Direct Painting Route | By Michael Chesley Johnson

Direct Painting Route
by Michael Chesley Johnson

You’ve decided to take up oil painting. You’ve done your research and assembled a starter set of paints, mediums, brushes and so forth, but there’s a problem. Just how, you wonder, do you go about creating a work in oil?

The good news is that all oil-painting methods can be divided into two categories: direct and indirect. This free demo will focus on the Direct Route painting method.

Of the two oil-painting approaches, newcomers are generally more familiar with the direct method, a process particularly suited to painters who like loose, impressionistic brushstrokes and a painterly look.

Although there are many ways to paint directly, the process usually involves an initial sketch on the painting surface followed by an underpainting or block-in. The artist then moves on to the overpainting, at which stage he or she refines and completes the work. The entire process can be done wet into wet and alla prima (all at once) or over several sessions. Let’s examine the direct method more closely:

Sketch You can create your initial sketch with pencil or charcoal or with a brush and thin, fluid paint. Usually, this sketch simply outlines the major shapes.

Underpainting If you create the sketch with paint, you can proceed to the underpainting while the sketch is still wet. The underpainting, made with either thinned paint or paint scrubbed on thinly, fills in each of the major shapes with an average value and color. You can apply the paint either transparently or opaquely; most painters paint shadow areas transparently and light areas opaquely. The goal is to cover the white of the canvas and to lay a foundation upon which the overpainting can build.

Overpainting Again, you can move on to the overpainting while the underpainting is still wet. Beginners often have difficulty laying down strokes on wet paint without stirring up earlier layers and creating “mud.” To avoid this, use thicker paint and hold the brush more like a knife—almost as if you were frosting a cake. You can also use a painting knife. The goals of the overpainting are to adjust the colors and values laid down earlier, to refine the treatment of edges and to strengthen the center of interest.

Retouch Varnish If you work over several sessions, you’ll find that some colors become matte and dull as they start to dry. Retouch varnish will make these colors look saturated and glossy again so that you can correctly match the fresh paint to the old. If I return to a painting the day after my last session, I skip the retouch varnish or use it only if I detect that some parts of the painting are starting to look dull in color.

Direct Advantages I like direct painting because it goes fast; I can complete a small piece in a couple of hours. You do need to plan when painting directly, but changing things along the way is relatively easy: if the painting is still wet, unwanted passages can be scraped out; if the painting is dry, passages can be sanded down, and then fresh paint can be applied to bring the piece up to snuff. (Continue reading below for a demonstration of direct painting.)

direct route painting 1, sketch the outlines

1. Using a 6B pencil, I lightly sketch the outlines of my major shapes on a 6×12-inch sheet of hardboard. I had previously sized this surface with Gamblin PVA sizing and then applied two coats of Golden acrylic gesso. I can easily erase my pencil marks from this surface but, because I’m going for a “painterly” look, I keep things loose. If I’m painting on a larger surface, such as 12×16 inches, I’ll usually tone the surface with a wash of oil color, which is an efficient way of covering the white of the board.


direct route painting 2, begin blocking in

2. Using a No. 6 natural bristle flat, I begin blocking in each of my major shapes. I start with the dark shapes and work up to the light shapes, sticking with cool colors. Each color mixture is my best guess at the average value and color for the area I’m painting, and I apply the paint thinly. Although I want the paint thin, I minimize my use of thinner, trying to keep the paint workable but not drippy.


direct route painting 3, all the darker cool shapes

3. Here you see the block-in after I’ve filled in all the darker cool shapes.


direct route painting, lighter cool shapes

4. I continue the block-in, moving to the lighter cool shapes.


direct route painting, warmer shapes, starting with the lightest

5. Now I paint the warmer shapes, starting with the lightest ones. Normally, I create a block-in by going methodically from dark to light, regardless of color temperature, but for this painting the relationship of cool and warm colors is critical; I want to get the exact value and warmth of my lightest spot right. Other light areas will be keyed to this one.


direct route painting, continue with the light shapes

6. I continue with the light shapes, adding smaller ones to indicate waves.


direct route painting, Coastel Light by Michael Chesley Johnson

7. Here you see the finished painting, Coastal Light (oil, 6×12). Because I painted directly, I was able to finish this piece in about two hours.

Michael Chesley Johnson is a contributing editor to The Artist’s Magazine and author of Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel. He has two instructional videos available at Visit his website at


Oil Painting on Location
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