Oil Painting Techniques From the Old Masters


Old masters is a term applied to artists working before 1801. The term is usually used in reference to the work themselves, not the painters, although modern day usage allows for interchange between the two. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo are a few of the most recognized of the old masters. Their techniques are still used by today's painters who capture the mood and spirit of works by the old masters. Here are some of the techniques you can use to give your work a classic feel.

Flemish Technique

  • The Flemish approach to oil painting is the oldest old master technique in oil painting. The most common element of the Flemish technique is the use of a rigid wood panel surface as a canvas. Start by sketching your work on paper to work out any problems that might present during the painting process, then transfer the sketch to the canvas using the grid or tracing method. When the sketch is in place on the canvas, use a transparent underpainting to help balance colors. Paint over the underpainting with transparent glazes for the shadows and dark passages. Middle tones can be opaque, transparent or semi-glazed. With this method, allow each layer to dry before proceeding to the next.

Venetian Method

  • The Venetian method is similar to the Flemish technique in that transparent glazes are used for darks and opaque is used to bring out highlights. The Venetian method uses canvas rather than a rigid surface. While the Venetian technique still incorporates the use of soft bristle brushes, larger coarse brushes are used as well, which produces a wider range of soft and hard edges.


  • Scumbling is a technique that goes back to the earliest days of oil painting. Scumbling involves applying a thin layer of light opaque or semi-opaque paint over a layer of darker, colored paint. Scumbling can be achieved by scraping or dragging the lighter layer of opaque paint over a dark underpainting, which will produce a hazy effect. This technique creates a smoother transition between light and dark.


  • Glazing is a process by which a transparent layer of paint is laid over a dried tempera or oil underpainting. Glazing is typically done on monochrome underpainting, but it can be applied to colored underpainting as well, to help bring out a wider variety of hues. Glazing came about because it allowed old masters to make full use of the limited paint colors available at the time.


  • This is one of the most widely used techniques of the old masters. Underpainting allows the artist to define basic painting outlines and composition as well as tone and mood. The underpainting is done in a set of neutral colors to which successive layers of color are added. Think of underpainting as a tracing of your original painting before the painting exists.

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