Painting Using the 7 Layer Flemish Technique


1.The Drawing

The 7 layer technique that I tend to use was the method used by the Flemish painters from around the 15th Century onwards, such as Van Eyck. The idea is to build up a number of transparent layers so that the viewer can see through the painting back to the original first layers in the same way that a stained glass window is produced. The initial layer is drawn, usually in charcoal. I used an HB pencil as recommended to me by my friend, the artist Phillip Dunn. Because I tend to be quite messy. A hard pencil is best otherwise I tend to smudge the drawing. I then fix it using a spray on fixative. Not very 15th Century so far, but this is the Pete Davies version of 7 layered painting!

2. Imprimatura

Sailing from Byzantium light ochre

Next I add the first layer, the imprimatura which I apply using light ochre and paint solvent only. This I use to establish the background, the image and a general idea of the where the tonal variations are. That usually dries pretty quickly so within a few hours I can start the next layer.

3. Under Painting

Sailing from Byzantium under painting

As you can see from the image above, I have used Burnt Umber to map out the monochromatic light and dark areas on the picture, I added a small amount of Prussian Blue to the areas of the body where the blood and veins would show through.  This layer is called the under painting because it is a layer which forms the base on which other layers are applied. At this stage I haven’t used in linseed oil as my medium, just paint solvent.

4. The Dead Layer

Dead Layer

This layer I believe is named after the fact that it is painted in neutral greyish tones, (Grisaille) producing an image that looks as if the subject is dead. I used Lamp Black and Titanium White although the original Flemish painters would have used Lead White in the 7 layer technique. If I remember correctly, I didn’t use any medium when applying the paint to the body. Instead I took as much oil out of the paint as I could by squashing it on sheets of paper. I used a hard brush to rub this into the areas I’d already established with the Burnt Umber. As you can see, I am starting to build up my layers, the Burnt Umber is still visible.

The fact that I’ve now added white means that I will have to wait 3 or 4 days for the paint to dry. As I am an impatient painter who has exhausted all the box sets on Netflix, to save time, I added a layer of thin glaze over the sea and the cloth. I’ve also added green to the foliage around the buildings.

5. First Colour layer

dead layer increased

I’ve now started to add more colour. This is where the alchemy starts. I’ve glazed the cloth around her feet using a mixture of Flemish Siccative medium, Chinese Vermillion and half a crocodile (optional). Only joking about the crocodile, the rest is true. At this stage I was still undecided as to what colour the cloth should be. It was originally a white bedspread.

6. Second Colour Layer

Ist paint layer

I have now started building up areas of glaze over the whole painting. I’ve also thinned out the clouds as they were too overpowering, I thought. I’ve also added Titanium White mixed with Light Ochre to unite the skin. Again I didn’t use any oil but instead scumbled the paint on with a dry brush.

7. Further Layers of Glazing

Sailing from Byzantium

In the finished image of my painting, titled: Sailing From Byzantium,’ you can see how I’ve glazed the sea and cloth and added a glaze this time to the girl’s body.

8. Detail

feet detail

Lastly painted in the final details such as the hair and feet.

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The Inside Secrets of the Great Masters

Stained Glass

From the 7th century onwards coloured glass was produced by firing a mixture of metal oxides and minerals. This was known as pot metal glass. Later in our history one of the most widespread and sophisticated forms of glass production available for all to see was stained glass.


This all came about during the beginning of the 14th century when it was discovered that if silver stain (a silver compound such as silver nitrate) was applied to the back face of the glass it would produce patches of yellow or orange when fired in a kiln. Not only could the glass colour be changed, white to yellow, blue to green etc, but also with careful manipulation the same piece of  glass could produce different hues.

If a clear piece of glass was coated with red or blue on the front and yellow on the back, a bit like a colourful sandwich, then when the front colour was ground away it would reveal the shining yellow from behind. This was extremely useful as glass with patches of yellow could be used to highlight halos, crowns, sun rays and hair.

The Virgin of the Apocalypse
The Virgin of the Apocalypse

Jan Van Eyck’s Magical Alchemy

Vasari credits Jan Van Eyck with inventing the technique of oil painting in the 15th century,  when in the confines of his ‘alchemist’s lab,’ Van Eyck discovered that oil could be used as a medium to carry pigment.

The Schedula of the 12th century compiler Theophilus Presbyter however shows that this was not the case and that oil as a medium for painting had been looked at a lot earlier. Coincidentally Theophilus Presbyter’s second Schedula happened to deal with stained glass and the painting of stained glass.

Nevertheless history says that on discovering Van Eyck’s magical use of oils, the itinerant Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina rushed off to Italy where this new and sensational idea was readily adopted by not only himself but others, thus opening the floodgates to a painting revolution. So how does this all tie up?

Antonello da Messina – St Jerome in his Study

Van Eyck’s Beautiful Dream

Whether or not Van Eyck invented oil painting is not relevant here, his biggest success was to develop the art of glazing, a sensational technique which would change the way paintings were produced. Looking at Van Eyck’s painting technique now we can see that it appears to be a natural continuation if not an imitation of the stained glass process but this time using oils.

Getting Down in Black and White

After priming the board, Van Eyck would execute his painting in earth tones of browns, blacks or greys with bright, white highlights. Working with immense skill and diligence a complete painting would be built up in stages without colour, similar to a sepia or black and white photograph.

Single or Double Glazing?

We know that when producing medieval stained glass, the dark outline of the figure was the final layer painted on top of the glass. Van Eyck’s innovative glazing process mirrored this stained glass technique but in reverse. With glazing, semi-transparent or transparent colours were painted over the black and white underpainting until a layer of thick, glassy vanish or glaze was produced similar to glass.  Extra glazes would then be added countless times until the desired glossy optical effect and depth was produced. You can see an example of how I have used glazing on the painting on my home page. Look at the turban and the cardigan.

What I’m suggesting is that the roots for glazing in paint lies in an attempt to imitate the richness and depth of colour found in the production of stained glass windows but in oils. Don’t you agree?