In this tutorial, you’ll find practical guides on how to paint like the Old Masters. Note that this technique is just an experimentation of what I found during trial and errors and research. Although we know that artists from the past had their own different methods, these steps are essential to the process.
This is where you construct and brainstorm your composition. Although you can make changes to your composition along the way, it’s a good idea to finalize your picture at this stage. Not only because it’s easier to erase and revise a drawing, but because it also makes the painting process seamless when you have a solid drawing. Just make sure you are happy with everything (composition, poses, value, lighting, anatomy, etc.) before you start painting.
Tips: Sometimes our excitement towards our latest artwork fools us and stops us from seeing mistakes and errors in our composition. I always turn my drawing upside down and sideways to take a fresh look. You can also put the drawing aside for a few days without looking at it. You’ll be surprised that you might not be happy with it anymore. I think this is a good thing, because you’re going to fix any errors and make it better!
Once you’re satisfied with the drawing, you can now transfer it to a canvas or any other painting surface you prefer. There are different ways to transfer a drawing, but I just use the most popular method the Old Masters used, the “grid method”.
The grid method simply involves drawing a grid over your drawing, then drawing the exact (but scaled to be bigger) grid on your canvas. With this, you can now copy the drawing from the small version. With the guidance of the grid, transferring should be precise. The more squares on the grid, the more accurate it can be. However, you may want to rely on your drawing skills a little, rather than just putting more lines on your grid.
Saint Veronica (Drawing) by Nathanael Regalado
Now that the boring part is done, it’s time to use paint and put that pencil down. Imprimatura is a term that means “initial stain”, in other words, the toned ground. There are few purposes this step was used for by artists back then. The first is to get rid of the white colour of gesso as a base and have a toned background instead. Usually an earth colour that is not too bright but not too dark either. This prevents you from going too bright or too dark when painting. Here’s an example of Imprimatura stage:
Mars and Venus (Imprimatura) by Nathanael Regalado
Imprimatura layers can vary. You can have just one value (just plain and with no shades) or you can block the different values at this stage (light and dark areas) just like in the example above. Also, imprimatura helps to unify the whole colour scheme of your painting. In addition, it initially sets the mood of the painting, so choose your tone carefully.
The big difference between traditional and modern painting lies in this stage.
This is the part I got confused about when experimenting with classical painting methods. I’m always fascinated by the way artists back then painted human flesh. I learned about the use of Verdaccio or Dead Layer technique to render skin tone. In this technique, you basically render the skin tone first, using a cold monochromatic colour. When dried, you then apply the warmer flesh tones. The effect is that it gives a more realistic skin tone to your painting if executed properly.
I did used to believe that most Old Masters used this technique to paint flesh. I thought that this was the reason why classical paintings look so different to contemporary paintings. This technique is not entirely the trick for their realistic flesh painting.
I often went on visits to art museums for this reason, but it’s impossible to see the layers underneath their finished paintings with our naked eye. Luckily, some Old Masters left some unfinished paintings for us to learn from, and most of them didn’t have these dead layers.
I believe the trick still lies in the use of the traditional multi-layer process even without the use of dead layers. For us to better understand their techniques, we should realize the great difference between traditional and modern painting.
If you have seen a Rembrandt’s painting in real life, you will know that it looks different in person to if you view it on a picture or monitor – it looks freaking 3D! This is because of their rigorous multi-layer painting. It’s a process of rendering the forms with several layers of transparent glazes, put on top of each other after they are dried. This way, the light will travel through these layers and reflect back from the canvas to produce a “glowing” effect. Ultimately, this is also the reason for the deep shadows we see in Old Masters’ paintings.
Traditional Multi-layer painting method
Direct painting, however, is typical to Modern painting. It’s a way of painting or mixing whatever colours you need directly on your palette and laying the exact colour on the canvas. It can be executed in a few layers or in one layer. Alla Prima is good example of direct painting. Having the forms rendered in a single layer and more opaquely, the surface that light will reflected on is more flat. So even if the painting has the perfect form of rendering, it will still look two-dimensional.
Direct painting method
Glazing and Colors
In traditional painting, different colours were achieved by using more than one layer of color. The underlying colour usually affects the transparent colour on top, or vice versa, meaning you’re actually seeing the colours underneath too and creating an optical illusion that they are one colour. As described in the previous illustration, glazes not only give the painting a glow effect, but they also give a unique characteristic to the color. If you think of our skin, for example, it is usually translucent. The Old Masters produced a realistic skin tone by imitating that same level transparency. They layered their color, from the greenish tone of our veins, to the warmer tone of our skin.
The Illustration shows a transparent blue layer put on top of a red layer to produce a purplish tone.
A lot of contemporary artists tried to copy the Old Masters’ paintings, without having any understanding of multi-layer painting, and executed these copies using direct painting. You can’t just reproduce the colours in multi-layered painting by mixing the colours directly on your palette.
In conclusion, traditional painting method is a play of transparency and opacity. When rendering an object or figure, you should keep in mind how light will affect your painting and use it to achieve realism. Apart from the relationship of light and forms, colors should be treated according to the actual object you’re trying to paint. Of course, every artists from the past had their own technique. However, by understanding these basic traditional principles, we can get an idea of how different the art of painting back then.