Do your paintings look dull and lifeless? Would you like to create oil paintings like the Old Masters? Are you curious why Rothko’s paintings are so arresting?
This article will expose the mysteries of oil painting glazing techniques to develop LUMINOSITY in your paintings.
But put down your doughnuts because this is not that kind of glazing!
- Oil Painting Glazing Basics: When Science Meets Art
- Benefits and Drawbacks of Glazing
- Example Works
- Materials for a Transparent Layer of Glaze for Oil Painting
- Glazing Techniques for Oil Paintings: How-to & Tips
Oil Painting Glazing Basics: When Science Meets Art
What Is Glazing?
The glazing process involves applying thin layers of transparent colors over a thoroughly dried, opaque layer of pigment or white to make subtle changes to and deepen the look of a color. When done correctly, it gives colors a vibrant, luminous look, and the glaze creates a stained-glass effect.
Think of a suncatcher prism, a colored filter on the lens of a camera, or the old blue and red 3D glasses in a movie theater. These things change the way “white” light appears to the eye.
When multiple layers are applied, the effect intensifies. As the light penetrates the layers, it refracts or bounces around in the layers before being registered by your vision. Light “bouncing around” can make the glazed paintings appear to vibrate.
When layering different hues over each other, they are optically mixed. For example, placing a yellow glaze over a lower layer of blue will create green.
While the origins of glazing in oil painting are usually associated with the Flemish and Venetian masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there is some evidence the technique was used centuries before by medieval artists as early as the twelfth century.
The point that the technique began before the Rennaisance is argued in the book The Varnish and the Glaze: Painting Splendor with Oil, 1100–1500, By Marjolijn Bol.
These early painters used the technique to mimic textures and reflectiveness of hard-to-replicate materials like precious metals, gems, and silk.
Grisailles is a technique where artists create detailed paintings in one color (usually grays or dark browns) to create values that give a three-dimensional illusion like a black and white photograph.
The artists would then use the glazing technique to add a transparent layer of color to specific areas of the oil painting, mainly in the dark and shadow areas and less often in the lighter areas.
The use of oil painting glazes was most popular during the Renaissance and was widely used by artists like Jan Van Eyck, Jan Vermeer, and Rembrandt Van Rin, but became less popular around the nineteenth century when the method of “alla prima” or wet-on-wet was popularized by impressionist painters.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Glazing
Use glazes in your oil paintings for several reasons. A glaze:
- Gives richness to colors. One layer of opaque paint can feel flat, like one instrument playing a song. Using multiple layers of glaze paint is like numerous instruments playing the same music.
- Makes colors appear to glow. The illusion of light is hard to create in paint; glazing solves this problem.
- Avoids creating mud out of certain color mixtures. When you physically mix complementary colors, you often get “mud,” but not when using thin layers of transparent paint.
- Allows you to focus on just color. By starting with an underpainting, you’ve worked out the composition and value, which gives you the freedom to hyper-focus on color.
- It is excellent for making color or value corrections.
As with anything, glazing isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Some negatives of glazing are:
- It takes longer. Since you will be applying each thin layer over dry areas, you must wait for each layer to dry. Depending on the pigment and your glazing medium recipe, drying can take hours or days. Patience is a virtue when glazing!
- Requires careful planning. If you don’t plan the order of glazes properly, you can end up with undesirable results.
- Requires a lot of practice. This isn’t a technique you should first try on a painting you value or plan to exhibit. This isn’t something you can just read about and then do. It takes plenty of practice and learning from mistakes.
Many artists have used glazing to create beautiful paintings, and while some painters still use it today, it is not as popular as it was during the Renaissance.
At some point Rembrandt began to superimpose glazes of red over these textured passages when they were dry, then wipe them off with a rag, leaving traces remaining in the low spots to create an even more convincing texture of rough flesh
- Contemporary artist, author, and teacher Virgil Elliott
Materials for a Transparent Layer of Glaze for Oil Painting
For this method, you will need oil paint and something to thin the paint, which is often an oil medium.
Any oil paint can be diluted to a very thin glaze, but transparent paints work better than opaque paints. Let’s look at some options for pigments and mediums that will work best for creating glazes.
How to Know Which Paints Are Best for Glazing
This can be challenging for new artists because hues or pigments can be more transparent or opaque depending on the brand or between student and professional grades. Some pigment “groups” tend more toward opaque or transparent.
For example, cadmium pigments are usually more opaque regardless of brand. Ultramarines, such as ultramarine blue, are reliably transparent.
Pigments like alizarin crimson are very transparent and require multiple layers to prevent the white of the canvas from showing through.
Some paint brands indicate the transparency on the tube, but not all manufacturers do this.
In the image below, the square indicates opaque paint or transparent, or somewhere in between. An all-black square indicates transparency, an all-white square denotes opacity, and a square that is half and half indicates a semi-transparent pigment.
Artist Scott Hutchinson provides this list based on Winsor & Newton’s paints showing transparency.
Evergreen State College also has this helpful list.
You will need to dilute your chosen hue with a medium. You can use straight turpentine or mineral spirits, but the paint will dry quickly, resulting in a dull color.
In contrast, you can use straight oil (linseed oil, stand oil, etc.), but the paint will slowly dry and end up glossy.
Most artists opt for a 50/50 mixture of equal parts solvent (turpentine, etc.) to oil.
Linseed oil is one of the oldest mediums, but it tends to turn yellow over time, causing blues may become greenish.
Stand oil has become more popular as it doesn’t yellow like linseed but dries slowly.
Different manufacturers make mediums that can be used from the bottle, such as Liquin by Winsor Newton or Galkyd by Gamblin.
Glazing Techniques for Oil Paintings: How-to & Tips
When to Use Glazing
When to apply glazes will become a personal preference based on some of these factors:
- Subject Matter. Any object with a glow or shine can appear more realistic with glazing. Glittery jewels, neon signs, cars, lips, and silky fabrics are just some of the subjects that lend themselves to the technique.
- Shine. You can alter the glossiness of a glaze with your solvent, but when you want a part of your painting to be glossy, try applying a thin layer of glaze.
- Types of areas to glaze. Shadows and dark areas are places most artists use glazes. Pleats in fabric are places the Old Masters used this technique to accentuate the three-dimensional form.
Planning Paint Layers: Get the Science Right and Be Patient!
As mentioned earlier, the glazing technique takes lots of practice, but even after learning to use it, planning your layers is essential to avoid frustration.
Your foundation should be a solid white, opaque base so that when light penetrates the transparent color layer, the white ground will reflect that light to the viewer.
The white should not be oil-based (gesso is best), however, because an opaque layer of white oil paint will take a LONG time to dry, and the medium used to create the glaze can loosen and mix with the white layer.
Remember the Fat Over Lean Rule. Each new layer of glaze must have more oil (fat) than the previous layer. This keeps the paint flexible and reduces the risk of the paint cracking over time. An easy way to remember this rule is thinner over opaque layers.
Using White/Opaque Paint
Some people say you cannot glaze with opaque or white paint, but there are plenty of artists that do. Any pigment will become translucent paint with enough medium added. In the images below from his video, artist Wayne Vickers shows how he brightens his clouds using Liquin and white paint.
This technique is a great way to paint a foggy morning lake or mist erupting from a geyser. Choosing the best white will make this easier. Zinc white is more transparent, while Titanium white has more opacity.
Glazing in oil painting is complex and takes practice, but it is a superb tool to keep in your metaphorical painting toolbox.
To learn more techniques like this, check out our article showing off various oil paint techniques and how to use them.