Painting Techniques of the Italian Masters

painting-methods-masters-wkshopI just finished a 5-day workshop learning the Painting Methods of the Italian Masters with Martinho Correia. Five, 8-hour days, working on a single small painting… and I’m not done yet!

But wow! Did we learn a lot. Below is the same process used by Da Vinci and Michelangelo – which Martinho learned during his studies in Florence.

STEP ONE: Transfer a black and white photocopy of the image onto the canvas. Apparently this technique was routinely used for painting frescoes. Sorry I didn’t get a picture of this step, but here’s how you do it:

- Get a black and white photocopy of the image you want to paint and make sure it’s the same size as the canvas you want to use.

- Cover the back of the photocopy (or drawing) with compressed charcoal. Press really hard and make sure the charcoal is very dark. Don’t worry about it getting on the canvas as it is easily covered up by the paint and doesn’t show through.

- Next, tape the photocopy securely in place over the canvas and using a PEN trace the image – including the major tonal values – onto the canvas. So the charcoal side is against the canvas, the image is facing you, and you are tracing over the lines of the image with a pen. Check every so often to make sure your tracing is transferring properly. If it’s not, you need more charcoal, or you need to press harder with the pen.

- Remove the photocopy. Now you have the sketch of your image on the canvas, so you don’t need to spend 2 days drawing it on there!

STEP TWO: Using burnt umber ONLY do an underpainting of the image where you basically paint in the tonal values of the image – providing a tonal map of where the light and dark areas are. This map will come in handy when applying the colored paints. Here’s what it looks like when finished – note I didn’t bother doing the shirt as that is fairly easy to do directly with normal paints:


p.s. I apologize for the quality of all these photos! They were only taken with my iPhone, not my good camera.

STEP THREE: Next, you start to lay in the color. Some people in the class laid in the first pass at the colors for the entire painting at once. For me, I prefer to work bit by bit. So I started with the hat and the hair and a bit of the shirt:

underpainting-hatSTEP FOUR: Now that I’m into the groove, I’m ready to start on the face. I spent the entire day on the face and here’s how far I got:

day1FaceSTEP FIVE: Continued to work on the face for the entire day – was also able to do some glazing as my work from yesterday was dry enough (I’m using Cobra Water Soluble Oils, so drying time is a bit faster). If I need to dilute or increase flow, I use a tiny bit of water, or linseed oil. Important points at this stage are to paint the muscles under the lips and all around the mouth area. When painting areas like the chin think of sculpting the shape, rather than just painting it. Make sure all your transitions (from one color to the next) are smooth, with the colors either blended, or a transition color between the two.

Day2FaceThis is as far as I got on the piece and I will finish the rest at home.

If you want to know the palette colors, here is the Workshop Materials List for you to download.

Here are some of the best things Martinho taught me on this course:

1. To get the darkest areas on the face, mix together burnt umber and ultramarine – never in 100 years would I have figured that out! If you need it still darker, add a touch of black.

2. When you need to tone down the chroma (brightness) of an area, you can grey-down the color using these methods (depending on what your desired effect is):

  • Using BLACK will grey-down the color and add a BLUE hue to it.
  • Using RED UMBER or BURNT SIENNA will grey-down the color and add a RED hue.
  • Using RAW UMBER will grey-down the color and add a YELLOW hue to it.
  • Using BURNT UMBER will grey-down the color and add a ORANGE hue to it.

Isn’t that cool??

Here’s what my palette looked like – meant to bring my large palette, but forgot!


What was really interesting to me, was that 3 other students there chose to do the same painting as me, so I got to check theirs out for ideas along the way – and also learn from each of them.

BUT even though we all started from the SAME tracing, our finished paintings are all quite different! Here are the other students paintings of the exact same image:


Student 1


Student 2


Student 3

And thanks to Lalita Hamill for bringing in Martinho for this intense and enjoyable learning curve!

For those of you who are wondering, the piece I worked on was a  a detail from Cagnacci’s ‘David With the Head of Goliath’. And here, finally, is my finished piece after completing it at home:



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