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Guide To "The Most Important Oil Painting Techniques"

Updated: Mar 20

Traditional oil painting techniques often begin with the artist sketching the subject onto the canvas with charcoal or thinned paint.

In this article we will discuss the most important oil painting techniques:


Oil paint is usually mixed with linseed oil, artist-grade mineral spirits, or other solvents to make the paint thinner, faster, or slower drying. Oil painting is a dispersion of small, colored, insoluble particles (pigments) in a liquid medium composed of:

Solvents, the artist's first choice is turpentine, it increases the fluidity of oil paints but makes the binder oil dry faster, while using clove oil as a solvent delays the dryness of the binder, as it delays the oxidation process.

Turpentine vapors are also intolerable to some artists, clove oil is much more acceptable.

Binder, the main choice is Linseed oil, it dries to form a strong flexible film, it tends to be yellowish than Safflower oil film (takes more time to dry).

Artists would mix oil pigments with both Binder (linseed oil) and Solvent(turpentine) to create the desired consistency and finish.

Oil pigments straight out of the tube can be challenging to use due to aggregations and thick consistency.

When mixing oil paints, the artist needs to break the aggregated pigments into fine particles and disperse them into the oil medium of choice, which means it would be a thin film of oil around every pigment particle, then the artist adjusts the consistency of the paint.

Mixing oil paints is done using a palette knife, which is a painting tool that consists of a blade and a handle.

The palette knife is made of a solid piece of plastic while the higher quality palette knives are typically made of metal (stainless steel) and a wooden handle.

Layering..."Fat Over Lean"

The "fat over lean" rule is key, the primary layer is to be leaner in terms of oil than the successive layer above.

Fat over Lean refers to the oil painting principle that applying paint with a higher ratio of oil to color pigments over paint with a lower ratio of oil to color pigments can ensure a more flexible paint film that will not crack later.


Understanding Scumbling

Scumbling is a painting technique characterized by the application of a thin, opaque layer of paint over a dry, partially dry, or already-painted surface. Unlike glazing, which involves transparent layers, scumbling employs opaque pigments to create soft, muted effects. The term "scumble" originates from the Dutch word "schimmen," meaning to soften or blend.

Historical Roots

The roots of scumbling can be traced back to the Renaissance era when artists such as Rembrandt and Titian utilized this technique to imbue their works with a sense of depth and luminosity. However, it gained prominence during the 19th century with the rise of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, who employed scumbling to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere in their landscapes.


Mastering the scumbling technique requires a delicate balance of paint consistency, brushwork, and layering. Here's a step-by-step guide to executing this technique effectively:

1. Prepare the Surface: Begin by ensuring that your painting surface is dry and free from any dust or debris.

2. Choose the Right Brushes: Select soft, bristle brushes or fan brushes that allow for smooth blending and softening of edges.

3. Mix Your Paint: Create a thin, opaque mixture of paint by diluting it with a medium such as linseed oil or solvent. The consistency should be creamy but not too watery.

4. Apply the Paint: Using a gentle, sweeping motion, apply the scumbled layer of paint over the desired areas of your painting. Avoid overworking the paint to maintain a soft, diffused effect.

5. Blend and Soften: Once the paint is applied, use a clean, dry brush to gently blend and soften the edges, creating seamless transitions between colors and values.

6. Build Layers: Repeat the process of scumbling and blending to gradually build up depth and texture in your painting. Experiment with different colors and opacities to achieve the desired effects.


Scumbling can be used in various ways to enhance different aspects of a painting:

1. Creating Atmospheric Effects: By layering translucent scumbled layers over darker areas, artists can create the illusion of depth and atmosphere, particularly in landscapes and portraits.

2. Adding Texture: Scumbling can also be used to add texture and dimension to surfaces such as foliage, fabric, or skin, creating a tactile and lifelike appearance.

3. Adjusting Color and Value: Artists can use scumbling to adjust the color temperature or value of a painting, subtly altering the mood and tone of the composition.

Scumbling is a classic technique used by many painters of the past, Scumbling adds additional technique to your painting arsenal.


Glazing is the art of applying a thin layer of translucent pigment over the primary paint layer.

Traditionally, glazing was mainly useful to reduce the amount of expensive translucent pigments, thanks to glazing, artists only need a thin layer of translucent pigments to obtain the required color.

Generally, painters glaze a painting to create a kind of glow. That’s where science comes in. The painter first paints the subject in grisaille (greyscale) with all shapes defined using shading and highlights, Once the primary grisaille is dry, the process of glazing starts, applying a thin layer of translucent pigment over the grisaille layer.

The Glazing process allows the artist to separate the color from modeling the form by shades and highlights.

The primary layer has to be completely dry before applying the translucent pigment, the time required for oil paints to dry is related to many factors mainly, the temperature degree of the studio the artwork is stored in, and the type of paint and oils used.

For glazing, “dry to the touch” is sufficient, the underlying opaque color will lift and the glaze will no longer be translucent if the underlying opaque paints are not dry enough.

Glazing with multiple layers of transparent color is required for best results, of course, the process of glazing is time-consuming since each layer must be dry before applying the next.

In Glazing The "fat over lean" rule is key, the primary layer is to be leaner in terms of oil than the successive layer above.

Fat over Lean refers to the oil painting principle that applying paint with a higher ratio of oil to color pigments over paint with a lower ratio of oil to color pigments can ensure a more flexible paint film that will not crack later.

Thin paint mainly with turpentine for the primary grisaille layer. but such a lean mixture cannot be used to glaze. Layers applied after the primary monotone layer (grisaille) must be oily.

In case the fumes of turpentine are intolerable, you still have the choice of diluting the grisaille layer with clove oil (notice, clove oil delays the dryness of oil paints).

To thin pigment for glazing layers, the artist increases the percentage of the oil in the paint diluent. This can be linseed (tend to be more yellowish), poppy, walnut, or safflower oil (transparent oil that takes more time to dry).


Impasto is a technique used in painting, where paint is laid thickly on an area of the canvas, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible.

Paint can also be mixed right on the canvas. When dry, impasto provides texture; the paint appears to be coming out of the canvas.

The impasto technique serves several purposes:

  1. The Impasto technique makes the light reflect in a particular way, giving the artist additional control over the play of light in the painting.

  2. The Impasto technique can add expressiveness to the painting, with the viewer being able to notice the strength and speed by which the artist applied the paint.

  3. The Impasto technique can push a piece from a painting to a three-dimensional sculptural rendering.

The Impasto Technique was originally sought by masters such as Rembrandt, Titian, and Vermeer, to represent folds in clothes or jewels. The French Impressionists created pieces covering entire canvases with rich impasto textures.

Vincent van Gogh used the Impasto technique frequently for aesthetics and expression.

Abstract expressionists such as Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning also made extensive use of the Impasto technique, motivated in part by a desire to create paintings that dramatically record the action of the painting itself.

Still, more recently, Frank Auerbach has used such heavy impasto that some of his paintings become nearly three-dimensional.

Impasto medium is a thickening agent that is added to the oil painting media (linseed oil and turpentine) to increase the thickness of the oil paints, to create remarkable raised brushstrokes on the canvas.

The traditional impasto medium is made with beeswax. It will thicken and stiffen oil paint to retain brush and painting knife marks.

Impasto Medium consists of finely ground calcite "transparent Iceland spar, formerly called Iceland crystal and also called optical calcite, which is a transparent variety of calcite, or crystallized calcium carbonate, originally brought from Iceland" in bodied linseed oil.

Use impasto medium to extend paint and alter its consistency, making oil colors’ long’ for finer detail and impastos.

This flowing paste makes colors slightly transparent while allowing you to build impasto thick paint applications. Impasto Medium does not alter the color temperature of oil paint. It also does not affect the drying time significantly. You can thin it with solvents or oils.

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