THE FLEMISH OIL PAINTING TECHNIQUE
Oils on Wood
210 mm x 297 mm
The Flemish method refers to a process developed during the renaissance in northern Europe and was soon adopted throughout the continent. In essence the technique involves painting a monochromatic underpainting with thin coloured layers in the form of glazes applied over the top. There are countless variations of the method and then as now artists adapted the concept to their own particular style and need.
This is not a definitive guide but rather an example of how I apply the technique to my work, with a stage-by-stage example and explanation of what I am doing and why. It is a simple guide that is intended as a starting point, so that others who are interested in this technique may adapt and build upon.
THE CARTOON - APPYING THE DESIGN
I typically work on painting panels which are sized and prepared using an oil-based gesso, this is then sanded to give a very smooth surface.
I used charcoal for this stage as it is a natural pigment that will bond with the oil paint and it is easily removed if a mistake is made. This is a small painting so I trace my design onto paper with a charcoal pencil. I wipe the board with very thin layer of medium (distilled turpentine and refined linseed oil medium 2:1) removing any excess oil with a lint free cloth. I then place my charcoal tracing face down onto the lightly oiled surface which transfers the charcoal when I lift the paper. Mixing a thin ink, using transparent red oxide oil paint and distilled turpentine, I go over the charcoal drawing to fix the design onto to the gesso surface.
Note: There are many methods that can be used to transfer a design also known as a cartoon; pouncing through a perforated paper copy, tracing with a projector, gridding the board and copying or direct drawing etc.
Note: Through experience I avoid pencil for the drawing as graphite can on rare occasions migrate through the painting.
This is the initial toning stage of my painting and sets a unifying, underlying hue which will influence the subsequent layers. As my method employs the application of numerous thin layers of paint, this colour can reflect optically through parts of the following layers.
The medium I use at this stage is distilled turpentine and linseed oil 2:1. It is important to keep in mind the fat over lean principle and this is a very lean sketch layer.
For this painting I am using transparent brown oxide as it is an extremely fast drying pigment which imparts a lovely sanguine warmth to the ground. I only sketched in the basic composition to produce a tinted guide for the painting.
Note: There are many colours that can be used for this layer, umbers and natural earth pigments are very popular as they provide good neutral tones. However, blues, greens or yellows etc. can also be used.
Note: It is important to consider the drying time. A fast-drying pigment/paint is required. The lower layers must dry before the upper layers to avoid instability and cracking.
THE DEAD LAYER – OPEN GRISAILLE
The dead layer is a monochrome application that can initially look a little ghoulish especially when undertaking portraiture.
This open grisaille is the first stage of the dead layer where I start to establish the values to my painting. Value is a term that refers to the light and dark. I execute this layer using a single dark colour to define the shadows. I have chosen raw umber, a neutral, dark greenish brown, fast drying pigment to compliment the red oxide.
The medium I use at this stage is a mix of distilled turpentine and refined linseed oil 1:1. Following the fat over lean principle this layer has a little more oil in it than the imprimatura.
Note: There are many colours and variations that can be used to create the dead later. Grisaille is a French term that refers to a grey monochrome layer, brunaille is brown and verdaille is green.
Note: It is important to make sure each subsequent layer of the painting is dry before continuing to the next. Drying time can alter depending on conditions. Oil paints cure faster in strong sunlight and very slowly in the dark.
THE DEAD LAYER – CLOSED GRISAILLE
This closed grisaille is where I introduce light values to my painting, I reinforce the shadows and include a greater rage of gradients. I am using a limited palette at this stage consisting of, raw umber, a little ultramarine blue and Cremnitz white. These colours when mixed create cooler neutralising greys, this counters the warmth of the previous layers. I have not completely covered the painting in this instance with grisaille as I want to retain the strong warmth from below.
The resulting monochrome image is the underpainting that forms the backbone for the subsequent colour layers to build upon.
The medium I use at this stage is a mix of 1:1 distilled turpentine and linseed oil the same as the previous open grisaille layer.
Note: The open and closed grisaille layers can be combined and painted together in one sitting to save time.
THE FIRST COLOUR APLICATION
I am cautious as I approach the initial colour application. It is very easy to over saturate and loose the painting with dense pigments. Therefore, the paint needs to be applied in very thin semi-opaque layers. To help aid this I wipe the surface with a very light layer of linseed oil and carefully remove any excess. subsequently, small amount of paint will glide smoothly over the surface whilst still allowing the picture underneath to show through. The linseed will also help the colours bond to the very lean layers below.
As a medium I will occasionally add a little linseed to the paint if it possesses a particularly heavy body or is especially lean, although I try to avoid this if at all possible.
Note: The colours choices at this stage should be faster drying and leaner. As a rule of thumb, those paints with high oil content will be the slower, although there are a few exceptions.
FURTHER COLOUR APLICATIONS
As the painting progresses, I incorporate a wider colour pallet creating successive layers of pigment over the established tones. This begins to build depth within the picture through each successive layer, with slightly transparent paint reflecting and refract through the oil that binds them.
Depending on the environment and the pigments applied, each layer may take a number of days to dry. The process is lengthy and requires patience.
It is important to avoid the very slow drying paints with high oil content in these middling layers, which could take many weeks or even months to dry.
At this stage I use a painting medium of turpentine and stand oil (Michael Harding), using it sparingly where the paint needs to be thinned.
Note: On occasion lean layers below can draw the oil from the surface. If a patch on the painting appears a little dull or dry, I will use a small drop of medium rubbed into the surface, to oil out the area before painting the subsequent layer
Note: It is critical to make sure the paint below is dry before commencing a new layer. Failure to do so can lead to the paint beneath lifting when the new paint is applied.
Reaching the upper layers, I switch to transparent oil rich glazes to develop a luminous cross coated surface. These glazes are numerous and enhance the intensity of colour and depth within the painting. Edges are softened and the figure solidified with shadow and highlight bringing it to the fore. The affect is subtle but the gazes are fundamental to creating a refined finish.
The transparent pigments used for glazing are relatively slow drying and applying multiple layers can prove problematic and time consuming. However, it is worth the perseverance as each subsequent layer increases the radiance that is only achievable through oil mediums. Unfortunately, it is not possible to show this unique optical affect through a photograph.
At this stage I use moderate amounts of painting medium (Michael Harding) to thin the paint and create featherlight glazes.
Note: Beading can sometimes occur when applying a glaze to a dry glossy area. If this happens the surface tension on the gloss film need to be broken for adherence. This can be achieved by wiping the surface with an odourless Mineral Spirit before painting.
Note: Turpentine may be used as an alternative to mineral spirit. Nonetheless, it should be used with caution as this is a stronger solvent and can easily remove the existing glaze altogether.
FINAL DETAILING & VARNISHING
The finishing stage of the painting involves balancing the shadows and highlights through a final pass of soft glazing. Details are touched up and edges defined and reinforced. Once this is completed it may take several weeks for the painting to dry sufficiently before the varnish can be applied. The thickest layer of paint should be firm to the touch.
I use Gamvar Varnish which offers excellent protection and is non yellowing. This is a synthetic conservation varnish that can easily be removed with a gentle solvent if need at a later date. It is also breathable which allows the painting to continue drying underneath. I wipe the surface with an odourless Mineral Spirit to prevent the varnish beading on the picture’s glossy surface. It is now time to apply a thin coat of varnish across the surface and once dry, apply a second if needed. The varnish not only protects the work but evens the gloss surface.
With the painting finished and the varnish dry, the portrait is ready to be framed.
Note: Soft sable fan bushes or mops are excellent for Blending and softening the edges of the paint and glazes. Once the paint has been applied take a clean dry brush and lightly stroke out from the edges for a seamless blend.
Note: If employing a traditional final varnish, which I would not recommend due to discolouring, the painting has to be completely dry before application. This may take up to six months!