When I began learning the Flemish method of oil painting, I sure had a lot of questions! Since I’m not unique in that, I wanted to share some of my questions—and the answers I eventually discovered—with you.
First of all, let’s do a quick recap. There are seven steps in the Flemish method of painting:
No. Some layers, such as the umber layer and dead layer, can be combined. You could also skip one or the other. Sometimes, you simply don’t have the time to do all seven layers, so you must use shortcuts.
But the beauty of the Flemish method is that every layer builds on the previous layers. None of them completely cover up the previous layers. So if you skip or combine layers, something is left out of the finished work. A viewer may not know why, but they will know something doesn’t seem quite right.
A collector of your work—or even just a fan—is more likely to notice a difference.
2. Why can’t I paint over a layer once it feels dry?
Oil paint doesn’t dry by evaporation. In fact, it doesn’t actually “dry” in the technical sense. It hardens in a process called curing. The oil vehicle in the paint reacts to the oxygen in the air (oxidation) and hardens, locking the pigment in place.
But it doesn’t harden all at once. The surface hardens first, then the paint beneath the surface hardens. This process continues for months, and the thicker the paint, the longer the process. That’s why you should wait to varnish most paintings six to twelve months after finishing them.
Even with the thin layers used with the Flemish method, the paint will not be completely cured (and ready to be painted over) for at least four weeks. Some colors will feel dry to the touch after a day or two, but inside, they’re still hardening.
Painting over uncured paint increases the risk of damaging the “skin” of the previous layer, and having the two layers mix together, which is definitely not what you want.
3. When is a layer ready to be painted over?
You can test the readiness of a layer of paint by gently scraping it with a razor blade. Hold the razor blade at between 90 degrees and 45 degrees against the canvas or panel and draw it toward you.
If the paint accumulates in a roll on the edge of the blade, or comes off in a curling string, it’s not yet cured. If it comes off as a powdery dust, then it’s ready for the next layer.
4. How much detail does the umber layer need?
Some artists paint the umber layer with as much detail as they want in the finished painting.
Others paint just enough to provide a foundation for the dead layer.
This was—and remains—one of my most difficult questions to settle. I love the detail, but I get bored taking the time to paint it at this stage.
The truth is that either method—or some point between—will work. How much detail you put into the umber layer depends on your patience and what you want the finished work to look like.
5. What should I do while waiting for my paint to dry?
This question was the easiest for me to figure out, primarily because I’ve always had at least two projects going at the same time. I don’t remember when I started doing that, but I do remember why. The painting I was working on stalled, and I sat around waiting for the solution to come until I realized I could start another painting!
Ever since, I’ve tried to always have a backup painting or drawing to work on.
But I digress.
When I first started painting with the Flemish method, I laid out a half dozen or more possible paintings at the beginning. The first day I painted, I transferred and fixed the line drawing, then painted the imprimatura on one, then set it up to dry. The second day, I did the line drawing and imprimatura for the second painting, and so on through about six days of work. At the end of that time, I had five or six paintings with finished imprimaturas lined up and drying. (Yes, they were all small, 11×14 or smaller.)
It takes about a week for the imprimatura to dry thoroughly, so after a break, I went back to the first painting and began painting the umber underpainting.
This method worked well enough for me that I always recommend it. But you don’t need to have six paintings going. Two or three will probably be sufficient, depending on how fast you paint, and the size and complexity of your paintings.
6. Does the Flemish method work for other mediums?
It works great with acrylics. I don’t use them myself, but have seen fantastic acrylic paintings that were painted using the Flemish method, and if I ever try acrylics, I will be starting out with this method of painting.
These six questions were the ones I always wanted answers to, so if you’re thinking about trying the Flemish method of painting, they may be your questions too.