Last week, I described the standard practices for starting an oil painting using the Flemish method. I also mentioned that I’d made some adaptations to that method to suit Portrait of Muscle Hill and my painting processes. This week, I’ll show you what those adaptations were and why I made them.

If you missed any of the other posts in this series, here are the links:

How I Adapted the Flemish Method

As described in the previous post, the Flemish method involves transferring the drawing to the painting surface, making it permanent, and toning the painting surface (the imprimatura). Three steps that can take up to a week or more depending on the size and complexity of the painting.

Most of my work is portrait work and time is important. To save a bit of time, I reduced these three steps to two steps by eliminating the imprimatura.

Why did I choose to do that?

The imprimatura should be no darker than the lightest value in the painting. Since so many of my paintings have white areas either on the horses or in the landscapes, an imprimatura would have to be very light in order to work. The white of the painting surface works just as well as a toned surface for such paintings, so I stopped toning the painting surfaces. I now skip the imprimatura with most, if not all, of my paintings.

Third, for this painting in particular, I combined fixing the drawing (making it permanent) with painting the umber layer. Instead of doing one, then the other, I worked my way through the painting by fixing the drawing and painting the under painting at the same time.

Here’s the way that work progressed.

Fixing The Drawing & Painting The Umber Layer

After the drawing was completely transferred, I began fixing the drawing with Raw Umber straight out of the tube, adding a little walnut oil only as needed to improve paint flow. I used a small sable round to paint the straight lines with the aid of a straight edge. The flags, some of the infield details, and the driver were carefully outlined. I also blocked in some of the darker values on the head number, the helmet’s chin strap, and the cast shadow.

To paint the trees in the background, I used a clean, dry sock folded small enough to fit into my fist. The sock was touched to the paint, then rubbed over the surface. I didn’t outline the trees because I hadn’t transferred them so there was no drawing to fix. The shapes will also be changed throughout the painting process, so all I needed to do in the under painting was establish their general size and location.

TIP: Don’t limit yourself to using brushes to paint the under painting. Clean rags, sponges, and even fingers are often much more useful for painting larger, less defined areas.

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 1

I continued fixing and shading throughout the background, including shrubs, flags, grass and the backstretch.

I also worked on the mane and tail of the horse, the legs and the driver, as well as some of the gear.

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 2


I applied a layer of color over the infield, then wiped off excess paint to create lights and darks in the shrubs and other areas, working from right to left and top to bottom.

I also worked on the pennants, the gear, and the horse, concentrating mostly in small areas.

When I finished with this session, most of the background was finished.

TIP: Print a gray scale or sepia version of your reference photo to help you paint the umber under painting.

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 3


Beginning with the main part of the body and working from the larger areas to the smaller areas like the legs, I began painting the horse.

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 4


For a break in the routine of painting for hours at a time, I set the stove timer for 30 minutes and when it went off, I stopped painting despite the fact that it was a good session and I had just started the bridle. I took a break from painting to do other things, then set the timer and painted again.

I worked through three sessions in that fashion and finished most of the horse.

TIP: Vary your studio routine to keep yourself and your work fresh and moving forward.

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 5


I cut out a mask for the bike wheels and scrubbed in enough color to place the rims. For this, I used a worn out bristle flat—at least I think it was once a flat. The bristles have been worn so short, they allow me to “scrub” paint onto a painting. Brushes like this are especially useful in painting through masked areas.

I also used a straight edge to paint the shafts and a round brush with thinned paint to tidy the edges and paint the martingale.

I also darkened parts of the horse, added the colored portions of the silks, and worked on the hedges. By then, I was smearing the wheels, so I put the painting away for the day.

TIP: Don’t throw away worn brushes. They make great “specialty” tools!

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 6


I finished the umber layer by making a mask for the inside of the wheels and rubbing in enough color to loosely define the spokes.

Muscle Hill Fix & Umber Step 7

There is no definition of when an under painting is finished. Nor is there an established rule of thumb to know how many layers it may take.

In looking back at this portrait, I see things I could have done differently. Another round of work on the horse, driver, and bike would have been helpful—as I discovered later. It took a week to do the work described here. One more week would have improved the under painting immensely.

But I wanted to move on to the next step, so I didn’t push the umber layer any further.

The painting was allowed to dry for a week, then I began the dead layer. That will be our topic next week.