Monday Morning Art School: take a walk on the wild side

We’re products of our times, which are shifting rapidly. Why not cross the direct-indirect painting line and see if the other side speaks to you?

Bluebird and Cottonwoods, 1917, Charles E. Burchfield, is a direct water-media painting. Done with watercolor, gouache and graphite on joined paper mounted on board. Courtesy Burchfield-Penney Art Museum.

There is nothing inherently wrong with indirect painting; it’s how I initially learned. Indirect painting is useful in portraiture, still-life, or the big tableaux of Peter Paul Rubens. It’s less useful in plein air because it’s so slow. Moreover, the same dark shadows that are mesmerizing in Rembrandt’s self-portraits can be stultifying in landscape.

In every medium, the major division in technique is between direct and indirect painting, although that line is porous. Modern alla prima oil painters still lay out their paintings as a grisaille; we work thin in the underpainting, reserving thicker paint for the top layers. Except in plein air, few of us are fast enough to finish a painting entirely wet-on-wet. We sometimes glaze to correct color or deepen shadows. Conversely, masters of the Renaissance like Jan van Eyck  Rogier van der Weyden and Rembrandt used wet-on-wet passages in their paintings. Frans Hals worked almost entirely alla prima.

Study of clouds above a wide landscape, 1830, John Constable, is an example of a transparent watercolor. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.

In direct painting, the artist attempts to hit the proper color (hue, saturation and value) on the first stroke. We sometimes call this alla prima or au premier coup. Regardless of the name, the goal is minimal modification and correction, leading to fresh, open brushwork. That’s true in oils, watercolor and acrylics.

Direct painting is largely the legacy of the 19th century, facilitated by a dizzying array of factors including paint tubes, railroads, modern chemistry, and the mindset of the Impressionists. Modern chemistry also brought us alkyd and acrylic paints. These are tailor-made for indirect painting, but the technique still sits on the sidelines. That’s largely because of our collective temperament.

Indirect painting is done with multiple thin layers of paint. Each subsequent layer is intended to modulate, rather than cover, what’s below. These layers usually dry between coats, but not always; you can achieve remarkable effects by painting into wet transparent passages with opaque paint. But in general, indirect oil painters start with a dark transparent layer, followed by a middle layer of opaque color. These are allowed to dry and the final modulation of color is done by glazing thin layers of color on top. At the very end, the artist will add highlights and opaque or semi-opaque scumbling in some passages. The contrast between opacity and transparency can be very beautiful.

Self portrait, 1659, Rembrandt, courtesy National Gallery of Art, is an example of indirect oil painting.

In watercolor, the order of operations is somewhat reversed: traditionally, watercolor starts with light glazes and then adds darks at the end. But watercolor need not be applied in a series of discreet glazes any more than oils must be.

Glazing, however, allows the artist to work thin, slowly, and thoughtfully. Indirect painting allows for meticulous detail that can never be achieved in direct painting.

Self-Portrait with Two Circles (detail), c.1665–1669, Rembrandt, courtesy Kenwood House. This shows the scumbling, impasto, and opaque painting that the best indirect painters used on their top layers.

A glaze is just a thin, transparent layer of paint. It gets thinned with medium (oil) in oil painting, with water in watercolors, and with a combination of water and medium in acrylics. It’s hardly worth taking a class to learn to do it, although I can certainly show you. Here are the general rules:

  1. The fat-over-lean rule is imperative in solid media. Scale up the amount of medium in each successive layer, and keep it as lean as you can;
  2. Glazing works best with transparent pigments;
  3. If you must glaze with white, use zinc white instead of titanium (and it’s the only application for zinc white in oil painting);
  4. Glazing over impasto gives you a very irregular finish. Unless that’s your goal, avoid it.

In good glazing, light is able to bounce back from whatever is below the surface—the substrate or opaque layer in oils and acrylics, or the paper in watercolor. That’s why opaque pigments—especially titanium white—don’t work well. What remains visible at the end is a combination of all the layers. The colors in all layers appear to mix, although they are, in fact, physically separate.

Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, George Bellows, courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art, shows the immediacy and power of direct painting.

Mainstream oil painters have been painting directly for nearly 150 years. Mainstream watercolor painters, on the other hand, sometimes seem stuck in a sea of indirect glazes. We’re in a rapidly-shifting period in history. Why not experiment with the other side and see if it speaks to you?

Monday Morning Art School: mastering value

The essence of alla prima painting is to nail the color on the first pass.

The top of this canvas is a simple grisaille; the bottom is a single layer of paint applied right over that. This is the gist of alla prima painting. 

You cannot overstate the importance of valuein painting. Even when artists represent value with hue(a technique pioneered by the Impressionists) the dark shapes in a painting have a form. That form drives our perception and guides us through the painting. There are various ways to get this right, but the most common is a quick value sketch. I ask watercolor students to then make a value study in paint before they start their finished project. I have oil and acrylic students do their paint study in the form of a rough grisaille on their canvases. It has to be thin, and it has to be worked fairly dry, or you can’t paint over it.

Where early oil painters sometimes trip up is in making that bottom layer too dark, thick, or soupy. Then, they hope they can somehow lighten it up by adding white back in. Indirect painting works almost like this, so they may have seen something similar on a video. In indirect painting, the artist works into this dark layer; in modern direct painting, or alla prima, it’s there as a roadmap, so it’s applied more lightly.

Close-value mixing is the heart of painting, and the hardest mixing to do.

Direct painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. When people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them.

All color is relative, and that’s particularly true when it comes to value. Above see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other. This is why oil painters should tone canvases, by the way.

I made the oil-painting sample at the top of this page for my students. The top is the value study; the bottom is a finished painting. I keep it around to demonstrate that when we say “darks to lights” we don’t mean a thick mask of dark paint; we mean that we think through our values in that order. (In watercolor, we do the same thing, but the application is reversed to go from light to dark.)

Copy and print me.

To mix paint accurately you must become absolutely conversant with the colors on your own palette. You can download this pigment test chart and print it on watercolor paper (trimmed to size) on your laser printer. Or, just grid off a canvas or paper to match. (Don’t try doing this in watercolor on plain copy paper. It isn’t sized, and your pigment will just sink.)

Use the pigments you usually have on your palette (if there’s more than eleven, we may need to talk).

What is the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube? Compare it to that scale above.


The first step is to identify the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube. For oil painters, this is easy. For watercolorists, it’s a bit of work to figure out what that really darkest point is, because it’s never the same as it appears on your palette. The colors wetted are a better guide, but you’ll need a test paper handy to experiment.
Your finished exercise should look something like this.

When you figure out the darkest natural position of that pigment, paint it in the appropriate position on your scale. Then make lighter steps to match the greyscale strip you’ve printed from the sample above. For watercolorists, that means dilution. For oil and acrylic painters, that means cutting with white.

There are three things to remember:

  1. These judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.  
  2. You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.
  3. All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar.