Monday, January 21, 2013


In almost all books about oil painting, two methods are mentioned: “alla prima”, which formally means finishing the whole painting in one session, thus painting wet on wet for the whole piece (which is made up of only one layer) and...non-”alla prima”, where you let the paint dry at different stages, working in multiple sessions and layers, which may include "glazing" (applying thin layers of transparent pigments or color mixtures) and "scumbling" (applying thin layers of non-transparent pigments or color mixtures, which often include some amount of white). Multiple layered methods are sometimes associated with the generation of a monochromatic underpainting, which is let dry and "colored" at a later stage. The whole story about “fat-over-lean” refers to multilayered approaches. 

Now, unfortunately, this is just like saying that there are two ways to cook pasta: either with or without meat...I am Italian, so I can think of at least 100 different spaghetti sauces without even bothering to open a cookbook.

The AAU teaches a very specific approach, which is one of the many types of "alla prima" painting, though you can use it also for paintings spanning multiple sessions. It is a very easy and very effective method, and I will describe it in more detail below. However, I am sort of a compulsory collector of painting techniques and I scan today´s massive information ocean searching for the painting approach of different artists and then try them out as good as I can. It is easier if the artist is generous enough to provide a tutorial, more difficult if you have to decipher it from books and at the most challenging when you piece together fragmental information from anthologies and commentaries. So I came out of this semester with at least three different approaches which I consider successful and two which are undoubtedly successful for the artists who patron them, but I found them very challenging for the least for this particular beginner. 

When I try to make order in the many different ways to apply paint to canvas, the elements  that make a difference for me are two: a) whether you work on the whole painting at once or only a piece at a time and b) whether you mix the color on the palette or on the canvas. I will try to make sense of these distinctions and their implications by looking at both my experience and the work of different artists.

The AAU tutors insist on the necessity to work on the whole painting at once, and they have good reasons to do that: it requires an enormous discipline to keep a painting consistent if you complete it one piece at a time. Completing a piece at a time on a painting is called "window shading" - and it is actually my preferred way of working. So I had to hide my WIPs most of the time, because they looked something like that:

The Norns - Window shading in progress

There are very prominent "window shaders" out there who do marvelous paintings. David Gray (who offers fantastic tutorials on his website) is a "window shader" and also a "canvas mixer" - he mixes smooth transitions on canvas, using very small brushes, and achieves and incredibly smooth rendering. Sometimes he does a monochromatic underpainting, sometimes he does not. This approach is wonderful for children´s skin or any other surface that needs to be completely atextural. Another "window shader", though to a lesser extent is Donato Giancola: he works on a very rough acrylic underpainting and finishes one section of the painting at a time. Donato Giancola, is also a canvas mixer: he dabs different colors and values in different areas of, say, a face, then works the transitions on the canvas as much as on the palette. If you feel inclined to learn more, check is fantastic video tutorial about Joan of Arc. It is a very powerful and fast approach and I have used it extensively. Rather than mixing a million different hues, you can just work out the extremes and then make the transitions on the fly. This really exploits the power of oils, as it is only possible with paint that stays wet for a reasonable amount of time.

You can also avoid mixing the transitions altogether - the master of the masters for this approach is Gregory Manchess. His highly painterly and impactul pieces avoid overmixing and overrendering and use brushwork to the most of its potential. Loomis called this method the “blocky approach” in his masterpiece “Creative Illustration”. Colors are not mixed on canvas (thus avoiding the always present risk of muddying them), only the edges are controlled. I have studied his work for hours and humbly tried to imitate his approach in my work. I did not manage in full (no surprise you need years of experience to do that properly), but the closer I came the more I liked my paintings. Here are some details where I think I managed to achieve something similar. 

I do not know whether Greg Manchess is a window shader or not, but I do not think it makes much of a difference. When you magically get the handle of it and you are in flow on mixing colors, this approach is so fast that you can finish a whole painting in one day. I actually painted my most ambitious and biggest painting, The Norns, mostly in a continuous 2-day session. It is also an "alla prima" form, because you finish each part of the painting in one single even if you go on the next day it is always a single layer. Gregory Manchess also stated once that he never does any glazing.

I have tried monochromatic underpainting followed by both opaque and transparent glazing. This experience was defeating. Maybe it is just not my way. Adrian Gottlieb makes absolutely stunning paintings with this method. Actually, his underpaintings are so beautiful that he sometimes calls the job done at that stage. Here are two of my monochromatic underpaintings and the final results:

Learning to Fly - WIP and final

Self Portrait - WIPS and final

In the first, I managed to keep it to a semi-glazing approach on the figures, but worked on the background with a standard wet-in-wet approach. In the second case, i really tried hard to keep transparent glazes throughout, but had to repaint the face three times and the hands twice and it is still not finished. It was enormously time consuming, difficult, frustrating and definitely not in line with my way to enjoy painting. However, I did learn a lot about opaque and transparent pigments and about dry-brush scumbling (the best way to underpaint), which turned out to be extremely useful for other paintings. Glazing and scumbling are very powerful ways to refine a painting at whatever stage, and it is worth spending some time to familiarize with the behavior of thinned transparent or opaque pigments on a dry underpainting. This work below was glazed over two times: once to get rid of the "blotchiness" on the skin and the second to cool down the skin color which had got too warm with the first glaze. I do believe the work improved on both occasions, and it was less than 1h work in both cases.

Spring Giulia

And finally, the best method I can contribute for the beginner is the "AAU method". I got so bored with it after a while that I felt the urge to explore other methods (and I am really glad I did so), but I came back to it in the end as it is really easy and powerful - almost a guarantee for success. They initiate it as "alla prima", but in reality you can let the work dry at any stage without loosing anything and sometimes actually gaining control, so it is totally stress-free. They really insist on the need to work on all the painting at once, and it does really express its full potential that way. I would break it up in six stages:
  1. Apply local colors in shadow
  2. Apply local colors in light (midtone or slightly lighter)
  3. Adjust edges
  4. Apply lighter lights (and or midtones, depending on how light was step 2)
  5. Apply darker shadows and/or reflected lights
  6. Highlights and accents

Stages 1-3 go very fast and at the end you have what I call a "poster statement". Each area of the painting is expressed as a two-value statement with a soft or hard edge depending if it is a form or cast shadow. Here is a painting after stage 1-2 and the final:
It is advisable to go through to stage 3 before letting the paint dry too much. This painting got to stage 3 and a little beyond on the face and then was left to dry completely before going forward through the other stages

Winter Giulia WIP and final

Notice the poster statement on the folds and flower in the WIP.
It is not necessary to let the paint dry at that stage but I do prefer to do so. Stages 4-5 can be handled in any order or all at once and they are the most time consuming. I mix in stage 6 as well as I go along, to get a more complete feeling of where the painting is going, as adding the highlights can really make the painting "pop". Human beings tend to overestimate the reflected lights, that is why stage 5 is both about darker shadows AND reflected light - sometimes what you need is not a reflected light but a darker core shadow.

Richard and Winter Giulia, two of my more successful paintings in my eyes, were painted this way.  Mark was painted as a mixture of this method with Gregory Manchess method, leaving paint unblended on canvas - though it actually achieved more of a Sargent-like appearance. 

Mark WIP and final
And here is for me also the greatest win from my first experiences with oil: the fact that I can actually blend and mix the different approaches to find my perfect cocktail, and changing the proportion both between paintings and whitin the same painting. You can use one for the background and a different one for the figures, or, if you are not in figurative painting, you can paint the foreground elements with a different style than the background.

It bears reminding: no matter what technique you choose to use - technique alone will never make a painting. A painting is carried by composition, design, value structure and color, not by medium or technique. Without the basics of composition, color and form, no magic trick or knowledge will create a successful painting. Something I need to constantly remind myself too.

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