11 Oil Painting Techniques And Styles Every Artist Should Know

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Oil painting can be intimidating, especially for beginner oil painters. But with certain simple techniques and methods, you can take your skills to the next level.

In this article, you will learn about 11 oil painting techniques that will help you master your painting process.

1. Glazing

Glazing is the technique where you apply a thin layer of translucent paint over a dried surface. This helps create subtle shifts in hues, add depth to shadows, and refine details in your oil painting.

For this oil painting technique, mix paint with an oil medium and apply thin layers of (translucent oil paint) over the first layer of paint that has dried.

‘Certain oils tend to yellow more over time, so you definitely don’t want to use vegetable oil. Stick with refined oils: linseed, poppy seed, walnut, spike oil.’ – Natalie Richy, professional fine artist, and art tutor.

art of oil painting
“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer

Why You Should Try Glazing

Glazing helps add depth to your painting. When light hits your oil painting, it first reflects off the opaque layer of paint, and then the several layers of hardened oil refract it. This gives your oil painting translucency and softness. Watch this video to understand glazing more.

2. Wet-on-Wet

Wet-on-wet, also called Alla Prima, is an oil painting technique where the painting is done in layers of paint without waiting for the previous layer to dry.

Alla Prima is Italian for ‘all at once’, which describes the technique perfectly. It is a direct oil painting style, and instead of finishing an oil painting in months, you could have a finished painting in as little as two days. All you need is wet paint and stiff paint brushes.

You can create interesting textures on the wet surface of your oil painting by using different levels of pressure with your brush and by using different types of brushes. Since the surface is wet, you can use the dense layers of paint on the canvas to create depth or move paint around easily.

different paint techniques
“Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood” by John Singer Sargent

Why You Should Try Wet-On-Wet

If you like impressionistic and quick oil painting styles used by artists like Vincent van Gogh, Alla Prima could be your ideal painting technique.

However, this is one of the oil painting techniques that require a lot of practice to master, to put down the right color and strokes in just one go. But with enough practice, it’s definitely worth it.

If you want to learn more about this technique, watch this tutorial:

3. Blending 

Blending is when you use soft strokes with your brush to blend two colors together on the canvas instead of using pre-mixed transition tones from your palette. This is a more common oil painting technique and is pretty straightforward.

All you need is a soft brush to execute this painting technique. The best thing about oil paint is that it dries very slowly. This gives you enough time to blend colors into a perfect, seamless gradient.

Use a soft round brush to blend edges in your painting. Don’t use a flat brush to do this; it won’t get the job done well.

Another thing to watch out for is too much blending (blending where there should be some texture left or where transition tones aren’t needed). This could muddy the colors or blend some of the details and textures of your painting.

oil art
“Pope Innocent X” by Diego Velázquez

Why You Should Try Blending

If you are going for a smooth, soft look for your painting, this is one of the painting techniques that would suit you.

Many artists use this technique for portrait painting, as it can beautifully capture the color gradients of the skin.

Watch this video if you want a visual tutorial on how to do it:

4. Scumbling 

Scumbling requires applying paint with a stiff, dry brush straight from the tube. This will create texture as you paint.

In this technique, you use a relatively dry stiff brush without any medium to paint on a layer of your painting with a soft hand and expose parts of the previous layer. The stiff brush would pull some of the paint from the opaque base layer beneath, adding depth.

It’s done to add interesting textures and create depth or softness in the painting.

styles of oil painting
“Norham Castle Sunrise” by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Why You Should Try Scumbling

This is one of the oil painting techniques that artists use in landscapes and skyscapes. You can soften edges and lines in your painting and give it a more organic look.

This technique also works great for creating clouds, smoke, etc. It gives them a fluffy look, which is very hard to achieve with thinned paint. If you want to learn more about scumbling, watch this tutorial:

5. Impasto

Impasto is one of the more impressionistic oil painting techniques, where brush strokes are left visible for added texture. You’ll need a medium to thicken your oil paint, and a palette knife or a stiff brush to make an impasto painting.

The thick paint, mixed with the medium, is applied directly on the canvas with either a knife or a very stiff brush, with no blending, leaving sharp edges and lines.

The medium used to thicken the paint for impasto paintings gives the paint more volume. The thick layers of paint dry more quickly due to the medium.

oil painting styles
Details of “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh

Why You Should Try Impasto

If mixing colors on the canvas rather than the paint palette and having fun with quick strokes is your thing, this technique might be perfect for you.

This is a fun oil painting technique, so you should try it out at least once and see if it works for you.  To learn more about this technique, watch this tutorial:

6. Dry Brushing

You’ll need some dry brushes and paper towels for this painting technique. There is no need for mediums like linseed oil to thin the paints – we want the raw paint only when dry brushing.

Apply the paint directly from the tube or after mixing your colors with a palette knife. Then use a paper towel to remove the excess paint from your brush. Start painting and use a stabbing motion to get the paint on the canvas.

This will add texture and depth to your painting. The trick is to use very little paint, a stiff dry brush, and strong rough strokes. This would create a thin layer of paint, with some of the underpainting showing through.

It helps when applying the paint if your painting has a dry and textured surface, instead of a smooth surface.

oil painting style
“Nine Dragons” by Chen Rong

Why You Should Try This Dry Brushing

Using a dry brush will allow you to create a blurry, soft atmospheric effect in your painting. It is also great if you want to lightly add shadows in your painting.

So if textured, full-of-character paintings are more your style, this technique might be just right for you.

To learn more about how to execute dry brushing, watch this video:

7. Underpainting

Underpainting lets you focus on your work’s tonal depth and value before adding in the paint colors. For this reason, it’s considered one of the essential oil painting techniques for beginners to start with. All you need to execute this technique is some solvent and earthy tones of oil paint.

Paint a base layer of an earthy tone using a ton of solvent mixed with oil colors. Then map out the composition of your painting, adding value and tonal depth as well, using similar colors.

The monochrome underpainting will dry quicker, so you can start painting the subsequent layer sooner. After the base layer has dried, you can use a glazing medium and apply the glazing method mentioned above to add color to your painting.

oil painting tips
Underpainting by Osamu Obi

Why You Should Try Underpainting

This technique will help you focus on one thing at a time. While you are making the underpainting, you won’t have to worry about color theory, just the tones, and values of your work.

Adding transparent layers of paint afterward will also add more depth to your painting. To learn more about how to do an underpainting, watch this tutorial:

8. Imprimatura

In this technique, you paint the whole painting surface with a thin layer of paint mixed with a solvent to establish a mid-tone. Imprimatura and underpainting are the two oil painting techniques where the canvas is first tinted.

After the first base layer has been painted with thin paint, you can start applying thicker paint and create multiple layers.

Use earth pigments to execute this technique, as they dry faster and give your painting a warmer feel. This is one of the oil painting techniques that the old masters used to create their artworks.

painting with oils
Imprimatura, illustrated by Natalie Richy at Old Masters Academy 

Why You Should Try Imprimatura

Working on a canvas with a mid-tone helps you better understand and develop tones in your painting. This technique will also allow you to seal your underdrawing.

This is one of the easiest and most rewarding painting techniques for beginners. Learn more about how to make an imprimatura with this video:

9. Blocking In

In this technique, you will block out the entire canvas with paint in rough shapes. Study your reference and decide what the basic shapes are that make up the composition. Then add those shapes roughly onto the canvas in the colors you think would fit. This will all be done in one tone.  Use enough paint so that no gesso from your canvas shows through.

After you block out the basic shapes, you can add different tones, shadows, and fine details.

oil painting portraits
Painting by Alex Tzavaras

Why You Should Try Blocking In

This technique is perfect for you if you are intimidated by the blank canvas or tend to go too detailed too fast. By roughly adding the basic shapes of your subject, you will get a good feel for the entire composition before you get into the details.

It also means you haven’t wasted hours painting if you realize the proportions or composition is off and your painting needs to change. Since oil paints are slow drying, you’ll have ample time to fix everything and define shapes.

To learn more about why blocking in can be useful and how to do it, watch this video:

10. Chiaroscuro

The word Chiaroscuro means ‘light-dark’ in Italian. It’s used to create noticeable contrast in paintings. Most paintings done with this technique use a one-light focus to create drama with a strong contrast between light and dark tones.

Many artists use this technique to paint dramatic portraits. The trick is all in how you develop the contrast in your painting, you don’t really need any special tools, just basic supplies and a good understanding of tonality to execute it perfectly.

underpainting oil
“The Calling of St Matthew” by Caravaggio

Why You Should Try Chiaroscuro

If you’re a big fan of how the Renaissance masters painted, or want to add drama and tension to your paintings, this technique would definitely be the one for you.

You can combine this technique with glazing to increase the depth of your work. To understand chiaroscuro more, watch this video:

11. Grisaille

A grisaille painting is similar to an underpainting but executed completely in tones of gray. The method originated in the Renaissance period. A grisaille painting can be presented as a finished painting or can be used as an underpainting, which is then glazed over to add color.

This technique is very similar to the underpainting technique, although it is not very commonly used anymore, it can be very rewarding.

thick oil painting
“Portrait of Beatrice Cenci” by Guido Reni

Why You Should Try Grisaille

One of the best things about monochromatic paintings is that they let you focus on tonality alone. If you want to study tones, this technique would be very useful for you.

Watch this video to understand how to make a grisaille painting in depth:

Tools You Will Need for These Techniques

To execute the techniques mentioned above, you’ll need the following tools and supplies:

  • A palette knife (impasto)
  • Glazing medium (glazing)
  • Soft round brushes (blending)
  • Stiff brushes (dry brushing, scumbling)
  • Solvents (imprimatura, underpainting)
  • Oils (oiling out)

Along with these, you would also need the basic oil painting supplies such as oil paints, brushes, canvases etc. Read this article if you’re not sure what oil painting supplies to get.

Oil Painting Basics

Techniques such as blending, blocking in, imprimatura, and underpainting are some basics that are very useful to artists when they’re starting out.

Blending is important to get smooth gradients in your art, blocking in helps you better understand composition, imprimatura helps you understand and develop tones better and doing underpaintings helps you focus on tones first and color later.

using oil paints
Image source

Properties of Oil Paint

Oil paints generally dry very slowly. But some pigments dry faster than others, for example, earth tones dry faster than the rest of the colors.

You can also use different mediums to alter the properties of oil paints. Some mediums reduce the drying time, some increase volume, while others change things like consistency and transparency.

Fat Over Lean, Thick Over Thin, and Slow-Drying Over Fast-Drying

These three oil painting rules are essentially the same and are important to remember.

Fat over lean means as you go from one layer to the next, each new layer should have a higher oil-to-paint ratio, to increase drying time and avoid cracking.

thick oil paintings
Image source

Your base layer should be thin (more solvent, less oil) and in the layers after progressively increasing the oil ratio in your paint. This will also ensure that the previous layers dry faster before the next layer is painted on.

Not following these rules would make it hard for you to work and avoid getting a muddy painting. It can prolong your painting time and can cause your painting to crack over time.

How Many Techniques Do You Need to Learn to Be Good?

The basic techniques mentioned above would help you create decent artwork. Different oil painting techniques create different effects, so use several techniques in the same piece and see what works for you. For example, you could use underpainting and chiaroscuro together in one piece and then use glazing to add depth.

You don’t need to master all the techniques above to be a good oil painter, although trying them out will be a great learning experience and help you figure out which methods are more fitting for your art style.

portrait painting techniques

FAQs

What Technique Did the Old Masters Use?

The old masters used a variety of techniques for their paintings. Vincent Van Gogh used the Alla Prima and impasto technique to create most of his works.

Johannes Vermeer used glazing to create his infamous ‘Girl with the pearl earring’. Renaissance masters often used techniques like imprimatura and chiaroscuro.

Which Oil Painting Techniques Are the Easiest to Apply and Give the Most Rewarding Results?

The oil painting techniques that are easiest to apply and give the most rewarding results are blending, underpainting, imprimatura, and glazing.

However, most of the oil painting techniques mentioned in this article are relatively easy to execute and are worth trying.

painting oil

What Are the Two Methods of Oil Painting?

The two main methods most commonly used in oil painting are Alla Prima and layering. Alla Prima is a wet-on-wet technique where the entire painting is completed before the paint dries. With layering, you slowly build layers on your painting to increase depth and add value.

Where To Start

In this article, you’ve learned the different techniques available to bring your oil paintings to the next level.

But, with all these options, where should you start?

If you are new to oil painting, learning the fundamentals of tones, composition, and value, along with the nuances of oils and all these techniques, can often be overwhelming.

If you want a simple step-by-step walkthrough, check out this free beginner’s guide to oil painting webinar to get you started on the right path.

You’ll find out everything you need to know about oil paint supplies, how to mix colors correctly, and how to apply some of the techniques above.

types of oil paints

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