Direct and Indirect Painting

Woman Painting in studio
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There are two primary methods of painting: the direct method, and the indirect method. Either method can be applied to both oil and acrylic paints, keeping in mind the much faster drying time of acrylics. It is worth trying these two different approaches to see what works best for you. They may also be combined within one painting.

Indirect Painting

The more Classical approach is the indirect method. This approach involves an underpainting, an initial layer of paint on the canvas or painting surfaceto help create values. The underpainting may be grisaille, monochromatic, or even multi-colored. The intention is that this layer will be covered with subsequent layers of glazing, transparent colors that modify the opaque layers below. The paint is allowed to dry between each layer. The glaze layers are applied over lighter paint, generally, such that the layers mix optically with those below and create a translucent effect not easily achieved by using opaque paint. Building up the glazing helps to reflect light and create luminosity and depth. Glazing may be used on just specific parts of the painting or can be painted over the whole surface to unify the painting. This method of painting, when using oil paint, takes time and patience, as layers are built up gradually and drying time can take days and even weeks. Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer are some painters who used this method.

Direct Painting

The direct approach, also called alla prima, is about painting the right color directly onto the canvas or painting surface immediately, working while the paint is still wet, also called wet-on-wet. This is a much faster and immediate way of painting, with the painting often finished in one sitting or session. When painting directly, the artist wants to find the right hue, value, and saturation of the color before laying it down on the canvas in order to get the color and shape down correctly the first time. The process may involve carefully mixing the color on the palette and taking the time to get it right, but working at a speed such that the paint remains wet. To start, the artist may work on a toned canvas and use a thin wash of color, such as burnt sienna, to diagram the major shapes and block in the values before applying the opaque paint. Artists who have used this method include Diego Velazquez, Thomas Gainsborough, and then, with the invention of the paint tube in the mid-1800s making it that much easier to paint alla prima, Impressionists such as Claude Monet and Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.

It is possible to use both methods within the same painting, and whichever method you decide to use, the beginning is the same - squinting to see values and define form, looking for subtle or extreme differences between shapes of light and dark, then assessing the color temperature of the subject to help determine color relationships. The process of seeing as an artist when working from real life applies to whatever method of painting you choose.