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Art Tips: Make Your Colors Pop with Indirect Painting

Updated: Apr 26

I haven't had any formal training as a painter, and I'm always pretty sure that people with formal training can tell. Most of what I've learned has been by discovery and experimentation. When I first started painting, I always found my paintings to be kind of...meh. The colors always seemed dull. One of my most frequent Google searches were for art tips on "how to make acrylic paint more vibrant". I still utilize many of the techniques I found in my many late-night searches, but none have transformed my art the way indirect painting has.

Direct Painting

Different hues of blue paint on a canvas. There are two small pops of yellow paint on opposite corners

Many of the most recognizable names in art are direct painters. Direct painting is probably what most people think of when they envision an artist making art. The painter mixes different colors to achieve the desired hue. The painting is usually worked on while the other layers are still wet. Blending is achieved by physically blending different paint colors. Lighter or darker colors are mixed with the object's color (local color) to create highlights and shadows.

Indirect Painting

Indirect painting utilizes a monochromatic underpainting that contains all of the painting's highlights and shadows. After the underpainting dries, the color is added in thin translucent layers called "glazes." As you add more layers, the color intensifies on top of the already-established highlights and shadows.

This video shows the process I used for my " Wallflower " painting. The last frame of the video isn't the finished product. I'm still adding layers. My obsessive unwillingness to finish a painting is a post for another day.


The underpainting is the part that I obsess over the most. I'm a person who paints something, loves it, then looks at it a week later and starts to see flaws. I fix them; then I find more. Then, no matter how much I love my "finished" painting, when I look at it, I always notice the things that I should've fixed.

For direct painting, fixing a mistake in the later stages of your painting is pretty straightforward. With indirect painting, I wouldn't say I like to alter the painting much once I've started adding color. At that point, I'm not painting on the canvas or even over another layer of paint. I'm painting over a dried glaze. To me, it feels like painting over a varnish.

A black and white painting of a black woman leaning against a wall with flowers where her hair would normally be.

I will reinforce highlights and shadows in between glazes if I notice that they're beginning to fade, but I find it kind of challenging to manipulate the paint. You can see it in the highlight above the eyebrows or the right side of the nose in "Wallflower"; those spots are not blended well at all. (That would be one of those things that I constantly stare at. Now you can, too!)

I prefer to do my underpaintings in grayscale (or "grisaille"), but I have seen people use raw umber, yellow ochre, red, or purple. Keep in mind that using a chromatic color for your underpainting will obviously affect the colors you layer over it.

The nice thing about the underpainting is that you can get a good feel for the tonal variation in your painting. If too much of your painting is very close in tone, it will look flat and dull, even with bright colors. Value is the most important part of your painting. It's the main course. If your painting looks good as an underpainting, it's likely to be stunning when you add the color.


When I first started experimenting, I would dilute my paint with water. I paint with water-based acrylics, which will mix evenly with water. But, I learned that water breaks down the binder in acrylic paint. I would imagine that could affect the longevity of your painting. If you're painting a commission, that's something to consider. For "Wallflower," I used Liquitex Glazing Medium for my glazes.

You do not need much paint for your glaze. The goal is gradually building color while allowing your underpainting to provide tonal variation. The layers will be cloudy if you have too much paint in your glaze. The ratio I use is ten parts glazing medium to 1 part paint. When you put that tiny drop of paint into the glazing liquid, you'll understand why a little goes a long way.

If you're like me, you will search for the part of the blog you need first, then read the rest (maybe). I get it. So, if this is the part you've skipped to, please read this: WAIT FOR THE LAYER TO DRY BEFORE ADDING ANOTHER. As one of the most impatient people in the world, I know. Every second is excruciating, but seeing the spot where a layer of paint lifted because you couldn't wait will haunt you. You know that I speak from experience...

A painting of a turquoise 1950s style Chevy with a circle around a flaw in the painting.

If you want to minimize the waiting times between layers, use a blow dryer. Save a life.

Adding the paint is the fun part for me. I love seeing the colors come alive. Each layer is an opportunity to add to the complexity of the color. I can keep adding layers and making genuinely unique color combinations.

When I make glazes, I don't mix paint colors. If there are two colors that I want to use together to create a particular hue, I will place one layer over the next. For example, I used blue and yellow glazes in "Wallflower" to make green. You can always make a glaze using green paint, but I didn't want to make a separate glaze when I already had blue and yellow glazes available. Building green that way also ensured that I didn't use a green hue that clashed with the rest of the painting.

A side by side image of a painting of a Black woman with flowers where her hair would be. The left image is the painting in black and white. The right painting is in color.

Indirect painting has transformed the way that I make art. It is certainly more time-consuming and tedious than direct painting, but the resulting color is worth it to me. Are there any techniques that have transformed your art? Do you have recurring art problems that you're trying to solve? Let me know in the comments!

Will you try this technique?

  • Yes

  • No


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