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The Pros and Cons of Direct and Indirect Painting Techniques

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

What Does Direct Painting Mean?

Direct and indirect painting are two different approaches to creating a painting, each with a unique intention. The direct method involves painting an opaque layer of color directly onto the canvas, with the goal of copying what you see as closely as possible. If you see it, you paint it, and then you leave it.

John Singer Sargent painting of a woman sitting on a couch with many visible brushstrokes all around

John Singer Sargent's work is a prime example of direct painting techniques. In this painting, every brushstroke is deliberately placed and clearly visible, allowing us to follow his thought process and technique in a very literal sense. Nothing is left to mystery.

What Does Indirect Painting Mean?

On the other hand, the indirect approach involves building up transparent layers of color to create a sense of depth and luminosity in the painting. This is often achieved through techniques like glazing, scumbling, and extreme layering.

Self portrait painting by Odd Nerdrum of a man with his mouth open. There are many scratching marks and lots of transparency that make it difficult to tell what painting techniques are used

Self Portrait With Closed Eyes By Odd Nerdrum - This self portrait demonstrates the beauty of indirect painting. The techniques used are not immediately apparent and can only be speculated at, and it features very little opaque paint. Rather, the layers have been built on top of each other to create a blending that is both luminous and mysterious, creating a more captivating and ethereal finish.

Is Direct or Indirect Painting Better?

While both direct and indirect methods can produce great results, the indirect approach can give paintings a particularly luminous quality that is often associated with the greatest of classical painting techniques. To really achieve the best results possible, you should utilize both direct and indirect painting methods in your work.

Rembrandt painting of an old man that shows many painting techniques used

Return of the Prodigal Son By Rembrandt (Closeup) - Rembrandt is a prime example of a painter, who in his later days, used a variety of techniques to achieve a final result. The techniques are usually mysterious and involve a great amount of layering and transparency combined with impasto and texture to create the ultimate luminosity.

Direct and Indirect Painting Techniques

How Do You Paint Directly?

Direct painting is a method which is especially appreciated among beginner painters as it involves capturing what can be seen in a precise and immediate way. This technique is a great way to hone your skills and quickly achieve realistic results.

The key feature of direct painting is the use of opaque paint to create immediate results. Once a stroke of paint is applied, it generally stays that way unless additional opaque layers are added on top. While there are many techniques that can be used to achieve this effect, the key is to keep the paint opaque. To paint like this, it's important to mix a palette that accurately matches the colors and tones of the subject you're trying to depict so that you can apply them directly to the canvas. Avoid blending using your brush and try to paint with extreme immediacy.

Rembrandt portrait painting of a man laughing with many visible brushstrokes

The Laughing Man By Rembrandt - This clearly converts the direct painting method. Notice the subtle variations between the skin colors. Many variations would have likely been mixed on the palette progressively throughout the process, whether by palette knife or brush.

Why Paint Directly In Oil Painting?

Direct painting is a great technique to use when you want to create an immediate and perhaps expressive response to a subject. Not only is it a fast and efficient way to work, but it also allows you to capture the essence of a scene in a spontaneous manner.

Another advantage of direct painting is that it can result in a very lively and dynamic image, with a strong sense of energy and movement. This is because the painter is working quickly and without the pressure of trying to achieve a highly finished or polished result. For beginners this can be particularly advantageous as they often overwork their paintings.

Direct painting can also be a good way to build your skills and confidence as a painter. By working in a direct and immediate way, you are forced to trust your instincts and make bold decisions. This can be a valuable learning experience, especially for those who are new to painting or those trying to break out of old habits. If you find that you frequently focus too much on the details of a painting while missing the big picture, or over-blend until your work becomes flat, then this might be a good technique for you to practice.

Overall, direct painting is a great technique to have in your toolbox as a painter. It offers many benefits, including speed, energy, and spontaneity. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced painter, there is always something new to learn, and direct painting can be a great way to improve your hand eye coordination, precision, and confidence.

How Do You Paint Indirectly?

Indirect painting is a method that involves building up the painting in transparent layers, ultimately leading to a luminous and vibrant final result. Using many layers is crucial.

Odd Nerdrum painting of a woman lying with her baby and many mysterious marks techniques are used

Stranded By Odd Nerdrum

While some stages of the painting may be done directly, the emphasis is on creating transparent effects that add depth and richness to the painting. To paint indirectly, it's essential to start with a solid underpainting and then gradually build up transparent layers. This can be achieved through techniques like sanding, scraping, glazing, and dry brushing.

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Creating Transparency Is Key

Sanding and scraping are especially effective for creating a sense of transparency as they remove paint in between layers, allowing the underlying layers to shine through. Glazing, on the other hand, can be used to build a solid structure or add a final layer of color. Overall, the key to successful indirect painting is to take the time to build up layers and allow the painting to gradually develop its luminosity and vibrancy.

Old Master Secrets For Transparency Via Nic Thurman on Youtube

Why paint indirectly?

The best paintings are often indirectly painted because of the increased liveliness they offer. The light reflecting off the canvas can create a sense of movement and shimmering glow that can't be achieved with opaque painting techniques. Even though indirect paintings can look opaque in some areas, achieving transparency in the right places is what brings them to life.

Odd Nerdrum painting of a woman chasing a blind woman - many painting techniques are apparent

Sleep Valley By Odd Nerdrum

The key to achieving this transparency is to build up layers that will indirectly impact and show in the final result. Creating these layers requires patience and skill, but the end result is worth it. When the light reflects off the multiple transparent layers, it creates a sense of depth and dimension that can't be achieved with direct painting.

In conclusion, indirect painting can create a sense of liveliness and movement that is impossible to achieve with direct painting. By using transparent layers, you can create a painting that appears to shimmer and come to life when viewed from different angles.

Rembrandt's last self portrait painting - many painting techniques are apparent

Rembrandt's Last Self Portrait - Many indirect techniques like sanding, scraping, and dry brushing are used to create this ultimate effect that shimmers with liveliness.

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