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The “dead layer” of Flemish painting

Studying the technique of some old masters, we are faced with the so-called “Flemish method” of oil painting. This is a multi-layered, technically complex way of writing, the opposite of the “a la prima” technique. Layering suggested a special depth of image, flicker and radiance of colors. However, in the description of this method, such a mysterious stage as the “dead layer” invariably occurs. Despite the intriguing name, there is no mysticism in it.

But what was it used for?
The term “dead colors” (doodverf – nid. Death of paint) is first found in the work of Karl van Mander’s “Book of Artists”. He could call it a paint, on the one hand, literally, because of the stillness that it gives to the image, on the other hand, it is metaphorical, since this pallor seems to “die” under the subsequent color. Such paints included whitewashed yellow, black, red colors in different proportions. For example, cold gray, obtained by mixing white and black, and black and yellow, when combined, formed an olive shade.

A layer painted with “dead colors” is considered a “dead layer”.
Transformation into a color picture from the dead layer thanks to glaze
Stages of the Dead Layer Painting
Fast forward to the workshop of a Dutch artist of the Middle Ages and find out how he wrote.

First, the drawing was transferred to the primed surface.

The next step was the modeling of the volume by transparent partial shade, subtly turning into light of the soil.

Then imprimatur was applied – a liquid paint layer. He allowed to save the picture, preventing particles of coal or pencil from falling into the upper colorful layers, and also protected the colors from further fading. Thanks to imprimaturity, saturated colors in the paintings of Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and other masters of the Northern Renaissance have remained almost unchanged to this day.

The fourth stage was the “dead layer”, in which bleached paints were applied to the bulk undermining. The artist needed to maintain the shape of the objects without disturbing the light and shadow contrast, which would lead to the dullness of further painting. “Dead colors” were applied only to the bright parts of the image, sometimes, imitating the gliding rays, they put whitewash in small dotted strokes. The picture acquired additional volume and an ominous deathly pallor, which, in the next layer, “came to life” thanks to multilayer color glaze. Such an intricate painting seems to be unusually deep and shining, when light is reflected from each layer, like from a flickering mirror.

Today this method is not often used, however, it is important to know about the secrets of the old masters. Using their experience, you can experiment in your work and look for your way in all kinds of styles and techniques.

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