Importance of Drawing and Imprimatura in Classical Painting Technology

A short description of the classical painting method with oil colors


Make your drawing on paper as if it is your final product. Copy it on tracing paper and retrace the lines on the back side of it with dry pastel pencil (Carb-Othello).
Transfer drawing to the board and rework it with diluted burnt umber paint using a fine brush.
Don’t think that drawing is something that is not fully related to the painting with colors. Drawing is “the melody” of the visual art and the colors are “the harmony”. Keep in mind that “the harmony” gives only the moods or impressions of the moment but only “the melody” is able to unfold the whole story.
By drawing your subjects “inside-out” you study it on a much deeper level than by just dubbing it with #40 brush.
I know that most of us don’t have enough patience. In this case, our paintings will be similar to the “3 chords guitar music” – just O.K. for friends and family.
Draw with precision using different pressure and line thickness. Draw with a pencil and with a brush.


Imprimatura is the classical term for a semi transparent or transparent color layer used to create a toned ground for a painting. It literally means “what goes before first”.
Imprimatura acts as harmonizing element for all upper color layers if they are laid according to the laws of the classical technique allowing the imprimatura to show through in certain places.
It also determines an overall darkness (or lightness) of the composition.
The advantage of an imprimatura over a toned gesso or a toned primer is that the white ground reflects the light through the imprimatura and upper semi-transparent layers, creating almost a magical 3-dimensional illusion.
The color of an imprimatura depends on the lighting source in the composition you are going to paint and the subject.
If we would consider a raw umber to be a neutral color for imprimatura, then you may want to go to a warmer or cooler sides by mixing yellow ochre with bone black in different proportions.
Never choose the darkness of this layer by mechanically picking 50% grey tone.
You always can put the second layer or add darker tones during your next step – shadows study.

Shadows Study (underpainting)

The portions of the drawing which are darker then imprimatura are painted with Burnt or Raw Umber in thin layers. Imprimatura should still be slightly visible through the darkest parts.
Small details are usually omitted. Areas where bright reds or bright blues are going to be painted are usually left uncovered.

Shape Study

In this stage, only four colors are used: Lead or Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Red Ochre and Bone or Ivory Black. The trick is to mix them correctly to have a scale of neutral grays. First mix Black and White, then add a bit of Yellow Ochre. Add Red Ochre carefully just until it eliminates the greenishness brought to the mixture by Yellow Ochre.
Work thick in the lights and less thick in the shadows. Don’t use semi-transparent “soapy” layers. Leave a small parentage of the darkest parts of the shadows uncovered.
By the end, the objects on your painting should look like they are made out of unpolished marble without out details in the highlighted areas and the darkest shadows.

Live Colors Stage

Mix real object colors. To the previous colors add : Ultramarine, Prussian Blue, Madder Lake Deep, Red Cinnabar or Cadmium Red, Cadmium or Lead Yellow. Each color for each object must be exactly of the same darkness as they are on the previous layer. For highlighted areas and shadows use one step lighter and one step darker mixtures. Sometimes you’ll need a lot of layers to complete this stage. Each time narrow the highlighted and shadow areas, painting them lighter and lighter.

Glazing and Finishing

Glazing can be done with transparent or semitransparent colors. Don’t overdo it and carefully choose the areas for glazing.
After the glazing is done, the very dark shadows are finished with the semi-transparent (almost opaque, if needed) colors and at last the very highlights are put on.

Egg tempera painting and even icons were often finished with oils. Be cautious though, if somebody will suggest using some “old magic recipes ” for this purpose, such as Maroger Medium or Amber Varnish. You may ruin your work completely without knowledge about how and where to use them.
Here are several recipes of Oil Painting Mediums & Varnishes.


Let the painting dry as long as you can afford before varnishing it. Damar varnish is O.K. Olifa (heat thickened linseed oil with lead) should not be used in Fine Art at all.
There are many new developments in the area of acrylic and polyurethane non yellowing varnishes. Unfortunately most of them are not removable. On the other hand, some of them are extremely durable and might be the best and the only choice for protecting valuable artwork.
I’ve used some of these successfully for several years on some of my works. For the time being, I’m leaving the choice to you.

Several basic painting rules

* Let each previous layer dry completely. Wait at least 10 days. 30 or 45 is better.
* Never dip dry brush in to the paint. Wet it first then dry it a little with a paper towel.
* Use different brushes for each color.
* Avoid touching painting surface with your bare hands. Use bridge or mahlstick.
* Have a very clear plan and know several steps ahead what you are going to do today.
* Let the painting dry at least for 2-3 weeks before putting on the next layer.
* Don’t try to fix something on your painting with brushes, which you couldn’t do or forgot to do with a pencil.
* Never start painting on a white canvas or board. Always put imprimatura after the completion of the detailed drawing.

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Leonardo da Vinci Facts: Mother Caterina

Leonardo_GiacondaReconstruction of Leonardo’s fingerprint gave some clues about his possible ethnicity, according to controversial Italian research. Dermatoglyphics, science that studies skin patterns through computer analysis of data, claims to have found connection between fingerprint patterns and population ethnicity.

So, based on reconstructed fingerprint of Leonardo da Vinci, researchers made a conclusion that he was of Middle Eastern descent. “The fingerprint features patterns such as the central whorl that are dominant in the Middle East.
About 60 percent of the Middle Eastern population display the same dermatoglyphic structure,” according to the anthropologist Luigi Capasso. This gives new evidence to the theory of Alessandro Vezzosi that Leonardo’s mother was not a peasant from Vinci but a slave girl brought to Tuscany from Middle East.

This was quite wide-spread in Italy that slaves, brought from Middle East, Eastern Europe and Balkans, were used in wealthy homes to perform all kinds of duties. An existence of 550 slaves has been documented in Florence at the time of Leonardo’s birth. Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci in the artist’s home town of Vinci in Tuscany, discovered some papers showing that at the time of Leonardo’s birth his father was a craftsman, Ser Piero Da Vinci, and his mother was a female slave known as Caterina.

It was a common practice to baptize slave girls, giving them names like Maria, Caterina, and Marta. The only Caterina that was inside Ser Piero’s circle was a slave in the house of his wealthy friend Vanni di Niccolo di Ser Vanni, whose hand-written will was recently discovered in the archives. It looks like after his death Vanni left his house in Florence to Ser Piero and his slave Caterina to his late wife Agnola. It seems that logically the inheritance should have been switched between two of them. Ser Piero then negotiated freedom for Caterina in exchange for allowing Vanni’s widow Agnola stay in the house and did not take possession of the property until her death.

Caterina was quickly married off to Acchattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci, I’m guessing, against her will as his name in Italian means “quick to start a quarrel.” There are some theories and speculations that later in life, when Caterina was in her sixties, Leonardo stayed in touch with his mother and she even moved to Milan to be closer to her son. They are based on some encrypted clues found in da Vinci manuscripts called Codex Atlanticus and Codex Forster II. And then there is Mona Lisa that was often called Leonardo’s self-portrait as the features from the two line up eerily perfectly. It is the only painting that he carried with him all his life which wouldn’t be the case with a commissioned portrait.

Could it be the depiction of Caterina?
We probably would never know for sure. Though scientists claimed that they have collected some saliva and traces of food from manuscripts as Leonardo had a habit of eating late at night while working on his notes. So, what’s next? A complete DNA mapping or clones of Renaissance genius?

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The Pieta by Michelangelo

I still cannot comprehend how a twenty-four year old can feel so much tragedy and was able to create such a powerful piece out of a single stone in just 2 years…

I believe I am not alone wondering this, as even Michelangelo’s contemporaries of were attributing his “Pieta” to other, more mature sculptors. Young Michelangelo got so offended, that he carved his name on the sash running across the Virgin Mary’s chest, to stop these rumors forever. It is known that he later regretted giving in to his pride and doing this, so the Pieta remains the only work he signed.

We owe the “pleasure” of looking at the Pieta at San Pietro (Saint Peter’s) Basilica through the bulletproof Plexiglas to a crazy geologist who attacked it with a sledgehammer, so viciously that pieces of marble were flying all over the place.

Mary’s nose was broken, many big and small pieces of marble were picked up by the crowd and lost forever, so to restore the sculpture pieces from the back were used to better match the stone.

What is it about great masterpieces that they awaken the worst beasts in people and evoke mindless rage and destruction in unstable souls?

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