Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jan van Eyck Painting Process

Jan Van Eyck was a master painter of the Northern Renaissance. He revolutionized the technique of oil painting, and we, as students of the classics, can learn much from him. I learned van Eyck's painstaking and meticulous painting method for my Painting Materials and Techniques class; it was a ten week class and I was not able to finish the painting! So I thought I would share the process here.

Ampersand Gesso Board
Small round watercolor brushes 000, 0, 1, and a #6, #7, #8 sable flats
Professional grade oil paints: Sap Green, Ultramarine Blue, Pthalo Blue, Quinacridone Rose, Pthalo Green, Indian Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Magenta, and Dioxazine Purple or Carbazole Violet (transparent hues)
Titanium White and Zinc White
Cotton rags
Plastic Wrap to cover palette
Wax Paper palette
plastic clipboard case or any sealed case to keep the painting in
a sealed palette case and glass palette
sheets of 220, 320, 400, and 600 sandpaper
Linseed oil
The first step is to prime the Gesso Board. Sand it with the 220 paper (wrapped around an object to make a sanding block) for about 3 minutes. Then sand with the 400 paper for about 3 minutes, and finish sanding with 600 or 800 till the surface is shiny. Next, take linseed oil and pour a bit on the board. Spread out with fingers and let dry for at least 20 minutes, and then wipe off with a cotton rag. Let the board sit for 24 hours before drawing on.

After the drawing is transferred onto the board (using wax-free Saral Transfer paper), you are ready for the under-painting. 
The piece that I worked on was a small detail of Mary from the Ghent Altarpiece. 
The under-painting is a grayish mix that is used for the flesh, Mary's crown and pearls, or anything in a similar range to that. Mix Titanium White, some linseed oil, Quinacridone Rose, Pthalo Green, and a little Indian Yellow to make a translucent gray. Mix a whole range of values using these combinations, keeping it neutral to warm, mixing more Indian Yellow into the lighter values.

Apply the paint slowly and meticulously, think of the painting you are copying as all gray values. Paint very thin and try not to leave any brushstrokes, just kind of dab the paint on.
Here is the start of my underpainting. Just the face took about 20 hours, and the pearls took many more.
Remember that what you paint is going to look darker than what you have mixed on your palette.
For all of the gold parts, also do the gray under-painting.

For any large, simple, dark, neutral part of the painting, for example a large fur coat of a background, use complement weaving. Choose a complement pair that is close in value such as red and green. Mix Quinacridone Rose and Pthalo Green (more of one- red) and a bit of Indian Yellow and paint the first layer, paint all the way up to the figure, then use a cotton cloth to dab to control value and eliminate the hard edges. Let the layer dry. Then use Pthalo Green and Quinacridone Rose (more of one- green) and Indian Yellow and paint another layer then dab. Repeat as many times as necessary.

For colored cloth, jewels, flowers, or hair paint a thin color that is one step lighter than what it is supposed to be. For example, for a dark red flower, paint orange, for a violet, paint red, for a dark blue, paint a lighter blue. Add a little Titanium White in so it's not too transparent. For jewels, don't neutralize at all, they should be full bright (this will shine through later). For brown hair, it should be a reddish or greenish brown under-painting. 

The rusty orangey mix for the hair is Quinacridone Rose, a bit of Pthalo Green and Indian Yellow and some Titanium White. Then cool it down with a bit on Pthalo Blue. Make a value scale of this color.
 Mary's hair unfortunately looks like the Little Mermaid's hair...
Look closely and notice that I used the other end of my paintbrush to scratch in directional lines and waves in her hair.

The next step is the first glaze! Begin with the flesh. Glazing is pretty simple and once you have done one area, you will understand how to do it with the rest. It is a very thin application of paint done very slowly and using tiny brushes and brushstrokes. Mix Indian Yellow, Quinacridone Rose, and Titanium White to make a variety of hues. Also use any other of your transparent blues and greens to make some cool values too. 

****It is important to note that you SHOULD DEFINITELY keep your sealed palette in the freezer when not painting, so your paints will stay wet for a long time even though they are thin!*****

Make your paint mixtures fairly thinned with linseed oil, but not puddled up, just like the consistency of butter. Make a plum color with Alizarin Crimson, Indian Yellow, Ultramarine Blue, and white.
Also make some very saturated as well as very light colors. The gray of the under-painting will neutralize.

^Notice the consistency^

Put down the colors first and don't dab with a cloth, just stipple with the brush to blend. Try to not have brush strokes. There is variety in every part of the painting, there are no areas of homogeneous color.

^This is a detail comparison to the photo I was looking at^

Here is the palette of colors you would generally mix for the first glaze over the gold parts. Jan van Eyck used gold filigree I'm sure, but I didn't have the money or time to do that.

This is as far as I got. It needs the first glaze finished, as well as at least 2 more glazes more, because at this point you can see that the gray under-painting is still shining through and dulling it. The hardest work is over though!


  1. What the heck! This looks awesome!

    - Amy. @ amylouski.blogspot.com