

Paint The Background First

If the background is simply vague, splotchy, or misty colors, it is a simple chore to paint the background first. With that stage completed, the artist can focus on the central theme of the composition. However, if there are design elements in the background, this method requires more planning of spatial relationships, color and intensity.

This method is very popular for simple compositions, perhaps floral and still life paintings are among the easiest in which to use this technique.

Painting In Sections

Some artists prefer to paint one section or area at a time. This is not the most common method of painting. Sometimes an artist will work from upper left to lower right, completing each area as he goes. In the case of pastel or charcoal drawing, this is sensible, so as not to mar or damage the medium. An oil painter may do this, so he can work freely and not worry about smearing oils that have not dried. A still life artist may prefer to complete each item in his composition before moving on to the next object.

There are numerous ways to approach a painting, and a student should be familiar with all the different ways in which to paint. The artist should not be locked in to one style of production, as painting requirements may change with the subject and composition.

Versatility is an important lesson for a student to learn and mastering these different styles of painting will open up the artist’s ability to work through many painting challenges.

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