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Painting Glazes in Oils or Acrylics

Answers to frequently asked questions on painting glazes with oils or acrylics.

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Painting glazes

An example of painting glazes using blue and red.

Image: © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

For some reason there’s a mystique about painting glazes and a belief that glazing is difficult or even near impossible to master. As a result, beginners (and not-such-beginners) often don’t discover the fabulous results glazing can bring for far too long.

The truth is the basics of painting glazes is easy to understand, though it is a painting technique that does require some patience because each layer of paint must be completely dry before a new glaze is applied and some knowledge of the colors you’re using in order to ‘predict’ the colors glazing will produce.

What is a Glaze, or Glazing?

A glaze is simply a thin, transparent layer or coat of paint and glazing is simply building up color by applying thin, transparent layers or coats one of top of another. Each glaze modifies the color of what’s already been painted on the canvas.

What’s the Point of Painting Glazes?

Each glaze tints or modifies the color of the paint beneath it. When you look at a painting, the color is mixed optically giving a deep, rich color. For example, painting a glaze of red over blue gives a richer purple than you’d get if you mixed the red and blue paint together on your palette before you applied it. To rather over-simplify the science, the purple you’re seeing is created by light bouncing back from the canvas, through the blue and then the red layer, into your eye, producing a deeper color than if it’d just bounced back from the surface of one layer of mixed paint.

Is It Necessary to Use Glazes in an Oil or Acrylic Painting?

No, there’s no painting rule that says you must paint using glazes. But it’s a painting technique that shouldn’t be rejected without spending some time learning the basics and giving it a go, as the results can be spectacular. (The terms ‘glowing’ and ‘luminous’ are commonly used to describe the effect.)

How Many Colors Can You Use in a Glaze?

A single glaze is a single layer of color. How many layers you glaze, depends on the results you’re after and comes with practice. A glaze works best when each color you use is made from only one pigment, not a mixture of two or more. The more pigments or colors you use, the sooner you’ll end up with a brown and gray (or tertiary colors).

Using paint colors that contain a single pigment rather than a combination of pigments also makes it easier to learn/predict the result of glazing with that particular color, helps retain color saturation, and reduces the risk of inadvertently creating dull or muddy colors. The paint tube label should tell you what pigments are in a particular color.

Do You Glaze With the Same or Different Colors?

It depends on what the final color is you’re trying to produce. If, for instance, you’re glazing a red over a blue to produce a purple, additional glazes of the red will make the purple deeper, richer, and redder. You glaze as many times as is necessary to get the color your want.

How Many Layers of Glaze Do You Need to Get the Best Effect?

Again, there’s no hard-and-fast rule. It’s the result that counts.

What Colors are Best for Painting Glazes in Oils and Acrylics?

Paint pigments or colors are classified as transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque. Some colors are so transparent that used thinly they barely showing on top of another color. Others are extremely opaque, totally obscuring what’s beneath when used straight from the tube. Glazes work best with transparent pigments. If you’re not sure whether a color is opaque or transparent and the paint tube label doesn’t tell you, you can do a simple paint opacity test.

Can You Glaze With Opaque Colors, or Only with Transparent Colors?

You can use opaque colors for glazing – the results just aren’t the same as with transparent colors, producing a misty effect that’s ideal for painting fog for instance. Try glazing with all the colors in your palette and get to know their characteristics and the results they produce. Paint up a sample glaze chart, recording what colors you used, so you’ve a record you can refer to.

What Consistency Should the Paint be for Painting Glazes?

Glazing is about putting down thin layers of paint, so the paint should be fluid (thin) or you need to ensure that you spread it thinly when you paint. You can buy glazing mediums for both oil paint and acrylic. (If you add too much water to acrylic paint you run the risk of the paint losing its adhesive qualities; see this Acrylic Painting FAQ.) A common ‘recipe’ among oil painters is to mix 50:50 turpentine and oil. Some bought oil painting mediums (such as Liquin) will help speed up the drying time of oil paint.

What’s the Best Type of Brush to Use for Painting Glazes?

You can glaze with any brush, but if you’re new to glazing, start with a soft brush which makes it easier to paint smooth glazes, without visible brush marks.

Can You Combine Glazing With Other Techniques?

Just like some artists don’t like mixed media, some don’t like mixing techniques such as impasto and glazing. It’s up to you whether you like the result the combination gives you. You don’t need to glaze across the whole painting either; you can just do it in part of a painting.

What’s the Best Surface to Use for Painting Glazes?

Smoother surfaces reflect more light, so hardboard painted white is ideal. But that’s not to say you can’t paint glazes on other grounds, such as canvas.

I Don’t Get Any ‘Magical’ Effect When I Apply Glazes … What am I Doing Wrong?

If you’ve tried glazing and don’t get good results, check that you’re not glazing over a layer of paint that hasn’t completely dried. Also check whether you are using transparent, single-pigment colors. Then try again. I recommend starting with a blue and a yellow, glazing to make various shades of green.

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