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What I Like and Dislike About the Flemish Method of Painting

Some time ago, I wrote a demonstration series describing how I use the Flemish method of oil painting in my own work. The Flemish method was developed by Flemish painters in the 1600s and involves developing a painting through a series of stages from a detailed drawing up to a finished work of art.

It’s also known as the Seven Step Method because it can be broken down into these seven basic steps:

• A detailed drawing
• An inked drawing
• Imprimatura (toning the support)
Umber Layer
Dead Layer
First Color Glazes
Final Color Layer

I’ve used the Flemish method or variations on it for several paintings over the course of the last five years or so. As with all methods of painting or drawing, it’s capable of producing magnificent artwork, luminous color, and mouth-watering detail.

But—also like every other method of painting—it does have disadvantages.

If you’re thinking about giving it a try, here are some advantages and disadvantages you might want to consider first.

What I like about the Flemish Method:

The look - I love the look of paintings painted in the Classical style. That’s what attracted me to that period of Art History in the first place.

Of all the methods I’ve tried over the years, the Flemish method has also been the easiest to grasp, other than the intuitive method of painting that I grew up with.

The process - One of the best things about this method of painting is that you can work out values and details without worrying about color. Development of value and detail begin with the umber layer and expand through the dead layer. By the time you get to the color layers, all you should need to do is lay down transparent layers of color.

Working on multiple paintings at once - It is possible to work on several paintings at once, so you always have paintings to work on while others are drying. Since so much drying time is required, this is about the only way to maintain a productive studio with this method.

Working on more than one painting at a time is also a great way to avoid artist’s block. If you get stuck on one painting, simply set it aside and work on something else!

What I don’t like about the Flemish Method:

The time it takes - The Flemish method is a time-consuming process. Yes, the results are almost always worth the time, but when I’m in the middle of the painting process, it sometimes feels like a painting will never be finished.

Each layer must dry completely before you paint the next one. For the imprimatura and umber layer, that’s a minimum of one week. Each of the succeeding layers requires a minimum of four weeks of drying time. I’ve often found seven or eight weeks to be necessary.

That all adds up to a minimum of thirty weeks from the first stroke on the imprimatura to framing. That’s over six months!

In all the time I’ve been using the Flemish method, I’ve never been able to complete a painting in the minimum amount of time required. It has taken nearly a year to finish some larger paintings.

The detail it requires - This will surprise anyone who knows my preferences in paintings. I love detail. Lots of it! For years, my portrait motto has been portraits that look like they live and breathe.

But I find it particularly difficult to create the required level of detail at each of the seven stages. The artist from whom I learned the Flemish method suggested that each stage should look like a finished work of art. Great in theory, but difficult in practice.

At some point, I invariably begin looking for—and taking—shortcuts and thereby defeat the purpose of the Flemish method!

The lure of perfectionism - The opposite side of the detail coin is perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist in very few areas. Making art happens to be one of them. I want every painting to be the best it can be and better than the previous painting.

With the Flemish method, it’s all too easy to get bogged down in seeking perfection for each layer that paintings sometimes never progress beyond the grayscale (dead) layer. While I enjoy the method, it does tend to feed my perfectionism a little too well.

My regrets:

My biggest regret is that as many paintings as I’ve created with this method, I have yet to take the time to do every single layer right. Well, except for the inking and imprimatura. The inking is hard to do wrong.

The times I’ve done the imprimatura, I’ve followed the guidelines pretty closely. But the rest? No. Not once. Never.

My biggest problem is impatience. I love painting detail, but I also can’t wait to get to the color stage. So I take shortcuts on the umber layer and I take shortcuts on the dead layer.

As I noted above, each layer should be so well executed that it’s capable of standing on it’s own as a work of art.

I’ve failed miserably in doing that because I’m usually in too much of a hurry.

My personal goal:

And that brings me to a personal goal I’ve shared with no one else.

One of these days, I want to find a subject that really speaks to me. I’d like to paint that subject correctly using the Flemish method. Follow every step. Finish every layer so it’s the absolute best it can be. See what happens.

And you know what I’d really like to do?

I’d like to be able to paint that painting in such a fashion that every step of the way from the line drawing to the finished painting could be sold as a series of reproductions!

How about that for a dream?

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