Enhanced Block-In Method for Landscape Paintings

My first lessons in oil painting technique came from reading 'Richard Schmid Paints the Landscape'. Since then I have followed his methods almost exclusively—basically, my paintings have been done in a style that closely resembles alla prima.

In his book Schmid demonstrates different ways of starting with the application of a thin paint layer called a block-in. It is the foundation on which the rest of a painting is constructed.

I've recently been experimenting with ways to get more out of the full color block-in.

In this approach the entire canvas is covered with a thin layer of paint, some parts of which can remain visible in the finished work. Afterwards a final layer of paint is applied where needed (the block-in can either be allowed to dry or you can paint directly into it).

Until now, I've always painted this block-in so that it resembles the way I want the finished painting to look. What I've come to realize is that I've been missing out by working this way.

Simply put, it's possible to apply the block-in in a more fluid, abstract way—it doesn't have to correspond exactly with the forms—and wet-in-wet paint application allows color variation, soft edges and atmospherics to be baked into the picture at an early stage. The forms can be refined when a final layer of paint is applied.

In addition to this, my approach diverges from Schmid's in two other ways:

Firstly, I often work over some kind of underpainting (done with Gamblin Fast Matte). I think dark areas just look better when there's a dark color underneath them.

Secondly, when I feel it will be beneficial, I allow the block-in paint layer to be a little thicker than usual (normally it is done as a wash). Again, this is especially true for any dark areas that remain visible in the finished work.


Center Field. 9x12, oil on linen panel. 2019.

Once the block-in is done, I add thick paint only in the places where I either need to refine forms, or add light, texture and detail—in the painting above those places were the foreground and parts of the sky.


Hawthorns. 7x11, oil on hemp panel. 2019.

When all the paint is dry I also add some glazes or scumbling to enhance the atmospheric effects, especially in the dark areas. These are very thin, translucent layers created with about 90% glazing medium and 10% paint.

What I find with atmospherics is that when I think I have enough, I'm usually only 50% of the way there.


Broken Cloud. 7x11, oil on hemp panel. 2019.

Working this way it's easier to keep the work loose. You can start with a large abstract masses of lights and darks then add opaque paint to create the shapes you need.

For this painting I extended the dark block-in all the way through the foreground so that I could paint into it with the lights.


The Gap in the Trees. 6x12, oil on linen panel. 2019.

This method also helps to simplify some things that would otherwise be hard to do. Scenes like this one of light coming through trees are easier when you are able to just focus on the light.

However, this method isn't without its drawbacks:

For starters, the paintings take a little longer to do. Not by much, but enough that I'd think twice about using it when painting en plein air.

Another problem is that it's easy to muddy up the colors. You have to expect that and plan for it. In particular, you have to paint the sky areas more carefully.

And finally, it's harder to make changes once you start to apply the final layers of thick paint. Scraping back also removes everything underneath—often you'll need to build up the area again from scratch.

Despite these things, I think this is a reliable alla prima method for landscapes that makes developing dynamic edges and atmospherics much easier. I'm looking forward to developing it further.


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