Thursday, January 17, 2013

Glazing: Oil Painting with a Limited Palette

Erik Koeppel "Mt. Madison" 10 x 16 inches. Oil on Panel (available click here) 
Many of the students who sign up for my workshops or watch my dvd have questions about how to acheive beautiful harmonious color with a limited palette (and without getting muddy!) The short answer is by glazing. Glazes accomplish several functions in oil painting, and in my opinion shouldn't be considered just an end coat or color enhancing technique, but an integral part of the entire process of  painting.

 A glaze is any area of the painting that is transparent (as opposed to opaque).  Glazing has been a part of the entire pre-impressionist history of oil painting because of it's ease of capturing rich colors at higher values (which make it great for capturing natural light and atmosphere), and because it allows the artist to adjust the larger color and value relationships in a painting without loosing the drawing (and hard work!) of previous layers. It's also very useful for capturing long and incredibly subtle transitions in value and color. Most of my paintings have between 5 and 30 layers of paint, with an infinite variety of translucent and fully transparent glazes, as well as opaque highlights. Actually only very little of what you see in the painting above is actually opaque paint, and the entirety of the painting is glazed in one way or another.

Before I go on to analyze the coloring of the painting above, you might enjoy taking a minute to describe to yourself the colors you see there, particularly in the deep space. I see a variety of soft lovely purples, tinted with warm peachy light. However they are painted as they would be observed in the evening landscape behind a thick layer of warm atmosphere, so they are set back into space by layers of glazing.

In the above diagram I pulled swatches with photo-shop of the 'optical sums' of the paint layers, and filled them into the rectangles below. It's interesting to me how what our eyes read as lovely colors coming through glazes result in muddy brown greys when reduced to a swatch.  I pulled the swatches from light and shadow areas to also show how glazing can achieve very subtle warm/cool color shifts within an incredibly narrow range of values. Note how 1 and 2 are very close values, but the light is slightly warmer. This helps keep the Mt. Madison feeling very distant in atmosphere. Those atmospheric glazes also help soften the edges to keep the mountain back in space.
By layering them, glazes also add rich vibrations of color which help create the optical sensations we find in nature (purple shadow, peachy light). As you can see in this image, I replaced two areas at the top of the mountain with their respective swatches. You can see immediately that the richness, depth, and variety of color in the summit was lost by replacing the glazed color with it's flat optical sum.

My palette: Burnt Sienna, Ventetian Red, Yellow Ochre, Naples Yellow Deep Extra, Ulramarine Blue, Black, Burnt Umber White)
Those are the only colors that were used to create the painting. In addition to getting harmonies by glazing the limited palette is also useful for conceptualizing the relationships we observe in Nature with paint.

When I'm building a painting I'm very conscious of the way that colors and values change as our eyes move through space. The limited palette is very effective for quickly controlling those relationships outdoors. Observe the shifts in value and color through space in this detail:

Also take a look in black and white:

Note how the shadow colors moving forward in space move from a very cool light in the deepest space transitioning toward a rich warm dark in the foreground. With a limited palette this can be painted just by starting with a cool blue grey in the deepest space and adding burnt umber to it as you move forward through the picture (Of course that will take time and practice to master, and layers of glazing to refine and perfect).

The whole painting again
Once you've picked up the basics of painting in a traditional way with a limited palette and glazing, your speed at developing the framework of a painting will increase dramatically, giving you the rest of your life, to consider how the art of painting can reveal a high notion of Beauty, and to share your beautiful experience of Nature with humanity.

Here are some historic paintings that used this method (or variations on it):

Asher B. Durand
Frederic E. Church

George Inness
Thomas Cole
Claude Lorrain
William Turner
John Constable
In addition, there's only one painting out of all the paintings in the following post on Mt. Chocorua (LINK) that did NOT use glazing. Can you guess which one it is?  (answer: the William Paskell)

Thank you for reading, and I hope if you're interested in learning more about how these methods can be included in your process of painting please consider my dvd or workshops below.


Order here:
Techniques of the Hudson River School Masters with Erik Koeppel

See and excerpt! (click here)

Q&A and Testimonials (click here) more is constantly being added in the 'comments' section at the bottom.

Upcoming Workshops:
NEW Workshop in the White Mountains July 25 - Aug 3, 2013 (10 instructed days) (click here for info)

Koeppel Paintings On View:
Rehs Galleries New York City, NY (click here)
McColl Fine Art in Charlotte, NC (click here) 
The Banks Gallery in Portsmouth, NH (click here) 
Art Renewal Center Living Master Gallery: (click here)
New Hampshire Antiques Co-op (click here)
Special Exhibitions:
L.A. Art Show Jan. 23rd to 27th with Rehs Galleries (contact the gallery about a free ticket)

Naples, FL Feb. 7th to 11th with Rehs Galleries and McColl Fine Art (more info soon)

Palm Beach, FL Feb. 15th to 19th with Rehs Galleries and McColl Fine Art (more info soon)

Marine Art Show upcoming at the New Hampshire Antiques Co-op

Thank you for reading! 

Erik Koeppel Studio
P.O. Box 325 
Jackson, NH 03846
ph: 603-383-7062


  1. Very clear explainations, thanks to the swatches.
    Makes me want to glaze a lot!

  2. Fabulous! Love it! Want to take a workshop !