Indirect Painting

Hello all,

I wanted to post the work of one of my students who is developing her “dead color” layer for a portrait. This is her first oil painting ever! We worked for several sessions on the drawing using the sight-size method. Then we transferred the drawing to a pre-toned wood panel using the cartoon method. Now she is really starting to develop her sculptural form with carefully mixed variants of light and shadow. All of this will serve as a foundational layer for which to apply color over. She is doing great considering that this is her very first oil ever!

What works so well with developing a painting this way (especially for a beginner) is the attention which can be devoted to each step. If we take a look at each skill, we can break it down into the following order:

1. Linear Drawing – the ability to develop accurate shapes in line which relate to one another. This allows for one to make important decisions about their relative proportions, as well as emphasize shapes in their compositions before they even touch the paint brush. Artists who are academically trained spend a lot of time drawing. Drawing is a great tool for developing quick studies for paintings, making compositional decisions or it can be done with the intentions of transferring it to the surface in which the painting will be created. Linear drawing is a fundamental skill which anyone can develop. All you need is a sketchbook and a pencil!

2. Value Application – the ability to recognize relative values in order to establish a sense of light and shadow. The description of value as well as value transitions has many purposes. It is the easiest way to recognize form. The transition between the edge of a shadow and the light can describe the surface of a plane. A rounded plane for example will have a gradual transition from light to dark whereas a form where two flat planes come together will display a sharp contrast between the light and dark side without any transition. Value can be used as a compositional tool as well. Value Contrast or Value Emphasis is one way to create a focal point.

3. Color – the ability to observe and apply color in order to enhance the form, atmosphere, mood or composition of a particular subject. Color is perhaps the hardest skill of all to master. Color has so much nuance, boldness, harmony, etc. The way in which an artist uses color can reveal a lot about him or her. In observational painting, the main objective is to be able to recognize a color’s appropriate Value, Hue and Chroma. Once an artist is able to do that successfully, than he or she can make educated choices to enhance various aspects of the painting.

When painting indirectly, it is very helpful to limit the Chroma as seen in the study below. In so doing, this reduces the subject to gray tones, which helps in observing the play of light and shadow. This painting is in the Value Application stage. Colors will be applied next and will continue to enhance the illusion of form. I will post more photos as this painting develops.

If you’d like to learn about techniques like this, please visit and check out my classes.


Portrait study in the “dead color” layer


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