The Progression of a Painting

Back in college I took art history, in which I learned the astonishing (to me) fact that the old masters had as many as 99 layers to their oil paintings. I always thought that meant they had 99 layers of, say, blue on Mary’s veil, something that would give the color “depth.”

Not so.

As it turns out, the layers have different functions. First comes the primer to keep the paint from soaking in and spreading out in the linen or canvas. Today we buy pre-primed canvas.

Next comes the charcoal drawing (what used to be called a “cartoon”) that serves as a basic outline of the subject. After that comes a fixative to keep the charcoal from smearing.

And then comes the fun part. We start with only one color: raw umber. Thinning it with turpentine makes it translucent, almost like a watercolor, so that you can see the charcoal outline and follow along. You start with a background wash of the middle tone, use paint thinner to wipe away light parts, and add more of the thinned-down raw umber for the darker parts. The idea is to create three tones, one light, one medium, and one dark. Here’s the first tone painting I did:

It’s hard to tell, I know, but that’s a coffee cup, a pear, and a jar lid.  Including priming, charcoal, and fixer, we’re already up to five layers at least on the darker parts. And realistically, primer is two or three layers by itself.

Next comes the opaque tone painting. And here’s something really weird: when you mix raw umber with white you don’t get light brown. You get gray. I still can’t wrap my head around that. Here’s the opaque tone painting I’m working on:

Just to be clear: bowl, vase, plum. This is what it looked like after last week’s class. You can see the remains of the translucent painting beneath it.

There was something else unexpected about working in opaque: you add oil to the white paint. It’s oil paint, but you add more oil to it. Walnut oil, to be specific. The goal is to get it from toothpaste consistency to something a little more creamy. Like mayonnaise.

The photo above is of a dried painting. That’s how last week’s painting looked this morning. I continued to work on it today, adding more paint (many more layers) and building more tones. Here it is, still wet, after today’s work:

If you’re impressed by my mad skillz, don’t be. All the good parts were demonstrations my art teacher did. I’m just an apprentice at this point. And she makes it look so freaking easy. It’s like watching the effortless fingering of an expert guitarist. Believe it or not, a lot of the blending was done with fingers instead of a brush.

Next week, I’ll finish this tone painting. I’ve already lost count of how many layers I have. If I were to continue it, I could add color, brush strokes, glazing, scumbling, and a varnish. And now I understand how a painting can be 99 layers.

Isn’t this fun?

Categories: Art, Brain Workouts

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6 replies

  1. oil painting in art classes always scared me because i didn’t understand the concept of primers and layers. plus, oil paints are so thick. i stuck with acrylics but i love oil paintings! mad respect for those that use oil paints.

  2. very impressive! seriously!

  3. That looks like so much fun. You are one talented flabby!

    You’ve inspired me to try and take some painting classes at the local college… Maybe this spring when I can finally get out of my driveway!

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