Indirect Painting Route | By Michael Chesley Johnson

Indirect 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 Indirect Route painting method. (Click here to learn about the direct painting route.)

Indirect Painting

Indirect painting takes more time than direct painting because the picture is built up in layers and each layer is allowed to dry between sessions. Classically trained academic painters who create complex, highly realistic pieces may paint this way. The process usually begins with the making of a detailed initial drawing on the painting surface. The artist then establishes values with a fully rendered monochromatic painting and then follows up with a series of thin, colored glazes and opaque scumbles. Let’s look at this process more closely:

Drawing Usually you begin with a detailed drawing made in light pencil. This drawing should separate shadow from light and show all the important shapes.

Monochromatic Painting Next, using a single color thinned with odorless mineral spirits (OMS), you turn your sketch into a fully rendered but monochromatic painting with all the detail the final painting will have. Typical colors that you might use during this stage are black, brown or green. You can make dark passages darker by adding black and light passages lighter either by adding white or by rubbing out the paint with a clean rag or paper towel to expose the white support.

Generally, you must give this initial layer several days to dry before going on to the glazing. One way to speed the drying time is to use alkyd oil paints rather than traditional oils; a thin layer of alkyd paint will dry in about a day. Once the underpainting is dry, you’re ready to apply the first glazes.

Glazes During the early stages of glazing, I treat the painting like a big paint-by-numbers piece to which I apply different-colored glazes to discrete areas. You mix these glazes by adding enough glazing medium to the paint to make its application fluid. You can make or purchase a traditional three-part glazing medium composed of turpentine, damar gum and linseed oil, or you can use alkyd mediums such as Gamblin Galkyd diluted with Gamblin Gamsol (the alkyd medium will help the glaze dry faster).

Glazes in oil are like those in watercolor in that they make use of the values beneath them to create their beauty; therefore, for a traditional glazing effect, you need to use transparent paint. Opaque or semiopaque paints hide the underlying values, but you can use those paints if you want that effect.

You can lay down multiple glazes, but each layer needs to be absolutely dry before the next layer is applied. Layering glazes in this way can create depth that’s impossible to achieve by painting directly.

Glazes can darken passages, however. If they become too dark, you can add a little white to your paint mixture to re-establish the lighter value, and then you can reglaze the area. You can also scumble (brush on a thin application of opaque or semiopaque paint) to bring up the value of these passages. Painters also use scumbling to soften edges. (For a demonstration of indirect painting, see below.)

Importance of Planning Indirect painting requires good planning skills. Although you can make changes to the composition as you go, you’ll find that having the design completely figured out from the get-go is more expeditious. Making changes later in the process can be difficult, and sometimes earlier configurations of your design may be evident in the finished product, whether you want them to be or not.

Indirect Painting Route Demonstration

Indirect Painting, draw in the design

1. First, I draw in the design with a 6B pencil on a 12×16-inch panel. My friend who made this panel used a sprayer to apply many layers of acrylic gesso, thus creating a nearly nonabsorbent surface, which is best for indirect painting. The paint adheres well to the acrylic gesso, but I can lift it off, if I need to, with a rag or paper towel.

Once my drawing is finished, I choose a No. 12 hog bristle flat brush and begin toning the panel with transparent earth red thinned with enough Gamblin Gamsol (odorless mineral spirits or OMS) to make a midvalue wash. I know that I’ll be applying many layers and glazes and that, with traditional oils, a single layer or glaze may take several days to dry so, to speed the painting process, I decide to use Gamblin FastMatte alkyd oil paints, which will allow each layer to dry in a day.


Indirect Painting, lift out areas

2. Before the initial wash dries, I use a paper towel to lift out areas that should be light. This step initiates my creation of a fully rendered monochromatic underpainting.


Indirect Painting,monochromatic underpainting

3. After establishing the light passages, I darken some of the midvalue areas with transparent earth red that I’ve thinned with less OMS than I’d used for the initial wash. I also use a small (No. 4) natural hog bristle flat to refine the drawing. Here you see the finished monochromatic underpainting.


Indirect Painting, apply thin glazes

4. After my underpainting has completely dried, I use a soft sable flat to apply thin glazes of different colors to different areas. The size of the flat depends on the size of the area I’m glazing. It’s important not to scrub with the brush or spend too long on one area, as the solvent in the glaze may cause earlier layers to soften and lift, muddying the new glaze.


Indirect Painting, first layer of glazes

5. Here is the painting after the first layer of glazes. I used purple and blue glazes in the sky and water; greens in the trees and grass; yellow in the rocks and beach. My glazing medium was a mixture of Gamblin Galkyd Lite and Gamsol, and between glazing colors I rinsed my brush with Gamsol.


Indirect Painting, continue adding glazes

6. I continue adding glazes—making sure the painting dries completely between layers. To lighten some passages, I add a bit of white to the glaze, which also makes the paint less transparent. You can see the effect in the sky and in the cloud.


Indirect Painting, make a correction

7. Occasionally, I need to make a correction. A cotton swab moistened with solvent (turpentine or odorless mineral spirits) is the perfect tool for lifting paint from small areas. A paper towel or lint-free rag works for bigger areas.


Indirect Painting, thicker, opaque paint

8. As I approach the completion of the painting, I use thicker, more opaque paint with less glazing medium. This works well for passages needing more texture and for what I call “stage presence”­—details that enhance the overall design, such as the foreground waves and rocks.


Indirect Painting, Evening at the Cove

9. Here’s the completed painting, Evening at the Cove (oil, 12×16). Toward the end I changed the shape of the clouds and added a bit of water to the foreground. Ideally, when painting indirectly, your design in the monochromatic underpainting stage should be exactly as you want it, but if you do decide to make a change later, you’ll be able to wipe out passages or add things.


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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