I’m one of those people who has a lot of hobbies but still hasn’t figured out how to quit my day job. One of my longest running hobbies is painting. I started taking oil painting lessons when I was 10. As of this writing I’m 49, so I’ve been at it a while. I’m no Hunter Biden, but I can hold my own.

I started with classes at a local art shop and stayed there for 10 or 12 years. Then I took a few college courses in Chicago, and when that became too expensive, I switched to books and later YouTube. Today’s demo will be an oil painting, which in my opinion is superior to all other types of painting. I have almost as much experience in acrylic and watercolor, but nothing can beat the results of oil. It has rich colors, depth and realism that nothing else can match. I just like the look of it, especially when viewed in person.

Today I’m presenting a demonstration of my current painting technique. It was inspired by some of the techniques presented in How to Paint Like the Old Masters. This book introduced me to some radically different ways of painting from the ones I learned from my first teachers. It’s fun, it goes quickly, and I think the results are great. This isn’t going to be a step-by-step Bob Ross tutorial, just an overview of the painting process. What I’m doing is very similar to what was done as far back as the 1400’s. Once you are familiar with the steps, you’ll notice how they were used in some of the earlier paintings, such as this unfinished one by Leonardo da Vinci.

The source photo

Today we’ll paint this skull I found on Google. I picked it because it has a lot of detail and some dramatic light and dark areas. Because there aren’t any flesh tones, I’ll use just three colors: black, titanium white, and burnt umber. To make the paint flow, I use a homemade medium consisting of equal parts varnish, linseed oil, and paint thinner. The medium gives the paint a shiny, wet look even when it’s dry. Without medium, the paint will dry with a dull finish and the colors won’t be as intense until the painting is varnished. I use synthetic brushes, from 1″ wide down to, well, very tiny, and a palette knife to mix the paint.

I’ve organized this into “sittings”, which are 30 to 90 minutes long. I usually have a goal I want to meet with each sitting, but sometimes the length depends on how much time I have that day. I wait until the paint is completely dry between settings, about 3-4 days.

  (Not pictured): I start with a 9×12 canvas that is primed with gesso tinted with acrylic paint to have a warm beige color. I draw the skull directly on the canvas using charcoal. I come back to the drawing 3 or 4 times to make adjustments. I like to start with as accurate a drawing as possible.
First Sitting: I paint the shadows using burnt umber and medium, thinning down the paint so it flows like watercolor. I use soft brushes to blend the shadows, and paint the dark areas using almost pure paint with only a little medium. This underpainting should be fairly detailed. At this point it’s easy to make corrections if my drawing is off.
Second Sitting: I mix white with a little burnt umber, and paint in the light areas. I mix a gray color using black, umber, and white, and paint in the shadow areas. For the middle tones, I leave the underpainting showing. This gives the painting a nice warm feel. To finish, I paint over the background using black.
Third Sitting: I add pure white to the light areas and use gray and black to strengthen the shadows. I start to add details in places like the teeth.
Fourth Sitting: I realize the painting is looking too smooth, so I add details such as cracks and areas of rough texture. I continue to work on the teeth.
Fifth Sitting: I use a glaze (medium with a small amount of paint) to tint the darker areas such as the right side and the back of the teeth. I continue to add texture and details.
Sixth Sitting: I make the final adjustments to the shadows using a glaze, specifically on the right side and in the eye sockets. I add a few more lights and any details I missed. Now it’s time to sign it. After this, I’d typically wait 3 to 6 months for the paint to completely cure before brushing on a coat of varnish.

Here’s a bigger view of the finished product. This one will be framed and given to my father in law for Christmas. (Don’t worry, he’s still one of the few who aren’t on this site).

The finished painting

Next time I’ll show how to paint a figure, and then move on to a portrait.