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5 kinds of block-in methods and when to use them.

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

See the video about these techniques here -->

Sometimes it is hard to get motivated after the busy Christmas season and the list of excuses we make up to avoid painting can be longer than the grocery bill. Two of the most common cop-outs are making the time factor and not knowing how or where to begin.

Make the time by pushing the laundry aside for half an hour and go paint instead. Do it! My Grandmother always used to say to me “One of these days is none of these days.”… True. Wise words to be heeded, because ‘one day’ never happens, it just turns into a daydream. I don’t ever ‘one day’ anymore, I just go down to my studio and do it! The where to start is also a bit of a challenge. If you can find a place, method or routine that helps you get jumpstarted, keep using those same methods each time, and you will find it much easier to stay motivated. There will be less confusion in the beginning if you use the same approach each time, allowing you to be more creative.

Here are four different ways to start a painting that will help you overcome the hesitation or avoidance factor.


#1 Transparent monochromatic block-In.

This startup is the easiest to do. Great for monochromatic types of painting because you don’t have as much colour to deal with. By using one transparent colour, to begin with, you can create depth by using thick and thin layers of paint. Start with thin washes and slowly build up to thicker passages of paint and brushwork.

This block-in approach is useful when using old sepia tone or black and white photos. This approach also works well if you have a photo with undetermined or faded colours. Also by using a simple photo editing program can turn any photo into black and white or sepia colours, then you can easily paint it monochromatically.

The transparent block-in is super good for low light situations or grey days when there is not much in the way of directional light. This method is perfect for foggy, misty or hazy days.

Impressionistic red figure painting.
I used transparent iron oxide for all of this painting. The darker areas are the colour straight out of the tube, still transparent but a beautifully transparent dark.

Painting of a beach and surfers.
Misty, beauty mornings are perfect for a transparent block in. Frank Serrano.

Blue painting of a bridge.
Bridge block in by Mitch Albala.

Impressionistic painting of a bar on a street.
Transparent red oxide and burnt Sienna for this Richard Schmid block in.

Impressionistic purple landscape painting.
Transparent red oxide, transparent violet and viridian green were used to paint this little Joyce Washor study.


#2 Transparent multi-colour wash-in.

This is the same as a monochromatic wash in (#1) but you would use different colours of transparent paint.

This is a great method when you have a lot of colours that are similar but have small modifications in temperature change. Beaches, cliff things like the Grand Canyon or fall trees.

Impressionistic painting of a side of a cliff near the ocean.
Thin washes for colour are applied at the beginning of this Scott Christensen beach scene.

Realistic painting of the side of a cliff.
Lots of transparent washes are placed with opaque lights applied near the end in this Matt Smith painting.

Impressionistic river painting with a sunset.
Washy washy washy thin and transparent. Micheal O’Toole.


#3 Transparent block-in with opaque finishes.

Great for lots of saturated light and images busy with visual elements that are in your face. I use this method when there are many transitions from light to dark. Start with the monochromatic wash (as in #1) but finish with touches of opaque over the top.

Bravely block in your big shapes in the local opaque colour, then tweak the other types of lights (accents and reflected) afterwards.

Impressionistic painting of three light bulbs.
The warm under wash subtly peep through this Carol Marine painting of light bulbs. I wish I could still buy.

Impressionistic painting of a woman laying down.
Again the warm wash of the underpainting peeks through in Jeremy Mann's work.

Impressionistic landscape painting of a town.
Transparent washes with a touch of opaque watercolour from this Russian artist Сергей

Impressionistic painting of a woman laying on a couch.
Zhaoming Wu. The soft transitions from light to dark have been blocked in with a big brush in transparent washes then gently softened with more opaques on top.


#4 Opaque block-In or direct painting method.

Though this method is not for the faint of heart, it is the most fun. You need to be fairly accurate right out of the gate. A super method when your painting time is limited and you need to get down information fast. Be brave, paint what you see, concentrate on getting the values right, and just go for it. This method, though risky, is fun and creative. Face the fear and jump in!

Use the colour you see with the right value, getting as close as you can to the rich chroma in the right colour family, deciding if it is in the light family or the shadow family. This method is a bit slower and more difficult to master but a great method when you have lots of information to interpret.

This method is also useful when you have lots of saturated light and loads of detail to deal with. I love to use this method when I have multiple transitions from lights to darks. Block in your big shapes in the local opaque colour, then

tweak with the mid-tones, darks, accents and reflected light.

Pastel drawing of a Spanish man with a hat.
Here Harley Brown Block is with opaque washes then adds heavier application as he advances into the work.

Painting of a woman holding a wine glass in a red dress.
Michelle Torrez direct application.

Watercolour painting of a woman with a purple hat.
One spectacular direct application watercolour by Charles Reid.

impressionistic painting of two ladies talking.
Peggy Kroll Roberts direct painting.

Impressionistic blue figure painting.
This opaque block-in was painted over a red tone using just three colours. Ultra blue, manganese blue and white.


#5 Impressionistic block-in.

This fourth method is good for when you have high mid-day light. When things get saturated and there are limited value changes use this method to develop your painting. Instead of using a lot of value exchange, use temperature changes to excite your work. Placing warm and cools of each colour next to each other, yet keeping them close in relative value will make for a strong very visual feast.

impressionistic sea scape painting of a village
Collin Page makes a middle-of-the-day harbour scene look stunning.

Impressionistic painting of a field.

Impressionistic landcape painting

Impressionistic painting of a lake.
Here Lori Putnam, Dawn Whitelaw and Jill Carver paint some perfect middle-of-the-day paintings.

I use these five methods of starting for different situations. Now shove that pile of laundry aside and go test drive these methods. Try them several times before moving on. Hope this helps launch you straight into the studio.

Your friend in art


See the video about these techniques here -->


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