A Thousand Ways to Skin A Cat

I can’t count the times I’ve been asked if I “…always start with the eye?” The short answer is no, but here’s the long answer.

There are a lot of artists who teach the line an value block in as the only ‘right’ way to paint. From my experience, that painting approach only makes sense to some artists, and though I can paint that way, it isn’t as fun for me as three other ways I like to paint. I switch from method to method, all depending on how I’m feeling, the complexity of the work that I’m planning, the time I have to spend on the painting, the level of finished look I’m going for, etc. I even have been known to start a painting in one way and finish that same painting in another way. I really don’t think it matters which path you take. In the end, the work is judged by it’s finished state, not on the path you took to get there and most importantly, in my experience I make my best work when I’m happy. In the blog post before this one, I describe the Selective Start Method in detail, so in this posts I’ll go over the other 2 ways I approach oil painting.

It is important to note that all the methods I regularly use I learned from the bible of the art world, “Alla Prima II” by artist and author Richard Schmid which you can find at the following link and I cannot recommend more that you read this book multiple times and use it as workbook:


WAY NO. 1 — OPEN GRISAILLE (AKA Monochrome Underpainting:

I love to start with an underpainting and I love to keep an underpainting as a finished work. They are so fun and so easy. It is very much like drawing with charcoal except the paper never wears out. The artist can continually change the painting for hours, even days if the surface is primed right and the right conditions exist in the paint and in the studio. This is my favorite method if I’m working with multiple figures, lots of foreshortening or other drawing issues that I really want to solve before I add color.

It is important to paint on a surface that is smooth and oil primed and to use a paper towel to spread a thin, thin, thin (did I say thin), coating of walnut oil on that surface before you apply paint. You can also add the essential oil “clove bud” to your paint to extend the drying time. You can give yourself even more drying time by NOT using umbers. I can’t express more that acrylic primed canvas that is knobby, you know, the kind you buy at your local art store, will not work for this method. I recommend to my students who are learning and not producing works for sale to use the inexpensive oil primed panels made by Centurion. This is painted with transparent oxide red. I sometimes add a little ultramarine blue to the pile of paint to make it a neutral brown. I NEVER add anything to the paint except for clove oil if I need lots of drying time. I DON’T add the walnut oil to the paint. I use a brush or paper towel or my hands to rub in a middle value and I use lots of different objects including q-tips and erasers and dry brushes to pull the paint off to get back to white and I paint in a little more paint to get to my darks.

WAY NO. 2 — Accurate Color Wash


I usually start a painting using the accurate color wash approach when I know the finished painting will be a vignette, like the one above. This is also my go to method for painting en plein air and from life when I only have one long pose (3 to 6 hours) with a model. I spend the first two 20 minute sessions just observing the model and mixing my color palette. By then the model is relaxed and settled and likely not to shift too much. I loosen the paint up with a small amount of solvent or walnut alkyd, and then I loosely block out shadow shapes. Once I’ve checked those shapes to be sure they are at the right angle and the right distance relative to everything else on the canvas, I let that set while the model rests. By the time they model is back on the stand I’m ready to lay thicker paint into the important areas, covering the wash completely in some places and letting it show in others.