How to Paint a Vignette

Written by phil whitmer
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How to Paint a Vignette
Vignettes are painted with oils, watercolours and acrylics. (painting image by Linda Brotkorb from

A vignette is a borderless painting with the subject matter fading off into the white of the edges. The unfinished look of vignettes adds drama and focuses attention on the centre or inner parts of the picture. Vignetting involves using less bright and saturated colours on an image's periphery compared to the central area. The border areas of the vignette are made up of the unpainted canvas or paper. Painters use the technique of vignetting to draw attention away from the picture's edges and direct it toward the focal point of the painting.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Drawing materials
  • Paper
  • Pencils or sharpened charcoal
  • Canvas
  • Gesso
  • Sandpaper
  • Smock
  • Artist's paints
  • Paint brushes
  • Thinning medium

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  1. 1

    Practice drawing the composition for your vignette painting. Draw portraits, still lifes or landscapes in a vignette style. Use pencil or sharpened charcoal on paper. Make studies of details. Do thumbnail sketches for the overall design. Incorporate the blank edges of the paper into the composition. Draw images without definite borders. Make the forms' compositional elements fade into indistinct edges.

  2. 2

    Prepare a canvas in advance for an oil or acrylic vignette painting. Brush on at least three coats of gesso, making each successive layer thinner by adding more water. Sand the surface smooth between coats. Use your preparatory drawings as references to draw your composition onto the canvas or paper if you're using watercolours. Leave at least three edges blank and use the white of the background to frame your image.

  3. 3

    Put on your smock before painting to protect your clothes from paint stains. Mix your paint with thinning medium or water to apply it in flat washes. Use an aquarelle or transparent wash technique for the best results with a vignette. Paint your picture from top to bottom. Tilt your painting surface to encourage the washes to flow downward. Let some paint run or drip into the unpainted edges to accentuate the effect.

  4. 4

    Block in the basic forms with large, flat brushes. Work up a volumetric space with layers of translucent paint laid one over another. Let the paint glazes dry before overlaying to avoid back runs or the unintended effects you get when painting over a damp wash. Wet the edges of your vignette and fade the main image into the blank negative space by working wet-in-wet. Feather the image's periphery into the white surrounding border space.

  5. 5

    Finish up the vignette by painting in the mid-range tones and adding the darkest shadowed areas. Clearly define the forms and shapes at the focal points near the centre of the painting. Segue the sharpness into a softer focus as you fade into the blank white space. Mute your colours as you approach the vignetted edges. Add the accented highlights last to complete the picture.

Tips and warnings

  • Combine hard-edged painting with a soft-edged style along the perimeter of the vignette.
  • Never paint all the way to the edges in a vignette painting.

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