Part 3 : The Dead Layer (in Alkyd Oil Paint)

Now we're finally coming closer to the nitty gritty of this painting. In this part as specified by the title, I'll be detailing the materials and methods used in the dead layer for my repainting of Clayton Crain's Original Artpiece, from his Ghost Rider series. This part will be done exclusively in Alkyd's ( a lovely fast drying oil paint )

Fig.1 Painting the Dead Layer

Much in depth research has been done and written about the Venetian and Flemish manner of painting, and I for one am a bit apprehensive about divulging the wrong facts, only because what is said by one seemingly reliable source does not always seem to quite correlate with another.

However, as I feel any artist does in the end, info found was evaluated and molded in to what sounded the most logical and reliable, and thus I was able to decide exactly how I would go about executing the technique according to my own requirements.

Thus this will not be a strict description of how the Master's did it.... I'm sure a quick google search will bring up a barrage of info by others more experienced than I. In this post and the next the focus will primarily be on my own personal application of the method (employing the practices that I felt would enhance my own working method and the final outcome of the painting) and what I've learnt thus far... 

These details and stages will be illustrated with the accompanying reasons for them as best as can be. You may be interested in checking out my first simple attempt at trying out the Flemish technique,.. This current painting is my second....

Dead Layer

The dead layer is a monotone layer done in shades of gray or a 'moonlit' greenish hue, kind of like what I'm about to show you. Painting a monotone layer helps one tackle value alone, before attempting hue or chroma....
Note* The dead layer should be done a few shades lighter than intended for the completed painting. This is to compensate for the inevitable darkening that occurs with each successive transparent glaze. However this does not apply to a velatura, which is like a glaze using opaque or semi opaque paint (rather than transparent) to create a thin milky or misty layer, that obscures some but not all of the layer beneath it. It's often done in a sort of dry brush scumble.
Some say, one should keep the darks two shades lighter and the lights two shades darker, which are then darkened or lightened in the colour layers. I did not attempt to do this however. I found within a few glazes the light areas were too dark anyway and naturally lightened them with opaque white (that still showed the lower layers) which was then glazed with colour + white / colour alone , again in subsequent layers.. The lower layers were always ensured to still be seen at least to some extent even when lightening with mixtures of opaque white (like a velatura)

Overview of Materials Used

Fig.2 My tubes of Griffin Alkyd Oil Paints,
time for a new tube of terre verte me thinks. 
1. Alkyd Oil Paints (Resin based Fast Drying Oil Paints). (Fig.2)

Although more pricey than normal oil paints, Alkyd has a special quality about them, perhaps because of it's resin base, that give off an almost amber glow that I personally find very appealing...

I've found it's fast drying properties (which are ideal for the lower layers i.e. dead layer) are just a bonus to it's smooth workability and luster. 

To keep it as simple as possible, just 4 colours were chosen...
  • Terre Verte (a lean (extra fast drying), very transparent greenish hue)
  • Lamp Black (has an extremely high tinting strength. Adding more black, darkens and gives a more blueish cooler tone)
  • Burnt Sienna (added because it seemed to give a wholeness to the hue)
  • Titanium White (an opaque white)

The greenish hue so often used for the dead layer under flesh tones can also be mixed with yellow ochre, black, and a warm red, such as Venetian red. 
Besides the greenish hue being a complementary to flesh tones, some say it was used classically to mimic the greenish tint that blood casts upwards through our skin, recreating the translucency of the skin better than any other technique. 

One can also opt for a more grayish toned grisaille, mixed with just lamp black and white.

 2. Medium (Fig.3)
Fig.3 Liquin Fine Detail,
 Distilled Turpentine &
Refined Linseed Oil.
  • Liquin ( Liquin Fine Detail ) (always keep some apart in a small airtight container for use, as I find any contamination excellerates drying and you may find your bottle of Liquin dried up before you have a chance to use it.) It cuts drying time by about half.
  • Refined Linseed Oil ( Used this because I've just got a load in stock and didn't know any better. Stand or Thickened Linseed oil would probably work better though.. I've yet to experiment...)
  • Distilled Turpentine.
The variety of mediums used for this stage and the next abound, some of which I will definitely like to try in the future. Will be sure to post the results when I do.

3. Dropper (Fig.4) - this helps me keep better track and control of how much medium is put in the medium mixture.  (this came with an ink bottle, but I think you can buy them individually too... )

Fig.4 Dropper
4. Brushes (Fig.6)
  • 2-3 round synthetic brushes (size 1) for painting. 
  • 1 for dry brush scumbling, picking up access paint, softening edges and smoothening. 
  • Fan Brush, soft sable (Fig.5) (size 6)- used to lightly smoothen areas you've just finished painting. It's lighter touch hardly disturbs the wet paint other than to smoothen the surface) Although I only started using this brush during the colour glazes, I feel it would be a good idea to start using it at this stage as well.

Fig.5 Fan Brush
(a bit worse for wear but still going strong)

5. Soft lint free cloth (for wiping brush once and a while of access paint)

6. Newsprint or Newspaper for tonking ( a method whereby a piece of paper is layed over an area with access paint. It is then gently rubbed over with the palm of ones hand till enough of the paint has been lifted off (like blotting) to suit ones needs. The paper is then removed, leaving the area ready to be repainted or refine).

Starting to Paint

This dead layer took a total of 4 layers to complete the detailing and to get the tones just right... the process for each layer will be explained in full..

Before proceeding I highly recommend you read up on how the Fat over Lean principle applies somewhat differently with Liquin (here's my post on it), this lays a VERY IMPORTANT bases for the proceeding layers....

As you can imagine the lower layers have to be kept as lean as possible.
Points to remember:
  • Add as little medium as possible to the paint. Generally adding as little medium as possible to the paint is advisable as any yellowing or cracking (which is much less likely on a rigid support like mine) will happen later rather than sooner (this happens to all oil paintings to some degree in time, one just has to learn how to control it as best as can be).
  • Try to add as little extra linseed as possible when increasing the fattyness of each successive layer. (imagine having to wait a month or more between layers just for the paint film to be dry enough for another layer... thankfully my final glaze layers took about a week between glazes (which was long enough)). 
  • It's ok for successive layers to be equally fatty just Never leaner...

Even at this stage the optical illusion created with the mix of the more opaque titianium white in the light parts and the successively more translucent (because of terre vertes more transparent properties) passages in the darker parts comes almost naturally,.. Work with the natural translucent and opaque properties of the paint that will help enhance the 3D illusion of the final piece....  
1st Layer

At least 80-90% of the dead layer was done by the first layer, the subsequent layers worked more on detailing, perfecting tones and the over all look and feel of the painting ( yes,.. you Can get a feel at the monotone stage).

Medium: Turpentine & Refined Linseed Oil ( 3 : 1 )
(Check out my initial Liquin + Turp + Linseed combinations and how I arrived at my final decision on the medium here)

Paints (all Alkyds) (Fig.6) : 
  • Titanium White ( mixed in varying amounts with the Terre Verte Mixture (below) to achieve the wide range of tones needed.

Terre Verte Mixture (mixed together before hand in the specified ratios)
  • Terre Verte ( about 30- 40 parts ) 
  • Lamp Black ( 1 part ) 
  • Burnt Sienna (1/4 of a part )
  • Refined Linseed Oil ( 1/4 of a part )
I have to admit I'm still learning the nuances of the effects the Dead layer's colour has on the the preceding layers. I believe I chose well this time, since the final painting is primarily a warm brownish hue, and going on the principle of the dead layers complementary interaction with the preceeding layers,.. a cool greenish hue seems to have sufficed.

Fig.6 Mixture of Terre Verte + Lamp Black + Burnt Sienna
in varying value mixtures with White.
( Brushes for - lightest tones, darkest tones, dry brush to lift excess paint..
Later I also added a brush for mid tones....) 

Couch (click here for more details) - Liquin Fine Detail alone

(usually Linseed oil is used as a couch, however, as mentioned, it's advisable to use as little oil as possible for the lower layers. Linseed will be added with the Liquin (for the couch) in subsequent layers though..)

Fig.7 The sky and background have been painted with the first layer of the dead layer.
The colour contrast looked so good at this stage, I almost didn't want to continue...:)

  • It was painted in parts, taking about 2- 3 hours on a 2 x 2 inch area.... (as a matter of preference it was painted back to front i.e. sky background, rider, horse body, horse head.....
  • After applying the couch, I generally started off with white in the lightest parts, then moved through, tone by tone, blocking in the valued mixes to the corresponding value that was laid down for the underpainting... basically matching the tones. The pure Terre Verte mixture was also painted in the darkest parts or whenever the process required it, working wet in to wet....
  • At times when there was a build up of paint, and when lines needed to be lightly softened, dry brush scumbling did the trick... (at times, just a finger sufficed )
  • When paint had really been applied too much in an area, so much so as to make any more work in the area too difficult, I would tonk with some newspaper. This lifted the access paint while still leaving a shadow of the details applied earlier.... Thus one was able to the either continue working over the area or just clarify some parts and move on....
  • Continued to move through the values, sometimes reapplying in parts (after tonking).
  • Finally a light scumble over top (with a dry soft brush) gave an even finish...

Some parts were done in a thin layer and then was continued the next day with another layer on top (the paint dries very fast at this point). A couch of liquin was applied again and the same ratio of medium used.
Note* Edges should not be too defined at this point for edges can become too stark after applying glazes... just keep the edges soft and if any definition needs to be attained, it can be, with the multiple glazes that will be applied later....
2nd Layer

There was a dead layer over the whole painting now which was quite detailed but which still needed more refining.

Before starting on the 2nd layer I VERY carefully went over the dry surface with a blade smoothening any raised bits or removing stuck lint. Lightly gliding back and forth till smooth..... (not sure if this is the best method though.. I may try wet sanding with a scouring pad (which is roundabout like a 400 grit sandpaper) in the future....)

Medium & Paint: same as the 1st layer...

Couchthis time I added some Linseed to the mix.... 
Refined Linseed Oil & Liquin Fine Detail ( 1 : 3 ) 

  • Rubbed and then wiped off the liquin + linseed mixture over the whole painting.
  • After surveying what needed the most attention, all the darkest parts were painted in with the pure Terre Verte mix.
  • after which I proceeded to paint in the very lightest parts with Titanium White (getting even more detail in).
  • Then focus was given to refining and trying to get the paints coverage over the underpainting somewhat even (depth, fluidity and the over all look of the painting was considered throughout).
  • In some of the darkest parts the pure Terre Verte was applied like a glaze, giving a more realistic illusion of depth.
note: some parts had too much paint from the 1st dead layer (dark parts), so I gently removed some from those areas by rubbing with a soft cloth ( seemed to rub off some paint and become more translucent).
The area was then wiped a bit with a finger (that had a very slight residue of oil and paint on it), to kind of blend with the serounding area.

  • Became more aware of the overall look of the painting ( depth, feel , 3D quality of shapes) and tried to translate that, not only with tone but with the luminous effect of the multiple layer paint surface.
  • Tried to sculpt the painting so that the images depth and realism translated from all angles.
  • Also made sure that the whole painting had a unified hue (as sometimes the Terre Verte mixtures ratio unintentionally differed slightly in parts).
  • Although I had rubbed the couch all over the painting, not all parts were painted. (Not recommended)
  • Lightly scumbled parts with a dry brush and tonked, as before for the same reasons.

3rd Layer

Medium, Paint & Couch : same as 2nd layer....

  • There was one part of the painting that was a little more unfinished than the rest ( lower left background ) so just that part was concentrated on first, adjusting tones that needed to be darkened/lightened or needed more detail or refining...
  • Then leaving this part done, all the darkest parts of the whole painting was painted again for a more accurate tone..
  • the couch was only applied to the parts I painted..
  • Scumbled with dry brush and tonked when needed as usual. 
4th Layer

Medium, Paint & Couch : same as 2nd layer....

  • Now the mid tones were given more focus. (the couch only being applied to parts that was to be painted next).
  • Just went over the painting, really looking for anything that required more detail and correction of tone.
  • Scumbled with dry brush or tonked as usual.
  • Completed the Dead Layer leaving some parts still slightly undefined (like the chains) deciding that any further attempt at this point would result in too much build up in paint. (Fig.8)

Fig.8 Completed Dead Layer.
You can still see the burnt umber underpainting underneath a bit..

  • All compositional problems, and intended values ( 2- 3 shades lighter than intended final tones to be ) should have been completely worked out and decided on by now. Now the colour stage needs only be concerned with colour.
  • The translucency of the paint film over the underpainting, especially in the dark areas have been retained. This is so that the optical result of this transparency should create a more 3D depth of feel than if one was to paint in an opague dark terre verte in the end.
  • Edges are still not too defined, they will be more and more defined in the proceeding glaze coloured layers.
  • Just an observation... after a week, there was still an uneven glossiness to the painting.

Next up! the final step in this trilogy... :)

p.s. Check out the other WIP posts for this painting at the following links.. :) 

p.s.s. Here's a site that I feel to be a good reliable source of technical info regarding good archival practices:

 AMIEN which is part of the education department of ica (America's oldest regional conservation center)

I found them to be truly helpful....


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