There is an enormous amount of information out there on the various methods for applying oil paint to canvas, but it seems to boil down to three schools of thought: thin painting, thick painting, or a combination of the two. The Thins, Thicks and Combiners each have their own icons and avid school of followers.
Analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa revealed that it was slowly painted with transparent glazes, layer by layer over many months. This glazing technique, or “sfumato” (Italian for smoke) is what gives the painting its depth, realism, and glow. Leonardo was searching for a way to create a new kind of realism in paint, but he was constrained by the primitive paint materials of his time. His solution was to take a well-known painting technique – glazing – and push it into a new form of expression.
|The Sulphur Match by Sargent, oil painting.|
Combiners, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer sought to add more texture and light reflectivity to clothing or jewelry in their thinly painted figurative work. Their experiments led to the realization that, by adding thicker, three dimensional paint strokes to a two-dimensional surface, they could create astounding realistic effects and play with the way light reflected off their paintings. They also discovered that passages of their initial thin underpainting could be left showing next to thicker, overpainted areas creating the illusion of translucency, especially in skin tones. Close inspection breaks the illusion down into patches of thin and thick, but at the proper viewing distance, the effect creates a sensation of realism.
Diego Velasquez established himself as a master with the brush using a thicker, bolder style of direct oil painting. If there was a transparent or translucent object or passage in the painting, it was painted to look that way from the start with opaque paint.
Centuries later, Carolus-Duran (who studied the work of Velasquez) furthered the direct painting method. By dispensing with the laborious translucent under-painting in favor of the application of solid, thick strokes of color, one next to the other, right over the charcoal sketch, he developed a rapid method of painting the figure. This method he passed on to his star pupil, John Singer Sargent.
Sargent was an avid believer in laying on copious amounts of paint, matching the subject tone for tone, plane for plane. “If you see a thing transparent, paint it transparent. Don’t get the effect by a thin stain showing the canvas through. That’s a mere trick.” – Sargent
|Nocturne in Blue and Gold by Whistler, oil painting.|
Interestingly, two other well-known contemporaries of Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and George Inness, were pursuing just the opposite direction by using paints in ever thinner applications. Whistler wrote, “Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.”
Clearly there is no right or wrong way to learn how to paint. Today we are free to absorb the lessons of the past and devote our energies to finding and expressing our unique voices as artists.
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–John and Ann