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The Flemish method

Van EyckThere are sev­eral cur­rent paint­ing meth­ods whose prac­ti­tion­ers claim that they are work­ing just like early Flem­ish painters did. In the early 1400’s, Flem­ish and Nether­lan­dish painters (Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, Rogier van der Wey­den, and so on) invented oil paint­ing as it is prac­ticed today. In the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, art his­to­ri­ans spent a lot of time spec­u­lat­ing about how the first oil painters prac­ticed their art. Unfor­tu­nately, they could only look at paint­ings and read old man­u­scripts. As it turns out, look­ing at paint­ings doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the meth­ods by which they were made. And the early oil painters didn’t, so far as we know, write down their valu­able trade secrets for schol­ars hun­dereds of years later to study.

So most of what you will see about “Flem­ish” paint­ing meth­ods, although some­times used by very skilled artists, is basi­cally what some 19th cen­tury Ger­man aca­d­e­mics erro­neously thought North­ern Euro­pean paint­ing was. There is one school that alter­nates lay­ers of egg-oil emul­sion white with lay­ers of oil glazes in pri­mary col­ors. Another school calls for each paint­ing to be made in seven lay­ers, each of which dries for seven weeks (are we artists or numerologists?).

The rea­son why peo­ple are so fas­ci­nated by early Flem­ish paint­ings is that they are so remark­able. First, although they are very, very old, they are often in much bet­ter shape than oil paint­ings that are hun­dreds of years younger (many early 20th cen­tury paint­ings have dete­ri­o­rated more than paint­ings from the 15th cen­tury). Sec­ond, the paint­ings glow with a sense of vital­ity that is sel­dom seen in more recent paint­ings. They have a qual­ity that is often described as “jewel-like.” This is espe­cially evi­dent if you see them in per­son; it’s easy to pick out the Flem­ish paint­ings from those done in other peri­ods, or those from the same period done in other places. The pre­cise detail and gor­geous col­ors are mar­velous to look at.

The thing is, we now know a lot more about early Flem­ish paint­ing meth­ods than we used to, because mod­ern tech­ni­cal analy­sis pro­vides a lot more infor­ma­tion. So I can, with rea­son­able author­ity, describe actual “Flem­ish” paint­ing meth­ods, which were gen­er­ally much sim­pler than those taught in spe­cial classes where the “Secrets of the Old Mas­ters” are revealed.

The North­ern Euro­pean paint­ings we have are almost entirely done on panel, not because can­vas wasn’t used, but because panel paint­ings are the ones that have lasted. The pan­els were made of local hard­woods such as oak. They are often quite small; the large ones were made with sev­eral planks fas­tened together. The pan­els were planed to a smooth fin­ish and then sea­soned (usu­ally for sev­eral years). They were then coated in hide glue, which is a gelatin that becomes liq­uid when heated. Then an ini­tial prim­ing was applied that con­sisted of warm hide glue mixed with chalk (cal­cium car­bon­ate). This prim­ing was applied in sev­eral lay­ers, allowed to dry, then sanded or scraped smooth. The mod­ern word for a prim­ing layer like this is “gesso,” although tech­ni­cally gesso was the Ital­ian ver­sion, made from hide glue mixed with gyp­sum (cal­cium sul­fate). Mod­ern acrylic primer is often labelled “gesso,” but that’s totally incor­rect. Any­one caught refer­ring to acrylic primer as gesso will be required to stay after school and write “gesso is not made with plas­tic” 1000 times on the chalkboard.

There were very few pig­ments avail­able at the time to make paint with, although that lim­i­ta­tion is not obvi­ous from look­ing at old mas­ter paint­ings. The avail­able col­ors included ultra­ma­rine blue (very expen­sive as it had to be imported from Afghanistan and then labo­ri­ously refined), azu­rite blue (sort of like a cobalt blue), red lake (sim­i­lar to alizarin crim­son), lead tin yel­low (sim­i­lar to Naples yel­low), ver­mil­lion (sim­i­lar to cad­mium red), bone black (sim­i­lar to what is now, incor­rectly, called “ivory” black), flake white, cop­per green (sim­i­lar to virid­ian), and var­i­ous earth col­ors (sim­i­lar to mod­ern ochres, sien­nas, and green earths). Paint was made by hand, usu­ally that morn­ing or the day before, by appren­tices and stu­dio assis­tants. If you haven’t tried oil paint made fresh by hand, it is more fluid than the stuff you get today in tubes.

In the early 15th cen­tury, oil painters prob­a­bly didn’t use sol­vents such as spir­its of tur­pen­tine or oil of spike. This demostrates that it is quite pos­si­ble to apply oil paint with very fine pre­ci­sion with­out hav­ing to thin it down. It’s eas­ier to do this kind of work with hand­made paint than with tube oil colors.

This method involves mul­ti­ple lay­ers that are allowed to dry in between appli­ca­tions. In some cases, lower lay­ers were done in egg tem­pera, switch­ing to oil later on in the sequence. Flesh tones were painted very thinly, in one or two lay­ers. The mod­ern oil paint­ing approach (mostly devel­oped in Flo­rence in the early 16th cen­tury) empha­sizes thin, trans­par­ent darks and thick, opaque lights. By com­par­i­son, early North­ern Euro­pean paint­ing was pri­mar­ily a glaz­ing method in which darks were estab­lished with thick lay­ers of trans­par­ent paint. This allows the darks to have a sense of depth and color that is not pos­si­ble in direct (sin­gle layer) paint­ing. Glaz­ing is typ­i­cally done over a layer of opaque paint of sim­i­lar color; red lake over ver­mil­lion, for exam­ple. Black, since it tends to pro­duce dull mix­tures, is not used except to darken earth col­ors (most artists think that the idea of avoid­ing black was invented by the impres­sion­ists, but no). Instead, darks are cre­ated by thick glazes and by what we would today rec­og­nize as com­ple­men­tary color mix­tures (red lake could be dark­ened with ultra­ma­rine, for example).

Here’s one pos­si­ble recon­struc­tion of the paint­ing sequence:

  1. Make a detailed draw­ing on paper and trans­fer it to a ges­soed panel. Rein­force and elab­o­rate the draw­ing with ink or dark paint. North­ern Euro­pean artists usu­ally made very detailed underdrawings.
  2. The ini­tial layer of paint, called the primuersel, is used to define the dark areas of the paint­ing. The primuersel color is made by mix­ing black with earth tones such as red or yel­low ochre; it is there­fore sim­i­lar to the ver­dac­cio used for flesh tones in the tra­di­tional Ital­ian egg tem­pera method (but with­out a green earth under­paint­ing and not just in flesh tones). This layer was prob­a­bly often done in egg tem­pera or tem­pera grassa. Either way, this layer should be used to define form, edges, shad­ows, and other darks through­out the painting.
  3. Now apply the basic col­ors to each area of the paint­ing, start­ing to work up mod­el­ing of forms with opaque col­ors but avoid­ing fine detail. This stage is called “dead col­or­ing.” As with primuersel, some artists used egg tem­pera or tem­pera grassa for this layer. Flesh tones can be begun with mixed tones using appro­pri­ate brown or pink mix­tures of white, ver­mil­lion, and earth col­ors. In light areas, keep the paint as thin as you can; you want the white of the gesso to show through. X-ray scans show that lead white was often used only to empha­size the bright­est high­lights of flesh tones, with a very thin ton­ing of the gesso used for most light areas of flesh. This approach keeps light areas bright and avoids later yel­low­ing by min­i­miz­ing the amount of oil. In shadow areas, don’t worry so much about paint thick­ness, but keep the sur­face of the paint smooth. In areas that will later be glazed, keep light areas lighter than the intended final effect, since glazes will darken what they cover. When you have taken this stage as far as you can, let the paint dry once again.
  4. If you began the paint­ing in egg tem­pera or tem­pera grassa, you will switch to pure oil paint no later than when dead col­or­ing is com­pleted. Use paints ground in lin­seed oil. When switch­ing from tem­pera to oil paint, you may choose to apply a very thin layer of oil to pre­vent exces­sive absorp­tion by the tem­pera under­lay­ers. From now on, you will let each layer dry thor­oughly before fur­ther paint­ing. If the lay­ers are thin, this will take up to sev­eral days each time, depend­ing on the pig­ments you use and whether the paint con­tains sicca­tives. It may be help­ful to wet sand in between lay­ers as needed to main­tain a sur­face that is thin and smooth.
  5. You will now work each area of the paint­ing toward the intended final fin­ish. Where desired, you can either thin the paint slightly with medium (oil mixed with a var­nish or bal­sam) or put a very thin layer of medium onto the sur­face and paint onto that. Apply fine detail to light areas. Areas of dark or bright col­ors, espe­cially those around the main areas of inter­est, can be glazed. So, for exam­ple, a red robe, after a primuersel of black mixed with red ochre and then ini­tial opaque mod­el­ing with ver­mil­lion and white, could then be glazed with a trans­par­ent red lake, using fin­gers, a rag, or a soft brush to make the glaze very thin over the lights and thicker over the darks. A lit­tle ultra­ma­rine or indigo could be glazed in to neu­tral­ize and rein­force the darker shad­ows. Mul­ti­ple glazes can be applied (allow the paint to dry and wet sand in between lay­ers) until a clear sense of three-dimensional depth has been achieved, gen­er­ally with inky darks, intense mid­tones, and bright lights. This process can be very time con­sum­ing, espe­cially if you are not using sicca­tives, but it pro­duces a strik­ing effect that is imme­di­ately notice­able when com­par­ing Flem­ish oil paint­ings to other work of the period.
  6. The final stages would be used pri­mar­ily for detail work and to apply thin scum­bles of opaque color mixed with white where needed over lighter areas of glazed color. Again, sand between coats. It is pos­si­ble that some fine details were applied with egg tem­pera, worked into wet oil paint. This devel­op­ment of detail would con­tinue until a very high degree of fin­ish was obtained.

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53 Responses

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  1. Peter Berndt says

    Very nice account of the Flem­ish paint­ing process. Very Inter­est­ing! Peter Berndt

  2. Dorothea von Eckhardt says

    Inter­est­ing, Infor­ma­tive les­son in flem­ish paint­ing. I am an oil painter that may com­bine the two mediums.

  3. Kate Wilson says

    Fas­ci­nat­ing! Thanks for sharing!

  4. TIm Jee says

    Accord­ing to my book on 15th Flem­ish paint­ing in the National Gallery, x ray’s reveal that a lot of the paint­ings didn’t have highly devel­oped under­draw­ings or under­paint­ings. some of the draw­ing under the paint­ing is quite loose and hastily done which only goes to make the process by which the highly fin­ished paint­ing was done, even more baf­fling. These paint­ings are often referred to as being “jewel’ like and used to jus­tify the heavy use of glazes to dupli­cate these paint­ings. Any­body who has seen these paint­ings in the flesh can­not fail but to notice the curi­ous OPACITY in the colours which adds to the sense of for­mal integrity. One can see this opac­ity in the head­ress of Robert Campins “woman”. The method­ol­ogy of the final fine detail­ing is also baf­fling. Try dupli­cat­ing it with just lin­seed oil (as this is often claimed as the sole medium by many cur­rent art con­ser­va­tors) and see how far you get.

  5. David says


    Which book is that?

  6. Greg says

    Its worth look­ing at this chap’s work when talk­ing about the flem­ish style, a Russ­ian who cur­rently sticks to a very struc­tured Flem­ish process, inter­est­ing see­ing the com­par­isons to your write up.


    A free workshop;


  7. David says


    I just can’t get past the whole seven lay­ers, each of which takes seven weeks to dry thing. Artists are not numerol­o­gists; nor were they in the early 15th cen­tury. They were pro­fes­sion­als attempt­ing to deliver a mar­ketable prod­uct in a man­ner that allowed them to earn a liv­ing. There was no room for such silli­ness in their busi­ness model.

    Antonov is not doing any­thing like what mod­ern art mate­ri­als sci­en­tists under­stand early Flem­ish paint­ing to be. He appears to be doing an approx­i­ma­tion of what one school of 19th cen­tury aca­d­e­mics thought early Flem­ish paint­ing was. They were tak­ing their best guess based on very lim­ited infor­ma­tion, but they were wrong.

    That’s not to say there’s any­thing wrong with his paint­ing method, if you like being really anal about the way you paint. The work on his web­site seems kind of nice. But it’s not early Flemish—it’s mod­ern Russian.

  8. Greg says

    The main­stream would prob­a­bly label any time con­sumed in the pur­suit of longevity being anal in this age of cookie cut­ter abstracts so I sup­pose I was assum­ing that the more anal you get the longer the paint­ing lasts. I am per­son­ally try­ing to make a bal­ance between Flem­ish con­ser­va­tion and 19th cen­tury speed of exe­cu­tion. Being inter­ested in cur­rent inter­na­tional and polit­i­cal events, the seven, seven ideal just isn’t cricket. On the sub­ject of con­ser­va­tion, does an exten­sive amount of lay­ers have a strong effect on longevity either way beyond the adher­ence to fat and lean? Can’t seem to stum­ble across any­thing on it.

  9. David says


    Direct paint­ing, in one layer, cre­ates a sim­pler and there­fore more sta­ble paint film than paint­ing in many lay­ers. The more lay­ers added, the greater the risk of one layer fail­ing to adhere reli­ably to the layer beneath it. So fewer lay­ers, at least in the­ory, is likely to pro­duce longer-lasting paintings.

    Here’s a post from this weblog on mak­ing paint­ings last a long time.

  10. Tim Jee says

    @David — Hello David,
    For­got I’d posted the com­ment so sorry for the delay in replaying….(that’s if you get to read this!!!)….the book is “The Fif­teenth Cen­tury Nether­lan­dish paint­ings” by Lorne Camp­bell. It’s pub­lished by National Gallery cat­a­logues (Lon­don). Its a very good book but expen­sive. I haven’t got the time at the moment to go into detail, but the 7 layer method is nonsense…I mean his­tor­i­cally. Com­pare the tightly painted fee­ble paint­ings pro­duced by mod­ern prac­tion­ers of this method with the mas­ters of the flem­ish tra­tidi­ton and you’ll see a world of dif­fer­ence. There are a lot of myths like this about. Rather like the the­ory that Egg Tem­pera paint­ings were all painted over highly com­pleted ink or mono­chrome paint­ings. Once again, mod­ern x ray analy­sis shows that this ( in most cases)simply isnt true. Sorry if this sounds opin­ion­ated but there are a LOT of mis­con­cep­tions about the most likely method­ol­ogy of renais­sance painters.

    • David says

      @Tim Jee – Thanks, Tim. That book is on my “want to buy” list. In terms of his­tor­i­cal paint­ing meth­ods, the “7 layer” approach is cer­tainly hogwash.

      And you are of course right that the asser­tion (orig­i­nat­ing with Daniel V. Thomp­son) that Ital­ian tem­pera tech­nique relied on a detailed under­draw­ing is com­pletely inac­cu­rate. (Though in the 1930’s it was a rea­son­able hypothesis.)

    • azoth says

      Hmm .Check t his guy’s art out: http://​fred​wes​sel​.com/ I have used Anton tech­nique for a long time. I am sad to hear it is not the Flem­mish tech­nique. My teacher told me
      that Rubens and oth­ers cov­ered their draw­ing with a brown sauce then did the shad­ows
      then mod­elled up all wet into wet. I was told Rubens worked mainly this way.

      • David says

        There’s noth­ing wrong with the tech­nique. It’s sim­ply mod­ern, not his­tor­i­cal. I’m not as clear on Rubens, but that does not jibe with my lim­ited under­stand­ing of his technique.

        • Azoth says

          So you are say­ing the info she gave us in class was misleading ?

          • David says

            A num­ber of painters seem to think “the Flem­ish method” is some vari­ant on how 19th cen­tury Ger­man aca­d­e­mics thought early Flem­ish painters painted. I would not call that mis­lead­ing so much as outdated.

            The “19th cen­tury Ger­man Flem­ish method” (for lack of a bet­ter term) has been used to make some excel­lent paint­ings. There is noth­ing wrong with it, other than that it is def­i­nitely not the way 15th cen­tury Flem­ish painters painted.

        • larry says

          So what do you think his tech­nique is ?

      • David says

        I’ve been a fan of Fred Wes­sel for years. I’ve only seen a few of his paint­ings in per­son, but they are masterful.

    • Jan Bustin says

      Hello Tim and David, As far as I am informed x ray analy­sis can only reveal lead con­tain­ing paint such as lead­white and leadtin yel­low. Infrared reflec­togram only reveals car­bon con­tain­ing colours. For exam­ple some sorts of ink, char­coal, black paint and colours mixed with black. But one can also make a draw­ing with other, no car­bon or lead con­tain­ing colours, which would be not vis­i­ble in an x-ray analy­sis or an infrared reflec­togram. Thus not every black part or line reg­is­tered under­neath the sur­face of a paint­ing can be looked upon as under­draw­ing, and in some cases not every part of the under­draw­ing or draw­ing in between lay­ers can be revealed by these meth­ods of investigation

  11. Tim Jee says

    @David — I think I ought to qual­ify what I wrote in the above. Highly fin­ished ink under­paintigs may have been prac­ticed
    by some artists…well at least by Cenini!..and I think the Daniel Thomp­son book on tem­pera paint­ing is a mar­velous lit­tle book …one of my favourites. The prob­lem is how­ever that peo­ple latch on to these meth­ods as if they are the one and only “cor­rect way” to paint, or that one has to use this method to repli­cate the look of paintigs from cer­tain peri­ods. Cer­tainly, I’ve seen plenty of tem­pera paint­ings from C15th that don’t appear to have any ink or dark under­paint­ing. How­ever , as a method in its own right, why not try it. I’m cur­rently exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent coloured under­paint­ings in my own tem­pera paint­ings. The other great book on Tem­pera paint­ing is the Robert Vick­ery “new tec­n­niques in egg termpera ” (no longer in print but eas­ily avail­able). I imag­ine his more impro­vised approach to the medium is closer to Andrew Wyeths.
    Flem­ish paint­ings have fas­ci­nated me for a while because of their par­tic­u­lar paint qual­ity. East­lake seems fairly con­vinced that they used hard resins and cer­tainly they have a look sim­i­lar to some of Hol­man Hunt’s paint­ings who def­i­nitely used Copal resin. ( Oh there’s another myth bit­ing the dust…Copal being ban­ished these days because it turns the paint­ing yel­low and causes cracking…Hunt’s paint­ings are over 150 year’s old and are in beau­ti­ful con­di­tion)…
    The book on Nether­lan­ish paint­ings that I have is very detailed from the con­ser­va­tors point of view. I wouldn’t get it unless you’re a’s too expen­sive’s really for those of a nerdish dis­posi­ton who enjoy the min­u­tae of inves­ti­ga­tions into paint­ings, (that’ll be me!). I have the other National gallery books “Ital­ian paint­ings before 1400” and ” From Giotto to Durer” which are paper­back, cheaper, and more gen­eral but full of inter­est­ing stuff on the cur­rent under­stand­ing of these paint­ings. You may have already seen them. I’m cur­rently after “The Panel paint­ings of Masolino and Masac­cio: The art of Tech­nique”.
    And now, back in the real world…an acquain­tance of mine picked up a paint­ing in an junk/antique shop that looked like an early Raphael..Not quite as good but beau­ti­fully done with superb sub­tle paint han­dling around the face and hands. It really looked gen­uine. How­ever I man­aged to bring to bear the knowl­edge I’ve acquired over the years to dis­cern that it was indeed a fake. What were the tell-tell signs? you might I ask. Well. prob­a­bly the words “Win­sor & New­ton” printed in large let­ters on the back!

  12. David says

    @Tim Jee -


    I think we’re both clear on the role of under­draw­ings and under­paint­ings in Renais­sance Ital­ian tem­pera paint­ings. Thomp­son was a bril­liant guy, but he didn’t have the ben­e­fit of mod­ern tech­ni­cal analy­sis. I have not read Vickrey’s book; I should prob­a­bly pick it up some­time. I do like much of his work quite a lot.

    Mayer did a great job trash­ing copal. Of course, there are many dif­fer­ent kinds of copal, some of which prob­a­bly do cause the paint­ing to turn yel­low, crack, explode, and cor­rupt chil­dren to the dark side of the force.

    I am cer­tainly of the nerdish dis­po­si­tion when it comes to 15th cen­tury paint­ing meth­ods. I have the other books, except for Masolino/Masaccio. That one’s on my list.

    I read some­where that Win­sor and New­ton were very active back in the Renais­sance, or Vic­to­rian period, or one of those olden times. So maybe it’s real…

  13. jeff says

    This descrip­tion of the method is very inter­est­ing, David. I have been doing some­thing sim­i­lar with­out really know­ing the pit­falls. I have found that the under­draw­ing is really not really that impor­tant in terms of its detail with this approach. The grad­ual lay­er­ing means that it sim­ply gets lost and refined any­way. The grad­ual nature of the approach means that it becomes quite easy to get strong real­ism from some­thing that is orig­i­nally very crude.

    I do have a ques­tion or two though. 1. With wet sand­ing: is that just a case of lightly refresh­ing the sur­face and giv­ing it tooth or a reassert­ing of the lights as well? How nec­es­sary is it?
    2. You don’t men­tion it but I have found sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems with oil absorp­tion into the ground that regard­less of lay­er­ing means that the final paint­ing needs var­nish­ing. Is var­nish­ing impor­tant in this method or am I miss­ing something?

  14. Playskull says

    How did they man­age to achieve such smooth sur­faces which have a car enamel fin­ish? Raw Lin­seed oil and pig­ment grinded together tend to pro­duce brush strokes. The addi­tion of stand oil helps because it lev­els out brush strokes due to its vis­cos­ity but stand oil can­not be grinded with. Maybe it had to due with the method of appli­ca­tion. Is it even pos­si­ble to make a gra­da­tion in oil with­out any turpentine?

  15. David says

    @Playskull -


    Have you ever made your own fresh oil paint? It’s not the same stuff you get from a tube. It is much more man­age­able with a brush, and you can adjust it’s work­ing prop­er­ties by adding dif­fer­ent amounts of oil, grind­ing for dif­fer­ent amounts of time, etc.

    Stand oil wasn’t avail­able in the 15th and early 16th cen­turies. Heat-bodied oil, which has prop­er­ties that are sim­i­lar, but not iden­ti­cal, was. There were many recipes for prepar­ing oil that cer­tainly had an effect on its characteristics.

  16. jeff says

    I’d have to agree with David. Home­made oil paint is not nec­es­sar­ily sub­ject to brush­marks. As for need­ing tur­pen­tine to get a grad­u­a­tion, that is not at all needed. A drop of oil is all it takes to make the paint blend easily.

  17. Playskull says

    Very true. Its cer­tainly not the same as tube paint. Tube paints have a uni­for­mity across dif­fer­ent pig­ments. Hand grinded paints have less uni­for­mi­ties across dif­fer­ent pig­ments. Ultra­ma­rine is stringy, bone black is gritty, lead white is mag­i­cally but­tery. I always look at my paint­ings glare from an angle to see how smooth my paints look in a glare. I always have trou­ble get­ting bone black smooth. I tried grind­ing it twice as long as other pig­ments. I am cur­rently exper­i­ment­ing with lamp black and its cer­tainly smoother :)
    As for the brush stroke lev­el­ing issue. I have had some suc­cess with sun thick­ened oil. It lev­els paint a bit less than boiled stand oil etc. I spread my paint on acid free paper to soak out extra oil and replace it with some sun thick­ened or stand oil
    My newest issue is dust. My paint­ings are mostly under 15 inches so dust is an issue. By the way fel­las, never elec­tric shave your face before paint­ing. I learned the hard way. @David -

  18. Koren says

    A few tech­ni­cal ques­tions about the method you out­line here. First, when you refer to the primuersel as a mix­ture of black and an earth, I’m assum­ing here that you’re describ­ing essen­tially a mono­chrome approach (one earth added to black, to mod­ify the hue and/or value) with no white added at this stage, cor­rect? Sec­ond, when mov­ing from the primuersel stage to the body color stage, is the paint­ing allowed to dry com­pletely between those two phases? If not, doesn’t the body color become some­what muddy with the (at least par­tial) mix­ing of the earth/black mix­ture and the local color? Or is the earth/black mix­ture con­fined to only the dark­est value areas of the paint­ing, so that the body color is used to model the mid– and high-value areas and there is rel­a­tively lit­tle mix­ing between the two areas? To me, these are fine but essen­tial distinctions…

  19. David says

    @Koren -


    The ini­tial detail layer was often done in mono­chrome. This would often be on top of a lightly applied mono­chrome ton­ing layer to change the white of the gesso panel to a grey. It may be that this ton­ing layer was also used to reduce the absorbency of the gesso to make it eas­ier to apply the next lay­ers of paint.

    No one absolutely knows how the lay­er­ing worked, but my assump­tion is that they allowed lay­ers to dry com­pletely before apply­ing more paint.

  20. Tim Jee says

    @jeff — Jeff,

    If you’re paint­ing on a real gesso panel, a light wash of rab­bit skin glue before you begin to paint, helps to seal it and reduce the absorp­tion of the oil.

  21. David says

    @Tim Jee -


    I, too, gen­er­ally use a layer of hide glue to pre­pare tra­di­tional gesso for oil paint. It’s unnec­es­sary for tempera.

  22. Koren says

    Thanks for the response to my pre­vi­ous ques­tion. I thought as much, but it was still nice to get an answer. I have a related ques­tion that I thought I’d ask — I’ve been read­ing about glaz­ing meth­ods, and under­stand that the pre­vi­ous paint layer must be dry before a glaze can be applied. What’s not clear is HOW dry — does it need to be com­pletely dry to the touch (as you’d get after 24 weeks) or com­pletely dry period (mean­ing 6 months or more)? Based on what I’ve read from other artists the answer seems to vary greatly. I guess I thought ini­tially that fol­low­ing fat over lean would ensure that the upper lay­ers wouldn’t crack even if the lower lay­ers were still oxi­diz­ing when the upper ones were applied. Any guid­ance here would be appreciated.


    KLF Minneapolis

  23. David says

    @Koren -


    If it were nec­es­sary to wait 6 months between lay­ers, very few multi-layer paint­ings would have ever been com­pleted. Oxi­diz­ing is not com­pleted for many decades, so there is no prac­ti­cal point at which you can apply more paint after lower lay­ers are done with expand­ing and con­tract­ing. That’s one rea­son why fat over lean is important.

    Wait until the under-layer is fully dry to the touch. If the under­layer is very smooth and shiny, then do some­thing to improve mechan­i­cal adhe­sion, such as wet sand­ing or oil­ing out with a thin layer of medium con­tain­ing a balsam.

  24. Koren says

    Thanks much for this reply! I assumed this was true, but it’s nice to have con­fir­ma­tion from some­one with experience.

    Also, I apol­o­gize in advance for the rant I posted on your ‘con­ve­nience paints’ page regard­ing paint­ing mate­ri­als and health. To any­one inter­ested in the indi­rect method who would like to find a more health-friendly sol­vent for the ‘lean’ lay­ers, I just dis­cov­ered a new W&N Arti­san thin­ner prod­uct that’s made from dipropy­lene gly­col monomethyl ether — after a lit­tle research rel­a­tive to both OMS and turps this appears to be lower tox­i­c­ity . (I’m not affil­i­ated with any paint com­pany, just like to avoid any­thing toxic when­ever possible.)

    Thanks again!

  25. David says

    @Koren -


    Thanks for the info. The “rant” was per­fectly appropriate.

  26. Rita Thompson says

    would a mod­ern exam­ple of a theme in these paint­ings be a polit­i­cal hero being in the back­ground of a gathering

  27. Jim Larson says


  28. Paul Baswell says

    i have a com­ment about paint­ing in lay­ers. first off let me start by say­ing i have been an artist for over 30 year and also have a back ground in fur­ni­ture restora­tion. con­trary to pop­u­lar belief adding lay­ers on to a tacky sur­face will give you awe­some adhe­sion. the only draw­back is that it makes the hole project dry much slower as the volatiles have to migrate threw all the lay­ers, but don’t for­get paint­ings dry from the back side too if you are using can­vas. so, i do not want to be per­ceived as con­trite here the idea of wet sand­ing between lay­ers is just not nec­es­sary except were a car like fin­ish is required and then only in the last few lay­ers. the uneven tex­ture per­mits adhe­sion. Renascence painters did not have sand paper. at best they had roten stone or switch grass to use as a smooth­ing sun­stence. in fur­ni­ture of the time they often bur­nished with a smooth bone so i don’t think sand­ing is in any way his­tor­i­cal. not that I’m say­ing its a bad way its just not authen­tic by inference.

    • David says


      Thanks for the thought­ful comment.

      I agree that paint­ing on a slightly tacky sur­face pro­motes adhesion—although it includes the risk that the old paint will come up if you don’t time it just right. Renais­sance painters cer­tainly did that some of the time, if only when they were on a dead­line. The lay­ered paint­ing meth­ods of 15th cen­tury North­ern Europe that I was pri­mar­ily dis­cussing were most com­monly done on pan­els, which would pre­vent much dry­ing from the back.

      It’s cer­tainly true that there was no sand­pa­per back then. There were meth­ods of “sand­ing,” how­ever. These included pumice, shark­skin, and other abra­sives. These were def­i­nitely used in prepar­ing grounds (you can find shark­skin marks in some of Raphael’s paint­ings, for exam­ple). I don’t know if they were used between lay­ers of paint­ing, but I’d be sur­prised if it wasn’t at least tried.

      • Paul Baswell says

        yes i for­got about shark skin mostly older crafts­men uesd scrap­ing tools to get things smoth as sharp edges are easer to get then sand­ing pow­ders or shark skin

        i think my point was that just like now there were many difer­ing typs of painters and tech­niques im not so sure that there was a standerdised type of paint­ing some artist did lay­ers and some did not

        • David says


          There has never been a sin­gle way to paint. The par­tic­u­lar method I dis­cussed in the arti­cle was used, with some vari­a­tion, by many Flem­ish artists in the 15th and early 16th cen­turies. I wrote it in frus­tra­tion over a num­ber of peo­ple claim­ing that par­tic­u­lar approaches invented in the 19th or 20th cen­turies were accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of that method.

  29. Paul Baswell says

    i wanted to explain how i get intense jewel like col­ors and awe­some depth to my work i oil out between lay­ers allow­ing that to become quite dry but still tack then i paint on top of that i repeat this process before each sub­se­quent layer i never let my paints get dry to the touch always tacky I’m not try­ing to brag here but my paint­ings do have intense depth i fig­ured this out by study­ing the paint­ings of Max­field Par­rish hes work is the most intense of all the mod­ern painters before you point out how badly most of his work is at this point in the 21 cen­tury id like to say he painted on paper bad idea and he used com­mon every day var­nishes which crack and yel­low i use Lin­seed only ones i estab­lish my ground the first lay­ers are opaque every other layer i use is with trans­par­ent pig­ments this allows light to travel in to the paint­ing and bounce back out of of vary­ing layer of paint the paint­ings glow from within Rem­brandt and most of the Rea­soner painters used mostly trans­par­ent paint not all but the reds blues and yel­lows were mostly trans­par­ent its that sim­ple from my point of view they did not have time to spend months on paint­ings they had to eat theirs over 3000 paint­ings attrib­uted to Rem­brandt he could not have painted that many paint­ings wait­ing for them to dry between lay­ers yes i know he had assis­tance but how many would you need to paint that many paint­ings in a life time? so and i have no evades to sup­port this i think they painted a dead layer in grays we have evi­dence for that and just painted col­ors on top of that using only trans­par­ent paints and rein­forc­ing the gray layer if it became obscured and i think they did that in only a few lay­ers nun of this 4 or 5 lay­ers of glazing

    • David says


      Thanks. Your approach seems quite sound to me. I believe that, in addi­tion to paint­ing on tacky lay­ers, Rem­brandt and oth­ers com­bined the approaches of using stu­dio assis­tants and work­ing on many paint­ings at once. Dead lay­ers were some­times done in grays and also often in opaque col­ors sim­i­lar in hue to the trans­par­ent col­ors to be laid on top. Ver­meer did that all the time, for exam­ple. So did van Eyck.

  30. Gela says

    Hey Folks, I’ve been fol­low­ing this dis­cus­sion with inter­est. I’m muck­ing about with an egg tempera/black oil glaze tech­nique myself and now I think I’ll incor­po­rate a rab­bit skin glue wash to seal my orig­i­nal draw­ing based on the com­ments here.

    Just this past week­end I was admir­ing Van Eyck’s “Saint Bar­bara”. It is a draw­ing on panel, a mere 12” × 7”. I was think­ing that per­haps this is an under­draw­ing of an unfin­ished panel paint­ing and if that is the case, it would be a good illus­tra­tion of the degree of fin­ish in terms of the tech­nique that David is attribut­ing to the Flem­ish method. I can’t imag­ine Van Eyck would ven­ture very far into some of the pan­els he’s renowned for with­out a pretty exact under­draw­ing. Just my thoughts.

    • David says


      I’ve had bad luck with using RSG as a sealer on top of egg tem­pera (crack­ing and peel­ing). I’d sug­gest you test your method thor­oughly before doing this on a paint­ing you want to keep.

      • Gela says

        Sorry, I wasn’t clear, RSG on top of sil­ver­point and ink washes only, then egg tem­pera etc. I’ll play.

    • David says

      It’s my under­stand­ing that there is con­sid­er­able dis­agree­ment on whether this is intended to be an under­draw­ing or we are look­ing at a sort of draw­ing. Either way, it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing piece.

      • David says

        Ah. That’s dif­fer­ent. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  31. Lesley Nolan says

    Greet­ings, Enjoy­ing your post tremen­dously, I am a devo­tee of Van Eyck, Van der Wey­den et al. Around 5 years ago I decided to repro­duce the Man in Red Tur­ban for an oil class-just for fun. (irony intended)! I got a good print and enlarged it and was stag­gered to see every wrin­kle under the eye, the blood ves­sels in the eye, small veins—even what looked like a reflec­tion in the pupil and the orig­i­nal paint­ing of the head is prob­a­bly half size or so!! Using a pen and ink (finest crowquill) was the ONLY way I could even get the details on the ges­soed can­vas. (Ges­soed can­vas was mis­take one believe me– I was a prod­uct of 70’s art school and paint­ing on panel was not men­tioned out­side of art his­tory class, sadly). Well I did a green (ver­da­cio) layer on top of a burnt umber value layer…If noth­ing else the green lent a very real­ist tone to the sub­se­quent flesh tones. BUT keep­ing those tiny details was almost impos­si­ble even with the small­est brushes. I am talk­ing 0 to 000 and smaller. One was a cou­ple hairs. YIKES. My dream came true in ‘05 when I got to Lon­don National Gallery. I stood in front of the paint­ings until the guard laughed and said “Miss, I think you might need to back up just a bit”. Sigh. Even tiny, you can see that even the whiskers are three dimen­sional, not jus strokes of a brush but tiny SOLID objects. I am PERPLEXED. and like the other poster, as in the St. Barbara—convinced that the entire draw­ing was done to last per­fect detail, then some­how he must have laid on trans­par­ent color..IF not I do not know how he used a brush to eg. make a whisker, or the mole on an eye­lid Three Dimen­sional. (Some attribute it to aliens and give up try­ing to fig­ure it out, LOL)
    PS I am now copy­ing Robert Campin’s Por­trait of a Man (in a red tur­ban as well) on ges­soed board. Wish me luck.

  32. Lesley Nolan says

    fyi any­one inter­ested, the Lon­don National Gallery site is awe­some but unless you live in the UK get­ting a print is expen­sive. Around 75 US$ for the small­est, the ship­ping is 17 pounds and print is 15 pounds! I got prints while there to bring home. Then sanded off the face of my Van Eyck copy and started over after gessoe-ing and smooth­ing the small can­vas. I did find ver­mil­lion to be a good match to the tur­ban in begin­ning stages. Any­way the Lon­don National Gallery is restor­ing some works right now, if you go on the site you can the progress! It really is inter­est­ing, and they show under­draw­ing in some x-rays.
    My Campin copy—I printed from com­puter, sigh. Then trans­ferred line draw­ing to gesso panel. Then did a burnt umber and bt. sienna line draw­ing. Then painted first layer-background of bt umber and ultra­ma­rine, first thin layer of coat in umber. I started a value study on the tur­ban in ink. Then switched to flake white and bt. umber and am on that now. I use stand oil. I did find sun thick­ened stand oil and am using that on a dif­fer­ent project but dont love it. Stand oil and a lit­tle mona lisa seems to have made the pre­vi­ous van eyck copy more trans­par­ent. I real­ize home made oils wouldnt need a medium and I believe that was Van Eycks advan­tage. Some oils are SO thick out of the tube it’s ridicu­lous. Well any­way I found before I need to get soft brushes and go over my work and smooth out ANY ‘blobs’ and keep each layer very smooth and blended.
    in short my friends think I’m nuts but they do like the results.

  33. Lesley Nolan says

    for­got to men­tion I used INK for draw­ing entire por­trait copy, burnt umber and burnt sienna ink. I have read in enough places to see they did not like ‘black’ but mixed their ultra­ma­rine with their burnt umber or other dark earth color to get those rich but still glow­ing backgrounds…I fol­low their example.

  34. Jan Bustin says

    Always nice to find out you’re not the only one crazy enough to make an attemp copy­ing a Van Eyck. Born only one mile away from the native town of Van Eyck I have always been fas­ci­nated by his paint­ings since I can remem­ber. Eleven years ago I painted “Madonna with can­celor Rolin” and now I am work­ing on the “Arnolfini cou­ple”
    As a result of many exper­i­ments I came to using an emul­sion as a medium. Rather lean in the first stages, but increas­ingly fat in the last lay­ers and glaz­ings. For small details and accents in the fin­ish­ing I used verry lean water­based tem­pera. In the first copy I partly used mod­ern pig­ments, but now I turned over to authen­tic pig­ments as lead­white, leadtin yel­low, verdi­gris, azu­rite and lapi lazulli, mad­der lake and zin­nober.
    You can see some results on my web­site: http://​www​.jan​bustin​.nl/​n​i​e​u​w​s​/​14​/​V​A​N​+​E​Y​C​K​+​V​A​N​+​D​I​C​H​T​B​I​J​+​2​.​h​tml
    Though in Dutch, there are to be seen some pic­tures from the copy and a part of its under­draw­ing.
    I plan to place some pic­tures of the under­draw­ing for the Arnolfini-copy in the near future.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Old Flemish Technique « Sunsikell linked to this post on 15 July 2012

    […] it by Bellini and his com­pa­tri­ots. This infor­ma­tion on Flem­ish Paint­ing I first found at the great All the Strange Hours […]

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