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Blocking In

By October 21, 2016Uncategorized


Blocking in is the step after your sketch, in which the canvas is covered with flat shapes that indicate where elements will go, and what color or value they’ll be. Move past outlines into shapes. You can easily shift and change things around in the blocking in phase, because no investment has been made into details or precise colors, and the paint is thin. Blocking in is when your composition is built and refined. Do not go forward into refinements of color or details until the basic big areas of shapes are satisfying on the canvas as a whole. Think of it as building a house. This is the framework and drywall. You can’t hang curtains until the house is built. (Adapted from the George Bridgman quote: “Don’t think color’s going to do you any good. Or lovely compositions. You can’t paint a house until it’s built.”

Most artists don’t use white in the blocking in process. If you use the white of the canvas for light colors, you won’t have to wait as long for your underpainting to dry. The paint is usually thin so this layer dries quickly and can be easily painted over with slightly thicker paint. Most of this layer will be covered, so blocking in is usually a fast process, often done with a big bristle brush. Traditionally, artists start with value, and chose one earth color like a burnt umber. Modern artists might choose a single bright complimentary color that will be exciting when seen peeking in between the next layers. Contemporary artists sometimes block in with multiple colors, like a patchwork quilt, but since color is so enticing this tends to be distracting for beginning painters who generally need to practice on seeing the composition and basic forms.

For oil painting, some artists block in using water based paints like casein or acrylic because they’re less expensive and they dry faster, allowing the artist to add the next layer within an hour. Don’t dilute your acrylics with more than 20% water unless you’re ok with your painting not be archival. On the other side, thick glossy acrylic paint may be too slick for the next layer to adhere to. Keep it thin, or lightly sand between layers.


How to block in an oil painting; demo video below by Bill Inman. Nearly-finished painting below.

Seattle Artist League: art school, art classes, painting classes, figure drawing.


  • claudia says:

    Ok, now I see what I was puzzling over. Sometimes I do an undercoat of acrylic and then paint oil over top. Sometimes the oil has a hard time adhering. You have solved the puzzle. Thank you, most grateful. Is it the water content of the acrylic? you said no more than 20% and the painting that is not accepting the oil is a wash of acrylic over an acrylic tinted gesso. It is now a stubborn little bugger that the oil slides off of…..ah, the learning process.
    You have also made me consciously understand what intrigues me about your work. It is alive, it is palpable and now I see why. It borders alla prima or maybe is alla prima.
    I do not think, however, that what I deal with is this realm. I paint about the less conscious world, the “other” world. I guess, the dream world.
    Yes, (hang my head) I do a lot of blending and I try not to have edges because i want to show the ‘interconnections of all things’. Is there a more effective way? I am open to any ideas you may have.

  • Porfirio says:

    Thank you, nice read.

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