Direct Painting vs. Indirect Painting

If you had to break down all of the painting approaches out there you could group these techniques into two categories: Direct painting and Indirect painting. The two separate approaches are found throughout all the different painting media; watercolor, oils, acrylics, water-soluble oils, tempera, latex, gouache, inks, you name it.

Making Choices

When an artist employs the direct method of painting he or she is trying to achieve the desired color correct from the start. This is not to say that the direct painting approach doesn’t allow for correcting one’s work, it’s just a different methodology in the construction of a painting. I’ll explain both approaches through the following scenario:

While constructing a painting there arises the need to have an area on the painting that is a desaturated (dull) blue-green.

The direct method of painting calls for literally creating the desaturated green on one’s palette and then painting that color into the painting where it is needed.

To contrast, indirect painting is a completely different methodology regarding the construction of a painting. Indirect painting is the method of painting by which the artist adjusts the colors and values of his or her painting through subsequent layers. Please note that to truly be using the method of indirect painting one must be allowing previous layers of paint or ground to show. How is this accomplished? This may be accomplished through scumbling, washes, or glazing. I will focus on glazing for the rest of this article.


A glaze is nothing more than a translucent layer of paint that sits on top of other layers of paint and allows these previous layers to show through. We contrast a glaze with a wash in that a wash is generally thinner. A wash literally involves only the addition of thinner or solvent (water or turpentine, etc…), not a “glazing medium” and most importantly; a wash soaks into the ground or substrate while a glaze is intended to sit on top.

When employing the indirect method of painting the artist has more options when striving for that desaturated green area of the painting that I mentioned earlier. He could paint yellow first and allow it to dry and afterward glaze a layer of desaturated blue on top. Since this desaturated blue glaze would be translucent and allow the yellow to show through, the visual result would be a desaturated green if completed in the correct proportions.

Yellow + (desaturated) blue = desaturated green

The artist could also paint the layers in the reverse order and add the yellow glaze layer last or even desaturate the final green from the beginning or at the end (as the top layer of paint). The point is, through indirect painting, the artist has many more options. I believe this to be a good thing. I am by in large an indirect painter. As a result I paint with much relaxation from the start knowing that I can correct my colors and values later on.


**UPDATE 3/30/3019 ***

I have dramatically altered my painting workflow since I wrote this article long ago.  I now paint mostly using a direct-method now and hardly glaze at all.  I am often able to capture my subjects in just a single layer of paint!  This is due to the more science-base methods I’m using for accurately seeing and accurately mixing my paints.

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

What is your primary approach to painting?

One Comment

  1. When painting directly put a some clove oil in the paint to retard drying also mix stand oil with turp to a watery consistency the turp will evaporate leaving the paint with a nice viscosity

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