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Old Master Approaches

To an extent difficult to understand today, the traditional oil painting techniques aimed to achieve a harmony in tones, i.e. a pleasing pattern in the balance between light and dark. Yellowing varnish has spoilt many of these effects, and we now prefer livelier colors anyway, but tonal value remains an essential element in most pictures. Study of master work, old and contemporary, will train the eye to appreciate the suggestions below, many of which (with explanations and illustrations) can be found in Linda Cateura's book {7}.


General Principles

Leaving aside the strong chiaroscuro effects of Velazquez, Rembrandt and other 17th century masters, traditional paintings cannot escape implying a light source and showing how objects appear under that source. Depictions have to make sense, and be convincing. And, once tonal elements appear in a painting, they assume an aesthetic dimension of their own, which means that tone is inescapable element of composition. Contemporary work is often in a high key, of course, but unless abstract or a colored drawing, its pale shadows still need to form a pattern and to say something meaningful. Most traditional paintings display a greater tonal range, and the common advice (certainly in direct painting, to which most the suggestions below apply) is to quickly set the range by laying in the lightest and darkest of tones at the very outset of painting.

Beyond that — pleasing patterns, variety, maintenance of mood, good balance — it is difficult to lay down principles. A sense for tonal harmony comes with experience, and by looking at masterworks. The notes below are more in the nature of practical hints in traditional oil painting techniques.

Light and Shadow

Jan van Vermeer1. Highlights occur where a plane changes direction. Think what is happening and paint that.

2. The center of interest is always in the light, and the eye prefers warm colors to cold.

3. Highlights should be shaped to lead eye as desired.

4. Add touches of color to where shadow meets light.

5. Shadows follow planes.

6. Make areas lighter by making the area lighter or by making surrounding area darker.

7. Light areas should be nearest to viewer.

8. Treat similar areas similarly.

9. Put highlights in as light a tone as you can from the very first.

10. Make shadow areas and the background similar in tone.

11. Darks get lighter as they go further back.

12. Create darks with black or with umber and blue.

13. Darkest shadow is closest to light.

14. Highlights on cold areas are warm, and vice-versa.

15. Tone is more difficult to control than color Keep tones simple, therefore; work them out in advance.

16. The third dimension is not only created by tone: use color temperature, edges and color intensity.

17. Keep shadows consistent for material — e.g. heavy cloth has darker shadows than thin.


1. Edges can be hard or soft.

2. Hard edges rivet attention. Use them for composition and to create depth.


Claude Vignon1. Use more color and less white to make paint brighter.

2. Use white or Naples yellow to lighten yellows, oranges and reds.

3. Use color to unify and/or make something happen.

4. Reserve most intense colors to areas in light.

5. Warm colors advance, cold color recede.

6. Decide on one or two dominant colors: de-intensify others.

7. Transitional colors should be murky and not noticeable.

8. Make blacks darker by adding warm colors Make them lighter with cobalt blue or raw umber. Make them opaque with earth colors and translucent with cadmiums.

9. Good shadows for whites are prepared by mixing black, cadmium yellow and white.

10. Chalkiness is a light muddiness that comes from blending too many colors

Further Reading

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

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

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

4. '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.

5. 'The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing' by S.J. Solomon. Seeley. 1910.

6. 'The Technique of Oil Painting' by L. Richmond. Pitman. 1952.

7. 'Oil Painting Secrets from a Master' by Linda Cateura: Watson Guptill. 1984.

8. 'Light and Values' by Mike Mahon. YouTube. Fundamentals.

9. 'Top Painting Techniques Sites'. Top20. Brief presentations of leading sites.


Shetching Tone

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David Hockney, The Lost Secrets of the Old Masters: camera lucida obscura


Recreating a painting, Caravaggio


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5a. 'Baldassare Castiglione' by Raphael. c. 1514. Musée du Louvre. Paris. As important as the textural variations of the clothes and the subtle tonal harmonies (essentially impure red and red-orange) are the rhythmic lines and shapes.

5b. 'Soldier and a Young Woman Laughing' by Jan van Vermeer. c.1658. The Frick Collection. New York. It is the striking shapes of the backlit figure that give dramatic interest to the painting, a device not often used by Vermeer as it creates (as here) some problems in tonal harmony. Hard angles in the figure are repeated in the background map.

5c. 'The Young Singer ' by Claude Vignon. Musée du Louvre. Paris. A simple analogous color scheme of reds and oranges, but great variety in shapes, liner elements and tones. Note also the different textures, even in this detail.