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What is direct painting and why you should do it

You can use two main techniques to start a painting: the direct approach and the indirect approach.

Direct painting is a painting technique in which you directly apply paint to your canvas without using a detailed underpainting. Direct painting is what most artists (unknowingly) use as it’s an intuitive way of painting.

Please keep reading to find out the benefits of direct painting, why it’s preferred over indirect painting, and how to start using this technique yourself!

What are the two methods of painting?

The two main methods of painting are called direct painting and indirect painting. These two techniques are common as direct painting is what most artists instinctively use and indirect painting is what the old art masters used back in the day.

Neither one is better than the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages. It all comes down to preference.

What is indirect painting?

Indirect painting is a painting technique in which you paint a detailed underpainting. Next, you paint a series of glazes which, in the end, form a hyper-realistic result. Each of these glazes needs to dry in between in order to not disturb the previous glaze.

So basically you first lay down your values without any hue or saturation information. This is your underpainting. Next, you focus on hue and saturation alone by adding a glaze.

After your first glaze has dried, you add another glaze. You keep repeating this until you have a finished painting.

I recommend reading about hue vs color if you’d like to know more about the three components that make up color! Don’t worry it’s super easy :)

What is the difference between direct and indirect painting?

The difference between direct and indirect painting is that with indirect painting you first paint an underpainting which you paint layers over and with direct painting you skip the underpainting and intuitively pick and paint with colors.

Direct painting is what most (hobby) artists do. This is because you don’t follow certain steps, you immediately go in and paint what you want. It’s direct.

Indirect painting requires some planning. You build your painting from the ground up. This allows for a precise (and hyper-realistic) outcome.

But this doesn’t mean you cannot get hyper-realistic results by using direct painting. Indirect painting is just a more controlled and technical way of painting.

Benefits of direct painting

Direct painting has some pros and cons just like any other painting technique.

The benefits of direct painting are:

  • Direct painting is intuitive
    • You paint directly what you want without following certain rules
  • It’s less stressful
  • Direct painting is fun
  • It’s a quick way to paint
    • May take under an hour to finish a piece


  • Mistakes are easier to happen

You should use direct painting if you’d rather have fun in the process and don’t care as much about the outcome.

Benefits of indirect painting

Indirect painting also has many pros (and some cons).

Benefits of indirect painting

  • You can create hyper-realistic paintings
  • The rules you have to follow give a certain comfort because you know what to do
    • This takes away the feeling of being overwhelmed
  • You plan out and break down each step which makes it easy to control the outcome of your painting

Cons of indirect painting

  • Indirect painting takes significantly longer than direct painting
    • Due to all the steps you need to take
indirect painting
digitally indirect painting

How do you direct paint?

Direct painting is very intuitive and doesn’t have a lot of rules

To direct paint, you:

  1. Pick a color
  2. Apply to canvas
  3. Repeat until you finish

I feel like I didn’t even have to make a step-by-step guide :’) But it’s as simple as this. Directly approach your canvas with your brush!

How do you indirect paint?

As you now know, indirect painting takes longer than direct painting.

To indirect paint, you:

  1. Paint an underpainting and let dry
    • This underpainting focuses on values
  2. Apply your first glaze and let dry
    • Glazes are transparent: you should see your underpainting through it
  3. Apply your second glaze and let dry
    • Each glaze you add should contain slightly less oil and more paint
      • This is the fat-over-lean principle (thinned-down paint on the first layers, pure paint on the last layers)
  4. Keep adding more glazes until you finish and let dry

Since indirect painting takes a while (due to drying and several glazing steps) this technique may take up tens of hours.

Can you indirect paint digitally?

Did you know that you can use the indirect painting technique digitally? It’s actually pretty common!

You can digitally use the indirect painting technique by first painting in grayscale. After that, you create a new layer and set its blend mode to ”color”. On this new layer, you paint with colors.

Paint everything on one layer or set the opacity low so you can add more layers (with the same settings) and build your painting up.

The values of your digital underpainting will always shine through which is not the case when you keep your blend mode on ”normal”.

If you keep the blend mode on ”normal” the colors will accumulate and you’ll lose your underpainting.

indirect painting
Digital indirect painting

Tip: Depending on what color your underpainting is in, you can set your blend mode to either Hue or Color. Play around to get the best results!

What kind of paint medium is the easiest to learn?

Direct and indirect painting can be done in most mediums that allow glazes. Think of watercolors, oil, and acrylics.

The paint medium easiest to learn is different for everyone but most people agree that it’s Acrylics. Acrylics are easy to learn because it dries fast, it’s easily available, it is cheap and you can easily paint over mistakes.

The hardest paint medium to learn is watercolors as you are literally painting with water. Water is unpredictable and you need to practice using the right amount of water.

However, once you get through that learning curve it’s very fun to use.

Direct painting examples

Here are some direct painting examples:

Indirect painting examples

Dina Brodsky does her ”underpaintings” in ballpoint pen:

JMR Art on Youtube first lays down a value painting (underpainting) and then goes over with gouache

Chuck Black art demonstrates his underpainting to finished painting

Q&A about direct and indirect paintings techniques

What is direct painting also called?

Direct painting is also called Alla Prima which means at first attempt (or all at once) which refers to directly painting on a canvas without letting the paint dry.

What is the most common painting technique?

The most common painting technique is the direct painting technique in which you paint directly onto the canvas without using an underpainting.

what is the technique of painting in a direct style without layers?

The paint technique in a direct style without layers is called Alla prima, wet on wet, or direct painting.

I hope this article was helpful to you :) Feel free to sign up for my artletter to receive art news, blogs, discounts, and more!

♡ Laura

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