Anatomy of an Indirect Painting

In previous posts, I described the history of indirect painting and also some of the techniques. In this post, I plan to show you how an indirectly painted landscape can mimic the light effects in nature and create both an interesting and varied surface quality and multiple optical effects. Indirect painting using the Venetian tradition gives the landscape painter a wonderful assortment of techniques to use. There isn’t any one way or a set series of steps which one follows in every instance.  Planning, knowledge of subject, and intuition play a role.

The final “look” of the surface requires numerous layers of varying kinds. So, thinking ahead to the next step is crucial. What I see most often is that students want to rush the process, “going for the finish” too soon by either pulling out the opaque paint or leaving the surface looking unfinished with just a few glazes. The way a painting looks when it is truly finished depends as much on what the top layer looks like as it does on all the layers underneath. The beauty and special quality of an indirectly painted work depends upon the variety of optical experiences it offers the viewer.

So, a big part of my thinking when I start to paint (actually when I start to think about an idea) is how and where I will leave things transparent, use translucent paint over transparent, use opaque paint, finish with a glaze on top, etc. My best paintings are ones where I have done all those things or at least several of them. At least I think so. That variety of surface is what will keep the viewer looking at your work long after that initial glance.

How to decide? Well, some things are obvious. Shadows need to look transparent so using transparent paint there works well. But, generally I use several layers of glaze, maybe up to four or five, before I start in with other techniques. Why? Because those transparent areas give the finished painting a richness and depth, even when large parts of it are covered with translucent or opaque paint. I try to keep as much of it uncovered as I can.

Scumbles are a great tool for creating atmosphere and “air”, softening edges and generally building up layers of sympathetic color. I also like to think about building something from the ground up, or, put another way, like Nature would make it. So, the dark warm earth (transparent ) goes on before the grass or leaves on top and the warmer, darker tree interior goes on before the lighter cooler outer layers of light and mid tone.

But, every painting starts with a transparent underpainting which is about two value steps lighter than it will be in the finished painting. Subsequent glazing will darken the value, so one must compensate by starting out a bit lighter. It is just the first of many decisions that have to be made while thinking ahead. You have to have your next moves in mind before you pick up the brush. There is no straight line between the start and finish, but rather lots of zig zags. Here is what a typical underpainting might look like. Although the values overall are lighter, the value relationships should be correct.

Morning Light 2430 underpainting 72 dpi-3

This next painting is called Farm Pond Morning (16 x 20). Here are a few images which unfortunately have some glare but I think still serve to address some of this. I kept the images large so more detail could be seen. In these I have fast forwarded to the finished painting.

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First, is a detail of that lit up area between the trees. I think you can see the transparent edge right next to the opaque light paint which represents the sun. putting those two things together mimics Nature- light bounces off the opaque paint back into the eyes of the viewer (like the sun) while the light passes through the transparent edge giving it a glow and lighting it up in the same way we perceive it in real life. But, also look at the surrounding areas of foliage. If you click on the image, you will be able to see the layers underneath the translucent paint on top. So in this one area there are three different optical experiences.

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This next closeup is the far left edge at the juncture of the grass and water. The tree reflections are transparent with opaque paint on top for the pond scum and opaque reflections for the sky. The grasses are painted very thinly (as compared to the more robust little bits of opaque paint on the pond), barely a whisper of opaque paint dragged over the underpainting. To the right, an area that is just getting a little light has been lightly glazed with a warmer color on top of that. Just above that is an area where the trees meet the grass which was under painted, glazed, then translucent paint put on top, then a glaze on just that underneath lower area to create warmth and vibration with the greens above.

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Here’s a detail of the area just above the previous one where you can see the grasses and trees a bit better.

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Here’s another detail of the water, this one including the reflection of the sun. Again, from the bottom up, it is transparent underpainting, numerous glazes – first darker (just like I would do if I were painting the tree itself), then the lighter warmer colors on top of that, juxtaposed with the opaque reflections which are also glazed over, and finally the cooler opaque bits floating on top of the water.

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Using indirect techniques offers the landscape painter endless combinations of techniques to create a varied and beautiful visual experience for the viewer.

P.S. Our annual Magic Hours online class, an exploration of indirect painting techniques and painting transitional times of day, starts October 9.  Join us! For those interested in a more comprehensive program of study, we are accepting students for the January trimester of the Atelier programs. Click here for more information.

What is Indirect Painting? Part I

Most of you are direct painters. This is the primary way that oil painting has been taught for the last century or so, although indirect painting held sway prior to that. I was trained to work in a direct, alla prima way as many of you have been. When I decided to explore indirect painting techniques, there wasn’t a lot of information out there, especially for landscape painters. So, it took years of research- study of past masters, as well as art history, and texts on methods and materials- to figure out a bit about this way of working. Even today, there are just a handful of landscape painters who are using these methods.

Indirect painting simply means that the surface of the painting is built up in layers rather than all in one go. There are many different ways to do this. All of them rely on creating distinct layers of paint which will create a different optical effect, a different “look” than a work painted directly in opaque paint. This is achieved by using transparent, translucent and opaque passages and building up the painting in layers.

 

Before we explore the technical side of indirect painting, let’s look at a little art history.  Prior to the late 14th century, the medium of egg tempera was used for painting. The earliest oil painting technique was developed in Flanders in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. As a result this method is referred to as the Flemish technique. Using a wood panel, artists transferred a highly refined drawing onto the panel. The drawing was then restated in ink or thin paint and sealed with varnish. Once that was dry, the artist would commence painting transparent glazes into the shadows and applying layers of thin translucent or opaque paint into other areas. Each layer of paint was allowed to dry before continuing work and the painting was finished by adding subsequent glazes and building up the lights with opaque paint. Highlights were finally added with thicker opaque paint. This produced a highly realistic, more linear image, usually with fairly hard edges.

Here is a painting by Jan van Eyck  (Flemish, 139-1441) executed in the Flemish technique.

 

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The new innovations of oil painting spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Italian artists in particular adopted the new medium although resistance by some (including Michelangelo) remained.  By the late 15th and early 16th centuries Venetian artists, particularly Titian (1488-1576) and Giorgione (c.1477-1510) began to invent further innovations to the Flemish technique. The limitations of working on wood panels and the difficulty of making alterations to a work in progress sparked a shift to the use of a canvas support and a more painterly process for execution which is called the Venetian technique.

The innovations of the Venetian technique involved the use of canvas, stiff brushes and an underpainting rather than a drawing. As a result, the edges in paintings produced this way tend to be softer and the resulting work more atmospheric and painterly. Generally the underpainting was executed either partially or completely in opaque paint and was called a grisaille when executed in neutral greys. After the grisaille dried, glazes would be applied to the shadows and the light areas built up with thin opaque paints. Titian is generally credited with “inventing” the scumble (light opaque paint applied as a translucent layer) and the velatura or semi-glaze which can be transparent or translucent.

Man in a Red Cap Titian
Man in a Red Cap
Titian
Christ Carrying the Cross Titian
Christ Carrying the Cross
Titian

Eventually use of the Venetian method and its many variations became widespread all over Europe and was used for centuries by masters such as Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Poussin, and Ingres.

Self Portrait Rembrandt
Self Portrait
Rembrandt

Indirect painting, using the Venetian method or its many manifestations, offers the artist the widest range of options for both application of paint and optical effects which can be achieved.  In Part II we’ll find how how and why!

 

P.S. Our annual online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting for Landscape Painters- starts July 10th. Come see what all the fuss is about! Join us!