Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

How to Make a Drawing Permanent Before Beginning an Oil Painting

Welcome back to this oil painting series. If you missed or would like to review previous posts, here are the links.

The next step in the process is transferring the completed line drawing to the support and making it permanent before painting begins.

In the previous articles, I used Portrait of Muscle Hill as the demonstration piece. But I did not use the standard method for that portrait. So before I share with you how I transferred the drawing and began painting—and the adaptations I used—lets take a look at the process as described for the Flemish method.

How to Make a Drawing Permanent

Transferring the Drawing

When you use the Flemish method of oil painting, transferring the drawing is a two-step process.

The first step is getting your finished line drawing onto the prepared painting surface. I do a dry transfer for most of my paintings and use hand-made transfer paper.

Learn how to make your own cheap, reusable transfer paper.

This is the finished drawing transferred to the panel. I’ve cleaned up any smudges and fine-tuned any areas that didn’t transfer clearly. I also added a little detail in the horse’s tail and in the foreground.

Inking & Imprimatura - The Line Drawing


The second step in the transfer process is inking in the drawing. The purpose of this is to make the drawing permanent. If you skip this step, the imprimatura will erase the graphite drawing.

Inking the drawing also makes it darker so it shows through more of the subsequent layers. So if you find you’ve made a mistake in the umber layers or even in the dead layers and need to wipe those layers off, the original line drawing is still visible. No starting over from scratch!

TIP: It’s vital to make your line drawing as accurate as possible. It’s correctness—or the lack thereof—will influence the rest of the process.

There are a couple of ways to make the drawing permanent.

If you strictly follow the Flemish method, you’ll use India ink, preferably brown. Go over every line with a small, round sable brush dipped in ink. For the most part the image is merely outlined, but you can fill in cast shadows or other dark areas if you like. For this painting, I replaced some parts of the line drawing with texture in the foreground and cast shadow.

Inking & Imprimatura - The Inked Drawing


Another way to make the transferred drawing permanent is with oil paint. When I use paint, I use raw umber straight from the tube. My paint of preference is M. Graham Oils and they are generally fluid enough for drawing without adding paint thinner.  The process is the same. Use a small, sable round brush for drawing and outline the image.

The advantage to ink is that it dries very quickly. Usually by the time I clean the brush and put the ink away, the drawing is dry and ready to paint over. If I use oil paint, I have to wait overnight for the paint to dry.

The Imprimatura

The final stage of preparation is toning the canvas. With the Flemish method, toning is done after the drawing has been transferred and made permanent. This toning layer is called an imprimatura.

The colors used most often for this layer are Yellow Ochre tinted with Lamp Black. If you need a very light imprimatura, add a little white.

The value of the toning color is determined by the lightest color in the final painting. For a painting with a lot of light values, the imprimatura will be lighter than for a painting with a lot of dark values. That’s part of the reason I made changes to the Flemish method. But more on that next week.

When you mix the imprimatura, match it as closely as possible to the lightest values in your finished painting by adding white in small amounts. The easiest way to get a good match is to change your reference photo to grayscale or light sepia tones on your computer, so you don’t have to make adjustments for local color. Just make sure you save it as a separate image so you don’t accidentally over-write the original photo.

Paint thinner for the imprimatura is a mixture of 2% dry Damar Crystals and 98% turpentine. You can substitute Damar Varnish for the dry crystals.

Use a large, soft brush to tone the painting surface. The imprimatura should be very thin and should show no brush strokes. If you need to, use a second soft brush to dry brush out any brushstrokes.

TIP: If you’re allergic to Damar varnish, try toning the painting surface without using painting medium. To get a beautifully thin paint layer, apply paint with a clean, dry cloth, then rub the paint over the entire painting surface with heavy pressure. The rag will not only spread the paint around, but will remove excess paint, leaving behind a painting surface that is “stained” with color and very smooth.

When the imprimatura is finished, it needs to dry for at least seven days before you begin the painting.

Here is the finished imprimatura for this sample painting.

Inking & Imprimatura - The Imprimatura


As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is the recognized method of making a drawing permanent and toning the painting surface. If you want to try the Flemish method as the Flemish Masters used it, this is what you’ll do. It’s a great way to create beautiful paintings.

But it does take time and when I’m painting portraits, time is of the essence.

So I made a few procedural changes to the Flemish method, most of which directly affect this part of the process. Next week, we’ll return to Portrait of Muscle Hill and I’ll share with you those time-saving changes.


How to Start a Colored Pencil Umber Under Drawing


How to Finish an Umber Under Layer


  1. So before I share with you how I transferred the drawing and began painting—and the adaptations I used—lets take a look at the process as described for the Flemish method. Where such information?

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