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Understanding Wet on Wet Oil Painting

Wet on wet oil painting technique

Wet on wet painting technique with Oils is becoming immensely popular due to regular TV programmes during the 2020/1 lockdown. The wet-on-wet oil painting technique is exactly how it sounds, painting directly on top of wet paint without allowing the lower layer to dry. For this reason, the wet-on-wet method is also referred to as ‘direct painting’. However, these are not the only names for the technique, you may also hear it called ‘wet-in-wet’, ‘wet-into wet’, or ‘alla prima’, which means first attempt in Italian. It is with this method that Bob Ross creates his inspiring and relaxing paintings.

Winsor and Newton Oil Paint on palette

The Italian’s have got the name spot on here, because the wet-on-wet painting technique allows you to complete a painting in one sitting. With traditional methods of painting, referred to as ‘indirect painting’, it can take months to complete a painting (unless you are using a quick drying paint). This is because each layer can dry before moving on to the next.

Of course, the wet-on-wet oil painting technique varies depending on the type of surface that you are painting onto, but the approach is still the same. You can just plan the painting in your mind but doing a sketch or drawing before starting the work can be immensely helpful.

Tips for getting started with Wet-on-wet painting technique

To start with the canvas is first wetted with a painting medium, either clear or coloured – most often with white or black depending on your subject, you can use any colour! To make this liquid base use Zest It Painting medium or Liquin Original, or of course you can paint it straight onto your surface without any colour added.

Method

The upper layers of paint must be thinner than the lower layers. Dilute your paint with thinner so when you apply the paint it does not disturb the lower layers and the paint will lay on top. If you apply the paint and it mixes with the paint that is already on your oil painting, there is a high chance that you didn’t thin the new paint enough. To thin your paint, simply dip your brush into thinner before mixing the colour. For an effective wet-on-wet painting, the paint will need to have an ink like consistency. Thin your paint slowly using your best judgement to determine when the paint has reached this stage. You will get to know how much with each colour as you get more experienced, each colour will vary – but let us not get into density and viscosity here!

Painting with a light touch

It is important to only touch the painting very lightly when adding additional layers using the wet-on-wet technique. Too much pressure on your brush can either push the new colour into the existing and create a muddy colour or lift the paint instead of laying it down. Try to only touch the surface of the painting with the paint itself and not the whole paint brush. If you watch tutorials note that additional layers are always applied softly and gently – this is why.

Oil paints don’t tend to dry quickly

Regular oil paints can stay touch wet for up to a week, giving you plenty of time to take a break if you need to. This means that you can continue using the wet-on-wet oil painting technique.

If you don’t get around to an area before the paint has dried, you can scrape off the dry paint with a palette knife. Apply a medium like Zest it Painting Medium, Liquin Original or Linseed oil, and then add more wet paint. This is called “oiling out”. It is often used to make oil colours appear more vibrant on a painting when they have dried to a matt finish. Liquin dries faster than Linseed oil and may be preferable for this purpose.

Equipment for Wet on Wet Oil Painting

As with any art project the value of your materials does reflect the quality of your finished piece. More importantly the better the materials you can afford the more enjoyable the process will be. If you look after your brushes and painting knives, they will last you for many years. Oil paint does not dry out (unless kept badly).  Do not throw old thinners / brush cleaner out, decant into a jar and allow the solids to sink top the bottom, then reuse the solvent. Oily rags can be a fire risk. It is best to keep these in an old biscuit tin, do not just throw in the bin!

Brushes

Brushes are such a personal choice. But for starters we would suggest you consider the following:

Liquitex 1”, 2”, 3” brushes either flat or angled

Liquitex Fan Brush (for blending) #2, #4, #6, #8

Filbert #6

Proarte Script liner (rigger) #2

Palette Knives

To achieve the flowing lines and gentle blending we would suggest that you experiment with different palette knives. Personal taste will dictate what you are comfortable with. We stock Winsor & Newton Palette Knives and RGM palette knives.

Browse our full range of palette knives here:

Basic set of colours for wet on wet oil painting

As you develop experience with oil painting, you may find that routine becomes your best friend. Always lay your palette out in the same way from left to right as follows. Unused colours may be saved either on the palette or scraped off into small plastic containers. If you want to retain your palette for a few days, then wrap gently with cling film. You can even place it in the freezer overnight! For starters we suggest you use Winton Oil Paint made by Winsor & Newton.

  • Sap Green
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Vandyke Brown
  • Dark (Burnt) Sienna
  • Midnight (lamp) Black
  • Prussian Blue
  • Phthalo Blue
  • Phthalo Deep Green
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Indian Yellow
  • Cadmium Red
  • Titanium White (200ml tube is better value, and you will use a lot of white)
  • Soft Mixing White (We would add a soft mixing white to this palette for mixing lighter colours rather than mixing pastel shades (which is what you achieve with Titanium White)).

Palette for wet on wet oil painting

Choose the largest palette you feel comfortable working with. After all this is where you will mix your colours, and more space means more mixes, and avoids creating mud!

Browse our palette category

Thinner for oil painting

We recommend that you use a thinner that is low or no-odour (traditional turpentine is available but not really friendly for home use)

Browse our range of thinners and solvents

Cleaning your oil prainting brushes

Cleaning your brushes – you can use high street DIY store white spirit to clean your brushes. Beware – as this is an unrefined spirit and over time will damage your brushes. If you are not scrupulous in your brush cleaning may also damage your paintings causing damage to the way that your paint blends due to its unrefined nature. We recommend Zest It Dilutant and cleaner for oil paint, or Sansodor. Both are virtually odour free too as an added benefit.

Surfaces for wet on wet oil painting

You can paint on virtually any prepared surface. If you want to use MDF, plywood, hardboard then simply treat the surface with an acrylic gesso. This will prime the surface (to stop paint sinking in) and give you a well prepared ‘tooth’ for painting on. Tooth is what we call a slightly roughened surface to help paint grab a hold. Gesso can be simply applied with a large brush, and we would suggest a minimum of 2 coats to ensure even coverage.

Of course, there are pre prepared surfaces such as Winsor & Newton Canvas boards or Cotton Canvas. Whilst these are primed, we would suggest that you experiment with applying a coat of Gesso first. This reduces the tendency for your first layer of paint to sink into the surface and Gesso is much cheaper than paint!

Easels for painting

You do not need an easel to start with, but some people find it easier to work on a canvas that is supported – and you do get a better perspective painting with a supported surface. We have two options for you:

The Seine Floor Standing easel

The Varde Table Top easel

If you are wanting to work in a more ‘studio’ way and have space then you might consider a studio easel such as the Lea – these are quite large and don’t really fold down for storage – ask for details and availability.

Finally – do not panic

When painting alla prima, there will always be an element of unpredictability, no matter how much control you paint with. It might be the way colours mix on the canvas, edges getting lost or some areas drying faster than other areas.

Whatever the case, do not let this unpredictable element discourage you. Instead, embrace it because it is what often results in those pleasant surprises in your painting.

Nobody is so skilled that they can predict the exact outcome of their strokes.

If something does not turn out as planned in your painting, like two colours accidentally mixing. Then see if you can pivot and make it work instead of trying to backtrack.

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