Indirect Painting Techniques: The Lost Art of Painting in Layers

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In the world of fine art painting techniques have evolved over the years, with some fading into the past and others taking center stage. Indirect painting, is one of these techniques.

A classic technique that was predominantly used from the 15th to 19th century, it has now lost its popularity and given way to direct painting. However, understanding indirect painting is still incredibly relevant and useful for contemporary artists. In this article, we’ll explore indirect painting, how it’s applied, and how you can use this technique in your own work.

What is Indirect Painting?

Indirect painting, also known as the Flemish technique, is a slow and gradual process where you build up layers of paint. The first step involves creating an underpainting or an ebauché. Then, multiple glazes of semi-transparent paint are layered on top of the underpainting, gradually increasing in intensity to create depth and luminosity.

In the painting above by Ingres you can visibly see the layers that exist. Notice the warm imprimatura you can see on the canvas ground by the hairline, and then the more opaque cooler flesh color beneath the hairline.

This technique of painting in layers, allows for a more controlled and subtle approach to painting. With the end result cultivating a unique aesthetic, with a sense of depth and atmosphere.

How Indirect Painting is Applied

Indirect painting involves several stages, starting with an underpainting on top of an imprimatura. When painting indirectly it is best to do an ebauché underpainting. As this allows you to use more color than a monochrome underpainting.

The underpainting provides a foundation for the rest of the painting by establishing values and creating a unified composition that you can build on top of.

As indirect painting is all about painting in layers. It is important how you start your painting and build your foundation layer. Here we have an ebauché underpainting. This initial layer allows us to work on top of it and build the subsequent rest of the painting.

Glazing and Scumbling Techniques

Once the underpainting dries, you enter into a stage where you will continually be alternating between scumbling and glazing. In short, scumbling is applying opaque paint across your painting. While glazing is putting a thin transparent layer of warm color across your piece. Typically glazing warms a painting while scumbling cools it down.

Glazing is an important part of the indirect painting process. Notice how the painting on the left is before the glazing process, while the painting on the right is after. The portrait is much warmer in temperature after the glazing process.

When painting in layers, you will create multiple layers with each alternating between scumbling and glazing. Titian is known to have boasted that his paintings were made of 30 – 40 layers of glazes and scumbles.

Scumbling involves painting an opaque layer of painting over an area. The paint typically is cooler in temperature and also allows you to lighten areas.

When painting in layers, each layer is applied after the previous one has dried, this prevents mixing of colors and creates a luminous quality. Unlike direct painting (or alla prima painting), which allows for spontaneous brushwork, indirect painting requires a more methodical approach, with each layer carefully selected and painted.

Glazing involves painting over an area of your work with semi transparent color. Here, some yellow ochre is mixed with linseed oil and then a thin veil of warm color is painted over the entire portrait. You typically want to use a warm color such as burnt umber, yellow ochre. As glazing warms a painting while scumbling cools a painting.

You could spend weeks or longer on an indirect, layered piece. While an alla prima painting (direct painting) is done in one sitting (around 2 – 3 hours or less).

Utilizing Indirect Painting in Your Own Work


Although indirect painting is not used today like it was by the old masters, it is worth your time to learn and apply to your own painting. The more you understand about different methods and ways of painting, the broader the possibilities become for your work.

Here you can see layered painting happening in a landscape painting. You can apply indirect painting to every kind of painting.

Though it is very important to first understand direct painting very well. Indirect painting is more complex and you will be able to put your best foot forward if you have a strong grasp on working in an alla prima manner. Even if you prefer direct painting methods, understanding indirect painting can be helpful in creating more nuanced and layered work.

Starting your layered painting with an underpainting

To start incorporating indirect painting into your own work, start with a ebauché underpainting and slowly build up the painting with scumbling and semi-transparent glazes. Take your time and let each layer fully dry before applying the next.

Here is an example of a monochrome underpainting of a landscape painting. Indirect painting is just as relevant with landscape painting as it is with portrait painting. You can use ebauché underpainting methods or work in monochrome.

Also, do a master copy of another artist while working in an indirect manner. It is also helpful to research unfinished paintings of old masters so that you can see what the different stages look like in the indirect painting process. After you understand how it works, you can start to incorporate the techniques into your own work.

Here is an example of an unfinished work by Ingres. Zooming in on it and looking more closely allows you to observe the techniques Ingres used to build the layers in his paintings. It is good to seek out a variety of paintings that show paintings at various different stages in the process.

Indirect Painting (in Layers) in Conclusion

Despite the rise and fall of different techniques over the centuries, indirect painting remains a constant that is still relevant today. By understanding this method of painting in layers you can add depth, luminosity, and complexity to your work.

Though this technique may not be as widely practiced as direct painting, it is a valuable skill to have in your painting arsenal! Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced painter, exploring indirect painting techniques can open new doors and possibilities in your work.

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    8 thoughts on “Indirect Painting Techniques: The Lost Art of Painting in Layers”

    1. Thank you kindly for sharing your art knowledge with me. You are such a great blessing to me.
      Thanks again.
      Kind regards
      Benji

    2. Hi Elisabeth.
      Excellent, excellent, for me anyway; I can’t complete my paintings in one session so this will be very useful for me. As a low paid pensioner; I don’t have money to splash around, I for one am very grateful to you for all your free teaching posts. Please keep it going, I enjoy them all.

      My many thanks and kind regards.
      Mike D

    3. Thank you so much for bringing this technique to our attention again Elizabeth. I prefer to work in layers, but hardly find any communication, tutorials or motivation about this technique nowadays. I really appreciate the amount of very valuable information you give us without any financial gain. In todays’ world, that is certainly praiseworthy. From the most southern point of Africa, Cape Town, my heartfeldt thanks.

    4. I love your articles. That’s why I’m making this request. Can you have your advertising stop covering up your articles and illustrations. It’s distracting, and irritating.

      1. Thank you Eric – am glad that you enjoy my articles! Unfortunately at this time it is necessary to have advertisements as it is the only way to be able to make this information available for free. It is essential to earn a living to be able to create this material. All of my courses and paid material do not contain any advertisements however.

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