Painting Through Thick and Thin

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.
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.
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.

For more interesting and informative articles, please join us on The Artist’s Road. We believe that more artists in the world is a good thing.

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.