Welcome back to this step-by-step demonstration of the Flemish Method of oil painting.

So far, I’ve described how to make a line drawing, transfer it to your painting surface, and prepare the umber under painting. We’ve even looked at a few frequently asked questions about the Flemish method. The links for all the posts are at the bottom of this post.

Now, for a quick look at the dead layer.

How To Paint a Dead Layer Using the Flemish Method of Oil Painting

What The Dead Layer Is and Why It’s Important

The dead layer is the final step before you begin adding color. You’ve developed the composition through a detailed line drawing and established the basic values—the lights and darks—in the umber layers. Now it’s time to develop the half-tones.

Values are also pushed a little further and details are more fully developed  as you prepare the painting for the transparent color glazes that will follow.

A well-painted dead layer should make your subject look like you were viewing it in the light of a full moon. The overall color should be a cold gray-olive. Almost ethereal in nature.

How to Paint the Dead Layer

The Traditional Method


If you’re painting by strict Flemish standards, the colors you use for the dead layer are Flake White, Light Ochre, Red Ocher, Burnt Umber, Prussian Blue, and Ivory Black.

It’s recommended that you mix a range of ten values in quantities sufficient to finish the dead layer. Store mixtures in air-tight containers until needed. This saves time mixing colors for each painting session and also assures that the values are consistent throughout the dead layer.

TIP: You can purchase empty paint tubes for storing your paint mixtures or you can use other containers. Just make sure they’re air tight. One of my favorite containers are the plastic film containers 35mm film comes in. They’re air tight, easy to store in the freezer, and easy to mark. Just dab a bit of paint on the cap!

Painting Medium

Two parts turpentine, one part Damar varnish, and one drop of lavender oil (optional). The painting medium should contain a little less turpentine and a little more varnish than the medium you used for the imprimatura.

My Adaptations

I made a couple of adaptations to this process for personal reasons.

Primary among them was replacing Flake White with Titanium White because of the lead content of Flake White. With cats in the house and the tendency of oil paint to “migrate” in unpredictable ways, eliminating the lead content was a good idea, even if I had no concerns for myself.

I also changed the colors I used for the dead layer on Portrait of Muscle Hill. For the first few paintings I created with the Flemish method, I used colors as close to those listed above as possible and they worked very well for the small pieces I was painting for myself.

Portrait of Muscle Hill was a much larger piece and on a deadline, so I substituted the recommended list with a much shorter list.

  • Titanium White
  • Ivory Black

The benefit of this was that it wasn’t as necessary to mix large batches of individual values. I could mix smaller batches as I needed them. For many areas, I could blend on the panel if I wanted.

Painting The Dead Layer

Standard painting process with oils is to begin with the sky and work through the painting to the foreground. I did that with the umber under painting and that’s how I started the dead layer.

The sky was painted with white tinted very slightly with Ivory Black. I used a large bristle brush to apply the paint, then a large soft brush to brush out the strokes.

A little black was added for the trees and a little more for the foreground. The rule of thumb is to darken values as I paint toward the foreground. That creates a sense of depth and space in the painting and lays the groundwork for further detail. The exception, of course, are areas that will be white in the final painting.

TIP: Use darker values and increased detail in the foreground and lighter values and less detail in the background to create a sense of distance in your artwork.

MH Dead Layer 01


The technical parts of the composition were the most difficult. Rather paint around them while doing the smaller portions of the background, I masked the wheels and bike, then painted the portions of the background that show through these parts. The mask allowed me to paint with a little more freedom and produced a background with a sense of continuity.

I lightened the trees and added subtle texture, then painted the flags in the infield. I painted all the light values, then painted all the dark values, including the basic details of folds and shadows.

I also started painting the horse by painting the mane and tail, then the saddle cloth and girth equipment. In each area, I painted the basic value, then added shadows or highlights wet-into-wet as appropriate.

TIP: When working on large paintings—or even on smaller ones—be careful where you rest your hand. Use a bridge or mahl stick to avoid getting your hand in wet paint.

I painted the body of the horse by blocking in values in individual sections between harness, bridle, and gear. After the basic values were in place, I added shadows and highlights.

MH Dead Layer 02


I finished all of the painting except the driver and the horse at this phase, then let it dry completely.

MH Dead Layer 03


In the second round of work on the dead layer, I corrected the values and painted details, working from one area to the next.

MH Dead Layer 08

When that round of work is complete, the painting dries again, then I do final fine-tuning. At this point, I’m looking for anything I might have missed (like the white number on the saddle cloth).

I also step back to take a “big picture” look at the painting to make sure all the parts are working together.

MH Dead Layer 09

MH Dead Layer 11

MH Dead Layer 10


When finished, the dead layer should dry for four weeks. By this time, you may be glad for the break!

Or you can work on another painting or two.

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