The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Painting in Layers
‘Indirect oil painting’, or painting in layers (with drying in between), was the predominant mode of painting until the late 19th Century. With Modernism, painters began experimenting and adopting new more direct ways of making images. ‘Direct painting’, as it is now called, was adopted by many. This allowed the artist to finish a painting in one session and gave an immediacy to the creative process that was meant to be apparent in the final picture. Many painters today who do not have historical perspective don’t realize or even care that their pictures cannot achieve the charm and depth of older layered paintings. They simply haven’t been taught the techniques to achieve this greater expression. In looking at old museum pictures or even when making my own new ones, I prefer the aesthetic qualities afforded by the older indirect method of painting.
So what are these desirable qualities? And why might painting in this manner be worth the sacrifice of immediate expression? Firstly, the layered approach offers optical possibilities that can only be achieved with multiple layers of paint. Due to linseed oil’s slow drying time this technique requires discreet layers with drying between applications. The beauty of an oil medium is its variable translucency. So it is natural that the early adopters of this improved paint medium in the 15th Century might develop ways to exploit this translucency for greater illusion and more jewellike color. For example, in order to paint a crimson robe an artist would first model the robe in basic reddish colors with white added for highlights and brown or black added for shadows. When fully dry, an oil glaze of pure transparent crimson color would be applied over this to give an intense ‘stained glass’ effect. Painting the robe without these separate stages could not give the same level of chromatic intensity no matter how intense the base color. Another quality of indirect painting that is quite beautiful is that of ‘optical gray’. This is the silvery cool tone that develops when painting a light color – even a warm color – over a dark one. With normal application, colors bound in oil are never fully opaque. The optical interaction of a light color over a dark one produces a cool ‘non-color’ that is quite useful to artists especially when modelling the form in flesh tones. This quality, by the way, is only enhanced as paintings age when the oil film itself becomes more translucent over years.
Painting indirectly also gives the artist a chance to reflect on the composition and make changes in between sessions ideally resulting in a better more thoughtful picture. Alternatively, creating a painting in a single session requires an artist to solve multiple problems in a very limited time. Who needs that pressure! It should be stressed that painting in layers is still painting. It is not a prescribed activity wherein spontaneity cannot occur. Each of its two or more layers gives many opportunities for spontaneity. There is ample opportunity for invention, surprise, and spontaneity in a layered painting without the highwire urgency of completing it all at once. The multiple layers can also give a greater range of pictorial expression if used properly.
Nothing comes without a cost however. Painting indirectly costs time. Paintings can take several days to dry enough to paint over. It’s a good idea to have more than one picture going simultaneously otherwise inspiration could disappear whist waiting.
A layered method requires an artist to understand his or her materials and techniques fully. Alas this knowledge which had been taught for centuries was no longer considered relevant to the art student of the Modernist era and after. Industrialization helped further insulate artists from knowledge of their materials which had been taught for centuries. Thus indirect painting requires more education to be practiced successfully. Thankfully there has been a resurgence of interest and even an atelier ‘movement’ to resurrect these traditions. In our digital age, material information and the ‘secrets’ of a layered approach are no longer considered arcane. The biggest challenge today is that one must still make an effort to learn a more nuanced and elaborate approach to oil painting when simpler direct methods beckon the beginning painter.
Another drawback to this segmented method of painting is expression itself. Direct painting forces the artist to use the very paint as an expressive tool. The action of painting is recorded in the brushstrokes whereas the indirect method requires the artist to segment his or her idea into smaller methodical stages and a more ruminative approach. This results in a very different feel to the final picture. The direct or ‘alla prima’ painting succeeds due to its surface qualities of active paint manipulation or ‘brushwork’ and good use of color. Indirect painting tends to suppress a visceral painterly use of color in favor of modelling, atmosphere, composition, and the aforementioned optical effects. The modern idea of a painter has tended toward that of the direct painter whose apparent lack of artifice aligns with Modernist ideals.
There are aspects of direct painting within indirect painting. One has only to think of the active paint surface of a painting by Rubens for an example of this. Still, I prefer the end result that a layered approach is able to give. Perhaps a murky surface with mysterious sub-rosa modeling and subtle layered color effects is more intriguing to me. Mystery is the key. The same image created with an ‘alla prima’ painting method will not hold my interest in the same way. The entire construction is there to see on the surface. The colors might be perfectly mixed to match that of a similar layered painting and yet the very perfect mix and application of the colors is precisely what leaves me cold; It focuses me on the skill of the artist rather than the illusion of forms in space. I believe the greater artist is the one who doesn’t call attention to him or herself. Of course, there is always an exception. A powerful counter-example to this is that magician, John Singer-Sargent whose direct painting conjures the effects of a fully layered painting in the grand manner but also gives a stunning performance on each canvas with bravura brushwork. I suspect that Sargent fully understood and had in mind the overall effect of traditional layered painting when he created his alla prima masterpieces. And it is also worth noting that he was ruthless with his own work, famous for scraping down unsuccessful hands or faces and starting again. If one is to commit to a method of direct painting like the one Singer-Sargent had learned in Carolus-Duran’s atelier, then one should at least have the decency to edit one’s mistakes!