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Techniques to Paint a Painting

Updated on February 15, 2013

Painting Pallete



Human creativity knows no bounds and in painting, there are a myriad of mediums and techniques which can be employed to produce beautiful work on a range of subjects. Painting mediums include acrylic paints, water color paints, gouache, ink, oils, tempera and many others.

Oil painting is something which has held a great mystique for centuries, especially among those who do not know anything of the techniques involved. When it comes to working with oils, the thick consistency and slow drying time is a delight for seasoned oil painters, but can be a nightmare for beginners.

There are a variety of traditional techniques which can be employed to make life easier for the painter, as well as to produce the very specific effects in a painting. Some of these techniques are discussed here.

Alla Prima

Alla prima is what is known as the wet on wet technique. The term alla prima is Italian for “at first attempt.” Essentially, you apply layers of wet paint on top of each other. The technique requires experience and the ability and confidence to work very fast. This is because in order to be true alla prima, the painting work must be completed before the work has fully dried.

A number of Baroque early oil painters favored this technique, including Franz Hals and Diego Velazquez. Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet were also prone to exploiting the fluidity of oil paints by employing this versatile technique.

Van Gogh



Impasto is another borrowed Italian word which translates into “dough,” or kneading. In painting, this means that thick layers of oil paint are applied to the canvas so that the finished result retains the texture and feel of the brush or palette knife used to apply the paint.

The technique allows the paint to have a three dimensional effect and depending on how the paint is applied, can seem to be coming out of the canvas.

The point of using this technique is to give specific effects. By layering the paint on thickly in certain areas, the artist can play with light, causing it to reflect on the painting in very specific ways. This can affect the feel and mood of the finished piece in quite distinct ways. It can cause certain areas of the painting to have a sculptural feel, or it can be used across an entire painting.

Artists like Vermeer used this technique to highlight certain parts of a painting and make them stand out next to more delicately painted areas. For example, one could use impasto to make the folds in a piece of cloth stand out next to a delicately painted hand. Van Gogh was known for using this technique across entire paintings. It created a very particular aesthetic.


Underpainting is the process of using a thin mixture of paint and a thinner such as turpentine to block in the initial stages of a painting. The purpose of the underpainting is to serve as the basis for paint which is later applied over the dried underpainting.

They can be monochromatic, but this is not a rule. There is nothing to stop you applying color in an underpainting. When dried, further layers of paint are added. Glazing can be used to optically mix the colors of the underpainting with those of subsequent layers to produce stunning results.

Artists such as Giotto and Titian used underpainting, followed by over painting in this way.


Glazing is the process of mixing oil paint with a glazing medium to make it transparent and applying it in a thin layer over dry paint. The technique allows the artist to play with the hues and values of the painting and can produce a spectacular finish if done correctly. Thin, translucent paint is applied over dried opaque paint of a different color, to produce a color which is optically, rather than physically mixed.

When executed correctly, looking at a painting made in this way can seem like looking through a stained glass window. The translucency and light which the technique brings to a finished piece of work can be quite stunning.

“Girl with a Red Hat” by Vermeer is an excellent example of the stunning effect glazing can produce. Reconstructions of the painting have demonstrated the various stages of glaze on the hat in the piece.


There are numerous techniques for painting and numerous styles of painting. There is no one set way of doing things. Learning various techniques is an excellent foundation which enables you to then go on and develop your own unique style using any combination of traditional techniques.


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