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Classical Approaches

One of the best known techniques for oil painting uses a toned ground that shows through in the finished work. The advantages are:

Jan Verkolje

1. Economy of effort: only paint in tones lighter or darker than the middle tone need be applied.

2. Thinner layers of paint, and hence a cheaper and more durable product.

3. Better control of tones, achieved through phasing the stages and correcting with final glazes.

The disadvantages are:

1. Careful planning is needed, as 'mistakes' or afterthoughts will show through.

2. Calls for considerable facility with the brush, as the work is often built up in successive and partly transparent brush sketches.

Painting on a Toned Ground


Peter Paul Rubens1. Place an accurate drawing over the toned ground.

2. Shade shadows with thin raw umber washes, allowing the ground to show through. Paint dead color as pale thin turps washes of eventual colors. Washes, ground and shadows now form a three-tone scheme.

3. Dry. The old masters would have used lean colors, in essential oils, and allowed canvas to dry for months at this stage to ensure that no oil was left to dry later.

4. Remodel above with thicker, more opaque colors, still allowing ground to show through. The old masters understood that each pigment should have its medium adjusted to take account of individual properties.

5. Dry.

6. Repaint with more definition, still allowing ground to show through. The yellows need to be reduced as the painting will yellow slightly in time.

7. Dry.

8. Add glazes, thickening or wiping out as necessary.

Rubens (see detail) painted with varnish, wet into wet over a less absorbent white, gray or pink ground. Lights were put in impasto with a stiff brush and afterwards very lightly blended.

Painting on a Dark Ground

The second of the classical techniques for oil painting, used by Rembrandt, Velazquez and others for strong chiaroscuro effects, employs a dark ground. The dark ground serves for shadows, other areas being built up as layers in varying degrees of opaqueness.


Diego Velázquez1. Darken the ground.

2. Ensure the ground is dry.

3. Trace an accurate drawing or sketch in the main outlines as required.

3. Dry.

4. Underpaint in grisaille, modeling tones with frotties and using glazes over the dark ground.

5. Dry.

6. Apply the upper layers of paint, usually in several sessions, keeping the tones on the light side to allow for later glazes.

7. Add highlights in white.

8. Dry.

9. Add colored (generally multiple) glazes.

Alla Prima

Alla prima resembles the above, but largely does away with final glazes. Paint is more thickly applied, but needs skill as final adjustments are not so easily made.


Peter Paul Rubens1. Add a careful shaded brush sketch to a pale-toned ground.

2. Add shadows in two levels of glaze. The work now has three tones.

3. Scumble in white highlights while the glazes are still wet.

4. Dry.

5. Add colors, as frotties or spread colored glazes which are then worked into with some white or body color. The ground still shows through.

6. Rework the last layer with more body color.

7. Add finishing touches of thin body color.

Fa Presto

Fa presto resembles alla prima but there is no preliminary drawing and the paint is applied directly to the ground. Strictly, this is not direct painting because a. the ground is usually allowed to show through and b. everything is carefully planned beforehand.

John Singer SargentSteps

1. Over a lightly toned ground paint in washes and frotties the broad areas of color This application is generally lean and usually allows some of the ground to show through.

2. Rework the application with a fatter medium and more body color

3. Add finishing details.

The painting can be left to dry between each step or completed in the one session.

Further Reading

Visit Janson's site and consult some the books listed below.

1. 'Methods and Materials of the Painting of the Great Schools and their Masters: Two Volumes Bound as One' by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake. Dover Publications 2002. Reprint of classic 1847 text.

2. 'The Artists's Handbook of Materials and Techniques' by Ralph Mayer. 5th Edition. Viking Press. 1991.

3. 'Formulas for Painters' by Robert Massey. Watson-Gupthill. 1980.

4. 'The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting 'by Max Doerner. Harvest Books. 1984

5. 'The Artist's Methods and Materials'. M. Bazzi. John Murray. 1960.

6. 'Secrets of the Masters'. YouTube. Good range of techniques demonstrated.

7. 'Painting on a Toned Ground'. Ryder Studio. Demonstrations by Ted Seth Jacobs.


10a. 'The Message' by Jan Verkolje. Mauritshuis. The Hague. Details shows what is possible (and only possible) with scumbles and glazes.
10b. 'Lion Hunt' by Peter Paul Rubens. c.1615. The National Gallery. London. Great vigor in the brushwork sketches that are to be built into a final, many-layered work.
10c. 'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez. 1656. Museo del Prado Madrid. Note the variety of edges, some sharp, some soft, in Velázquez's work.
10d. 'The Artist and his Wife in a Honeysuckle Bower' by Peter Paul Rubens. 1609-10. Alte Pinakothek. Munich. Detail shows Rubens' skill in handling the brush in alla prima work.
10e. 'The Oyster Catchers' by John Singer Sargent. c.1878. Museum of Fine Arts. Boston. Appears an Impressionist sketch painted on the spot, but in fact adopts an old master approach with layers and glazes handled with great bravura.