Classical vs. Modern Painting: Materials & Techniques

My Painting Education

I have been painting in oils for over 20 years now. I started using oil paints when I was about 15 years old. I studied oil painting at a traditional fine arts studio after school hours throughout my high school days. The process to creating a painting that I was taught was to start with a drawing directly on the canvas, then to block in all the major areas with broad and simple paint washes, and from there I was instructed to add thicker paint consisting of less turpentine and build up the painting with more details. I still think this is a great way to work, and there are many reasons artists have been using this method for hundreds of years. I still use a similar method, but with different materials.
When I got to college many more pieces of this classic style of painting were revealed to me. One of them was the “fat over lean” concept, which I actually was using from the start, but wasn’t even aware that I was doing so. It turns out that it was important that I was using less turpentine in my subsequent layers of oil paint due to permanency issues (less future cracking & falling apart of the painting). At college I was also introduced to paint glazes, varnishes and the basic fact that you can add things to the paint other than turpentine. At that time, I was also introduced to the method of creating an underpainting in a monochromatic color (grisaille) and then glazing colors over the top of that underpainting; a very, old method of painting. I have heard some people refer to this method as the “Flemish method” or the “Venetian method” and I don’t want to get into a debate here over their differences. The point is, many painters have been working with translucent layers of paint over monochromatic underpaintings for a long time.

Modern Science is a Painter’s Friend!

I am no classical purist by any means, but I still embrace many of these old fashioned techniques and modes of thinking when painting anything realistic – landscapes, still life, portraits. I find much comfort in establishing the values of a painting first and not having to deal with color until later. The painting even starts to harmonize itself due to the underpainting showing through in most spots. I certainly don’t follow all traditional steps exactly and I combine modern materials and techniques along the way. I can still benefit from these historical masters without having to use copper tacks for stretching canvases, rabbit skin glue, or even the famous three part medium (stand-oil, turpentine, damar varnish). I embrace modern materials and in many ways they are superior to some of the older paint materials that the old masters had. Today we have chemists that can create and test materials with incredible accuracy.

Due to globalization of trade we also have almost any kind of material at our disposal and usually at a reasonable price. Hundred’s of years ago artists had to use what they could find in their region, sometimes using it and just hoping for the best. That’s why if you encounter some historical methods to preparing supports and painting in general, some of the steps seem incredibly arduous and somewhat mysterious. Many of the pigments that have been used in the past have broken down over time; they have faded, deteriorated, or changed color! Some of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings are examples of this, and they are not even that old when you consider the time span stretching from the earliest known paintings through the present.

How I Am Currently Painting

**UPDATE 3/30/3019 ***

I have changed my oil painting workflow drastically since I originally wrote this article.  I paint mostly using a direct method and use far less layers of paint now and hardly glaze at all.  Nowadays I am often able to capture my subject matter in just a single layer of paint!  This is due to the more scientific methods I’m using for accurately seeing and mixing oil paint.

I posted a 6 part (2 hour) video series on youtube documenting my current painting process.  You can watch it here.

As far as my own work is concerned, I utilize “fat over lean” methodologies when I create paintings. My traditional, realistic paintings are built up with thin glazes on top of a mostly monochromatic underpainting. This underpainting however, is painted in acrylics. Acrylic paints allow me to establish the underpainting and make corrections to it much quicker than if I had used oils. I varnish most of my paintings, not with dammar, but a clearer, glossier modern varnish.


One can learn from the old masters, but with a modern flair. I believe following all of the old master’s recipes and methods exactly to be a waste of time unless you are exploring it for the sake of reliving history, which can be fun. Today we have better materials, many that appear to be long lasting, have better shelf lifes, are safer to handle, and are easily obtainable at reasonable prices.

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