Artists have used oil paints since the eighth century, but their widespread use dates from the early fifteenth century, when Flemish painters like Broederlam and van Eyck built up exquisite works in repeated layers of paint, often as glazes over thin layers of opaque oil paint. Oil dried more slowly and evenly than tempera, allowing the artist the time to correct or extend his work, producing a more coherent and considered statement, with all aspects closely worked in.
The first supports were panels of wood poplar, oak, lime, beech, chestnut, cherry, pine and silver fir: all carefully prepared. Canvas was adopted by the Venetians, as wood tended to warp, and fresco to mildew, in the moist atmosphere of the lagoons.
Body color was generally applied in a free, painterly way, and precise, detailed glazes added later. Though applied in thin layers to allow proper drying, the underpainting accumulated to opaquely cover the ground. The work proceeded in lengthy stages, often with layers being scraped back, and/or the earlier paint being oiled out. Each picture generally took 6 to 12 months.
Layering is still the soundest approach to oil painting, though the range of techniques and materials is necessarily wider than those used in Flemish paintings. The method is a lengthy one, and is best suited to miniatures, photo-realism, and painting that requires a very high degree of detail and surface finish.
Either 1a. begin with an accurate drawing (older artists probably used a camera obscura, for which photographs can be substituted today)
Or 1b. begin like a watercolor with few pencil lines and broad washes of turps-thinned paint.
3. Lay in thin body color
5. Lay in second thin body color, within the contours of the first layer or overpainting it.
6. Continue building up the underpainting in a long, continuous process of trial and error, using the full range of painting techniques.
7. Dry thoroughly.
8. Lay in glazes, and work wet into wet as necessary.
10. Lay in thicker glazes, modifying previous glazes where necessary.
11. Add body color to recapture areas glazed too heavily.
It is also possible to alternate body color and glaze rather than leave all glazing to the end. Shadows may be created by glazes, and the final picture harmonized.
Wet into wet wet color into, over or alongside other wet color
Wet over dry traditional approach allowing systematic control.
Painting to completion or in sections more control with latter but disjointed appearance is a danger.
Painting in layers principle behind traditional technique.
Refining foundation adding to the body color with more subtlety of color and tone.
Finishing with glazes final modifications of foundation and layers with glazes.
Varying paint thickness modifying tone and color by thickness of paint: common but needs great skill.
Dead coloring first application in layered technique, either built up subsequently into further layers or into underpainting.
Underpainting painting which is designed to combine with later painting (often but not necessarily glazes) to produce desired effect.
Using ground allowing the ground to partly show through in the finished picture.
Body color paint given body: dense paint: generally paint made opaque by adding white.
Grisaille underpainting wholly in shades of gray.
Scumble partial covering of white applied while paint below is still wet.
Frottie complete film of semitransparent paint, either with glaze or smeared thin.
Scraping back paint scraped back to reveal ghost of last application or some of previous.
Rubbing using fingers to rub in paint: a controlled and useful technique.
Glazing layer of transparent color: laid on when paint below is practically dry: any color can be used with glazing medium but transparent colors are best.
Impasto thick paint standing proud of surrounding surface: used for textural effects and also with glazes.
Blending softening edges of paint after they have been applied, usually with clean brush.
Teasing manipulating paint after it has been set down.
Hatching strokes or cross-strokes in wet paint that blend at a distance.
Scoring scratching back to underlying layer: often used to represent hair or creases in skin.
Oiling out. When the painting or part of the painting dries dull and opaque (i.e. the paint sinks in) it is wise, prior to continuing painting, to gently rub in a retouching varnish as as to correctly judge colors.
The classic techniques are well covered by older works, of which these may be the more useful:
1. 'The Artists's Handbook of Materials and Techniques' by Ralph Mayer. 5th Edition. Viking Press. 1991.
2. 'Formulas for Painters' by Robert Massey. Watson-Gupthill. 1980.
3. 'The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting' by Max Doerner. Harvest Books. 1984
4. 'The Artist's Methods and Materials'. M. Bazzi. John Murray. 1960.
5. 'Guide to the Finest Watercolor Paints'. Wilcox. Artways. 1991.
6. 'Artist's Pigments: A Handbook of their History and Characteristics' edited by Elizabeth Fitzhugh. National Gallery of Art Publication. 1997.
7. '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.
8. 'Flemish art'. Art History Spot. Some background to the Flemish masterpieces.
9. MbStudios Art. Various techniques demonstrated by Marc Branscum.
Umber layer - Flemish still life
'The Madonna with Chancellor Rolin' by Jan van Eyck. 1434. Musée du Louvre. Paris. Almost photographic detail (probably achieved with a camera obscura) but a simple color scheme of reds through to yellow.