Gray-Layer, Oil Painting Techniques also known as the "Dead Layer"

The gray-layer, in the Flemish technique is also called the dead layer, because, well, it looks dead. 

No color. 

Life comes to the painting after this layer with the color layers.  But for now, you will establish all of your shadowing in greater detail, your half tones, and the modeling of each object in the painting.

You should spend your most efforts and time in this layer.  You get this layer right, and the rest will fall like water off the roof. Smooth! And easy!

To see in close detail, watch my video below on how beautiful this part of the painting can be.  And remember, this stage will separate your work from those that do the direct painting method.  Some can achieve this using colors and grays in a direct fashion, but not many.  The half shadow blending, this is where it happens, and this is what you see in the museums!

Here is how you make your dead layer paint mixture.

The photo below shows how to mix your black.  Using 2 parts black, 1 part burnt umber (for drying enhancement) and 1/8 part ultramarine blue (for deepening your black).

color mixing

Now that you have your black mixed.  Use it to create your other gray tones.  See the Palette for an example.

Watch this video on how I mix my gray paints. 

gray paints on pallete

Oh!, before I forget.  Before beginning this layer, dust and brush hairs will be all over your painting.  These can be removed using a razor blade that has had its corners rounded, or a good grade of sand paper.  More details on this within my e-book.

After scraping and oiling out, we can begin the gray-layer. You start by applying paint.  Here in photo I'm adding paint to the background.  I use a small round brush to do this.  This allows for an equal distribution of paint and also allows some of the umber layer to show through.

This helps make sure you're not overpowering your contrast range!  Keep the gray layer close to the underlying umber and your overall contrast of the painting is preserved.


I then begin to correct and blend with my medium and large mop dry brush. This technique of applying paint, correcting, then blending is not only used in the gray-layer, but is repeated through all steps except the finishing.

You use less blending on the final layer as you want the thick paint to stand out of the canvas.  A small trick to capture more of the available room light. 

gray under painting

Here's another example of applying the gray layer mixtures.

Then correcting and blending with the soft, mop dry brush.

Here's another tip about the correcting part of this technique.  I usually apply paint with a small round brush.  I then correct with a filbert or flat. 

You can also use a worn out round.  Your goal is to remove excess paint, blend edges of two different shades, or push more paint where needed. 

This happens to round surfaces, in flat surfaces that contain shadows, etc.  Preserve your hard edges for the final layers.

From here you can go to the next lesson by clicking here for color lessons.

Or, you can go back to the Flemish Technique explained page.

Maybe you need even more details and photo examples of this part of the process.

I have an e-book that thoroughly goes over this process. It's over 150 pages of instruction with 250 photo's of step by step instruction similar to what you see here, but in much more detail than I can show here on the site.

I also use better HD graphics to point out specific things that can help you develop your painting.

I also have a bonus section for beginners that show a great deal on brush work, applying paint, and mixing paint.

Click below if you want more details on this wonderful offer, or if you're in a hurry, get it below!

"A Real Art Lesson" by artist DG Phelps

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