Oil painting techniques. Classical and modern techniques for creating works of art

Oil painting is one of the most popular techniques among contemporary artists, although the history of its origin dates back more than one century. For paintings, special paints based on oils are used. The artist must have a canvas, thinners, palette knives, a palette and several brushes for each of the paint tones. In addition, he must determine in what technique he will paint the oil painting. After all, there are several varieties and techniques. To better understand the techniques of oil painting, let’s turn to the origins.

Oil painting from the 15th century to today

Historians agree that for the first time oil paints began to be used in painting as early as the 13th-14th centuries. The authors of this technique are Dutch artists – the van Eyck brothers. The composition and structure of their paints bore little resemblance to modern ones, besides, they did not use canvas, but painted on a wooden surface covered with a layer of primer.

Over time, the structure of oil paints improved. The quality depended on the pigment. Vegetable and mineral dyes were used, and later chemical ones. At the same time, the basis of oil paints remained vegetable. Artists have noticed that it is linseed oil that is most effectively combined with pigments. Therefore, for a long time, paints were made on this plant basis.

Canvas began to be used in the 15th century. It was stretched on a stretcher, which ensured the smoothness of the working surface. However, like wood, the canvas needed pretreatment with a primer. First, a plaster base was used. She did not live up to the expectations of the artists, as she constantly cracked. Later, glue and varnish primers appeared, which turned out to be more effective and did not negatively affect the structure of the picture.

The process of applying oil paints to the canvas was as follows: first, the artist sketched out the contours, created the main light moments, outlined objects and figures, then applied several layers with strokes. All Renaissance painters used this method. It is called the glazing method. Thanks to him, beautiful overflows of color were created in the picture. This method is also used by modern artists, applying translucent paints on a dense base.

The use of oil paints made it possible for the development of new painting techniques. The art galleries contain works of art dating back to the 16th century. They belong to Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Albrecht Dürer, Sandro Botticelli and others. Artists used oil paints to create deep and multifaceted paintings.

In the following centuries, many schools of oil painting appeared. In the 18th century, it experienced a period of stagnation. And in the 19th century, artists faced the question of how to prolong the life of paintings. The fact is that over time, works of art of past centuries began to turn yellow or darken, or even crack. There were new artistic oil paints that coped with this task. There was no need for artists to make them themselves. New shades have been added. This period is known for such artists as Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, John Singer Sargent.

Today, oil paints are used in all genres of painting: in the historical genre, to create portraits, still lifes, abstractions, landscapes. However, in the 20th century, the main competitor of oil-based paints appeared – acrylic. Nevertheless, oil painting has many advantages, which explains its popularity among both professional artists and those who are just starting their journey into the world of fine arts.

Oil Painting Basics: Top 10 Recommendations

If you are just learning how to paint with oil paints, applying some techniques may seem difficult. However, you need to know them in order to become more confident, to try something new, to revive your work with oil paints. Below are some tips that can change the usual drawing process:

  1. 1 The brush should be held towards the end of the handle. This way you will have maximum control over the movements of the brush. You will be able to draw with your whole hand, not just your wrist.
  2. 2 Use different brush angles for wide and thin strokes.
  3. 3 By changing the degree of pressure on the brush, you can diversify the texture of strokes. Test light, medium and heavy strokes. This way you will understand how much pressure will be appropriate to achieve the desired results.
  4. 4 Use oil painting thinners to make the paint thinner and more transparent.
  5. 5 Remove paint residue from the brush before applying new pigment strokes.
  6. 6 If you want to get a more intense color, mix no more than two oil paints. Learn the rules and patterns of color combinations. Start blending by adding white.
  7. 7 Mix oil paints with varying degrees of dissolution of colors in each other.
  8. 8 Use enough paint to get the type of stroke you want.
  9. 9 Apply several techniques in one picture.
  10. 10 Use a palette knife to create textured and unpredictable strokes when a brush can’t reach them.

Now you know how to go beyond the usual oil painting and level up your skill.

Technique of the old masters: the Flemish method of Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian method of Rubens, Velázquez and Titian

Works of art of the past are striking in the gradual application of strokes. So, the representative of the Flemish school Leonardo da Vinci used the following method:

  •  I painted the drawing in one color, and made the contour and main shadows in sepia on light ground;
  •  applied a thin underpainting and sculpted volume;
  •  painted several layers of glazing, detailing the picture.

Over time, the inscription began to show through the colorful image. This led to a darkening of the picture in the shadows. The final application of the paints was so thin that it was not captured. To do this, he used the technique of shading with diluted paint and a dry brush.

The Italian method of Rubens, Velasquez and Titian was distinguished by the following steps:

  •  colored primer was applied with the addition of one of the inks;
  •  the contour of the drawing was made with chalk or charcoal and fixed with a suitable paint;
  •  the underpainting in one place was dense, and in the other it was completely absent, which revealed the color of the soil;
  •  the work ended with the application of one or two layers of semi-glazed or thin glazed.

This technique used overlapping complementary colors that hid saturated ground. So the work on the canvas was carried out faster than using the Flemish method, but the use of the wrong color of the primer could spoil the picture. Darkening awaited all the paintings if the artists used earth colors in the ground: sienna, umber, dark ocher.

Basic Oil Painting Techniques and Blending Options

Each technique for applying oil paint to canvas has its advantages and disadvantages. However, every self-respecting artist must know them and be able to apply them.

One-layer oil painting Alla prima

This technique is common among professional and amateur artists. The paint is applied in one step, which reduces the preparation of the picture to one to three days. This technique does not require a clear study of the details. There is always a risk of mixing the paint layer and not being able to form a picture. Alla prima is suitable for capturing thoughts and feelings, and not for a clear drawing of images and objects. Impressionist artists worked in this technique, for whom it was important to capture a quickly passing moment and convey the mood.

Layered oil painting techniques

When using this technique, the layer is applied on the previous one after complete drying. Every millimeter of the picture is worked out. First, a drawing is sketched and a dark underpainting is done, then a paint layer is applied and the finish is detailed and refined.

Most of the masterpieces of oil painting are written in a multi-layered manner. This technique gave rise to many of its variations, which have become independent methods of painting with oil paints.

Seven-layer technique

The most complex version of the multi-layer technique is the seven-layer technique. It provides a reliable transfer of colors and play of shadows. The seven-layer technique reached its peak during the period of popularity of paintings written in the style of hyperrealism. The sequence of applying layers is as follows:

  1. 1 Soil tinting.
  2. 2 The drawing is applied with a pencil and fixed with ink.
  3. 3 A translucent underlay is made.
  4. 4 «Dead layer» – drawing light and shadows in grisaille.
  5. 5 Color painting.
  6. 6 Toning and application of transparent paint by glazing.
  7. 7 Detailing and texture formation.

Work on a painting in the seven-layer technique could last for months and required the ability to work with different types of paints. However, with the invention of the camera, oil painting began to develop in other directions.


The application of oil paints in a thin layer over the base color is the essence of the glazing technique. It is considered standard for obtaining deep and iridescent colors on the canvas. For glazing, a special translucent paint is used, when applied, each top layer slightly changes the color of the previous one, and the effect of colored glass is obtained. This technique was used by Renaissance artists, mixing colors by applying layers of paint directly on the picture. With the help of glazing, artists get colors that cannot be achieved with conventional mixing. This is an optical mixing method. Transparent colors transmit and reflect light.

With the help of glazing, you can eliminate some errors in the picture, for example, correct a too cold tone, harmonize contrasting details, apply over acrylic paints.

Glazing technology

Glazing is a popular technique in oil painting. Its essence lies in the fact that the glaze is applied repeatedly to an opaque layer of paint, after drying it. For glazing, paints with a high transparency index are used, but white is not one of them. This technique is multi-layered. Several layers of glaze can create an optical blending effect. All colors seem to be combined, but not actually mixed. This technique is often used for portraiture.

Contrast matching

Contrasting in painting refers to the balance and structure of light and shadow on a canvas. The Chiaroscuro technique originated during the Renaissance. Then the artists created strong contrasts between light and darkness in the paintings. In this way, they gave dramatic notes to three-dimensional forms. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and others worked in this technique.

Volumetric imaging technique

With the help of this technique, 3D volume is added to the elements of the picture. Depending on the light source, shadows are visible on the canvas. The convex part of the image stands out when viewed from the side of the picture. The effect of distance is achieved by sharpening and softening the elements. With the help of smooth lines in the picture, you can focus the viewer’s attention on different parts of the canvas. These are the characteristics of the work written by the Impasto technique.

Pastose or smear technique

The impasto technique is the opposite of glazing because the stroke is done with pure oil paint. To work in the smear technique, you need to follow the algorithm of actions:

  •  a sketch underpainting is applied to the base, for example, with oil paints diluted with turpentine or watercolor;
  •  oil paint is squeezed onto the canvas directly from the tube and smeared with a brush, palette knife or palm;
  •  details are drawn with clean paint;
  •  the painting is varnished to avoid cracking or yellowing.

As mentioned earlier, brushes and a palette knife are used for work. Those who prefer to draw with their fingers can wear gloves. The pasty technique does not tolerate thinners, so stock up on oil paints for the future.

Grisaille technique

Grisaille is a painting made with oil paints of all shades of gray tones. However, paintings can be painted in brown – brunaille or green – verdaille. Monochrome was used in Renaissance artwork as a way to emulate the look of sculpture. The grisaille technique can also be used as a preliminary stage of processing the canvas before the main painting, and its open parts can be glazed. With the advent of the Alla Prima technique, grisaille is no longer practiced.

Blocking technique

This technique is used at the initial stage of painting. Large brushes and diluted oil paints are used to create color harmony using common colors and shapes on canvas without worrying about small details.

You can block out the selected area using softened versions of the base color. Then you can gradually saturate and make it brighter as needed. However, it is not recommended to start blocking with a bright color, as this can turn the picture into a “flashy” spot. Sometimes the area chosen for blocking is left unpainted and left exposed.

The Blocking In technique is used for plein air painting. Its advantage is that the overall arrangement and color harmony can be quickly demonstrated on the canvas.

Mixing technique

The two oil paints blend slightly when wet, creating a smooth transition from one shade to the next. The color of this transition will be the product of the two selected pigments. The mixing technique is often present in beginner paintings, as young artists often strive to create a smoother surface, so they use liquid oil paints that are mixed. John Singer Sargent worked in this technique.

Lubrication technique

The lubrication technique consists in replenishing the painting in those places where the oil has sunk deep into the painting. The fading of the paint usually occurs in small areas and not over the entire picture due to different curing times. Therefore, a very small amount of artistic quality oil medium is applied on top. This method of priming a painting is not a technique in the truest sense of the word, but smudging is used by professional artists when it comes to bringing the top coats of oil paint to life.

Modern oil painting techniques

In modern oil painting, there are techniques that were not used by famous painters, since innovative works appeared much later. These drawing methods are:

  •  spatter, when oil paint is applied by spattering onto a painting, so it must be quite liquid;
  •  dripping or blowing when the artist controls the direction of paint flow;
  •  stamping strokes of oil paint with objects and textures;
  •  adding relief details: stones, herbarium, etc.;
  •  introduction of baseless pigments into the oil painting: metallized, dry, paste, powder;
  •  mounting foreign objects: paper, cans, toys, etc.

Modern painting techniques differ from classical ones not only in their novelty, but also in their boldness and provocativeness, which allows you to create unique works of art. A professional artist must master both classical and modern methods of oil painting in order to fix his idea on canvas accurately and clearly for a modern viewer.

«Dry brush» technique

This technique belongs to the commercial type of oil painting. She paints portraits on primed paper. Clean paint is rubbed with a stiff bristle brush in a thin layer. The darker the ink, the more paint is required and the more grouting occurs. «Dry brush» allows you to create smooth gradations of color shades. The result is a picture similar to graphics. This technique is used to write off the contours of objects, eliminate excessive rigidity of strokes and blur the boundaries of contrasting colors.

The combination of techniques in painting

Often artists use several techniques in one piece to achieve extraordinary optical effects. For example, they alternate glazing with opaque writing or brushstroke technique with flat spots. The contrast of techniques in the composition allows the artist to focus on the most important details of the picture. In addition, the combination of various techniques reflects the unique style of the painter. Thus, the author of the painting shows his version of reality and uses oil painting as a material expression of the idea. 



Traditionally, painting is divided into easel, monumental and decorative painting, theatrical and decorative painting, digital images, miniatures and icon painting. Easel painting is drawing a picture on an easel, that is, on a machine tool. It is designed for offline perception in a museum or art gallery. Therefore, such paintings are framed. The basis for easel painting is usually canvas, but there are options on wood, glass and metal. Monumental and decorative painting, unlike easel painting, is not perceived separately. It is an integral part of the decorated surface. Famous artists of this type of painting: Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and other master painters of the Renaissance. The painting was first done with mineral, water or glue paints, then with tempera, secco, and later with oil paints. Today, monumental and decorative painting can be seen not only in religious institutions, but also on the walls of houses. Such paintings are called murals. 

Translated from the Greek language, «technique» is an art or skill. In the case of oil painting, this is the ability to convey the plot of the picture with oil-based paints and create beautiful visual images. Knowing the basic techniques of oil painting and being able to use them is necessary for writing exquisite and durable works. In addition, painting techniques allow you to unleash the full potential of oil paints. After all, the art world does not stand still. There are new techniques and techniques that allow you to fix the most daring ideas of the artist on the canvas. 

There are such classic oil painting techniques: 

  1. 1 Glazing – for painting with transparent and translucent paints.
  2. 2 Alla prima – to create a painting in record time for oil works.
  3. 3 Painting a picture with strokes – to get an image away from the canvas.
  4. 4 Impasto – for textured work.
  5. 5 «Drybrush» – for creating quick works with a dry brush and feathering.
  6. 6 Contrast shadow and light – to create dramatic artwork.

More recent techniques include glazing, glazing, blending, blocking, and smearing. In addition, new oil painting techniques continue to be created.

It is believed that oil paints are suitable for beginners, because they can be mixed directly on canvas, applied not only with a brush, but also with fingers, and failed pieces can be removed with a palette knife or washed with a rag. This will not damage the canvas. In order to start creating an oil painting, you will need: an easel, canvas (can be primed and stretched on a stretcher), synthetic brushes of different thicknesses (3-5 pcs.), Brush cleaner, thinners, palette knife, cloth napkins, palette.

Here are some tips for budding artists:

  1. 1 Purchase a basic set of oil paints that can be used to create other colors: Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow, Ocher Yellow, Titanium White, Cadmium Red, Ultramarine Blue, Martian Black.
  2. 2 White buy with a margin.
  3. 3 Do underpainting and do not break the rule: «thick to liquid».
  4. 4 Wait for the layer to dry before applying the next.
  5. 5 Ventilate the work area.
  6. 6 Gain new knowledge and improve your skills.
  7. 7 Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The advantage of oil paints is that they harden slowly, so the work can be constantly corrected, changed or added.

Practice mindfulness. For inspiration and new ideas, go to museums, art galleries, exhibitions. Don’t waste time and get to work using various oil painting techniques to turn an ordinary painting into a work of art.