Is No One Underpainting?
The process of underpainting has such a buttoned-up reputation as an oil painting technique. If it were cast in a movie, it would be the uptight, by-the-book stickler that no one wants to hang out with. That’s because the process of underpainting is often associated with a belabored, rigid series of steps that delays us from getting to the “real” painting—which is why a lot of beginner painters tend to rush it, or skip it altogether.
But there’s another side to underpainting—one that’s freewheeling with an “anything goes” attitude. It allows artists to take a dry run at the canvas of a fine art oil painting, working out compositional questions and value issues or mapping out a complex color scheme while keeping a lot of options open so that painting can evolve organically.
Approaches to Underpainting
According to Scott Gellatly, an artist and product manager for Gamblin Artists Colors, roughly 85 percent of painters prepare some kind of underpainting, but their approaches vary greatly.
Some make a three-minute sketch of just a few marks to distinguish the composition in a single earth color before jumping straight into an alla prima painting mode.
Other artists spend whole painting sessions sensitively developing an underpainting in which most of the visual information is captured in underlayers and the top layers act as glazes to bring out local colors or highlights.
Overall, however, most artists tend to work gesturally when underpainting. They block in large elements or passages of oil painting color and save the fine details for the final stages of the piece. But beyond that, there are no hard and fast rules about the process. The choices made are unique for every artist.
Although underpaintings historically tend to be monochromatic, with pigments used for an almost watercolor-like effect, artists can also incorporate multiple colors into underpaintings or play off adjacent complements, much like Seurat and Signac did, as well as contemporary artist John Taye.
An underpainting can also invigorate areas of a composition that are fairly uniform but also have many facets to them, such as large expanses of air or water. Laying down blue over orange or green over red and allowing parts of an underpainting to push through can help capture light and atmospheric effects on canvas and adds vibrancy and visual interest to the final painting.
For Gellatly, the question of where an underpainting ends and paint layers begin is something he is continually challenged by. “Sometimes I am dealing with a scene that is complex, and I don’t spend as much time on the underpainting as I should,” he says. “In retrospect, I painted ahead of myself, moving on to direct painting applications when I should have spent more time underpainting.”
But the artist reminds himself that the underpainting should serve the painting, and the time spent on it should be proportional to the scale and complexity of the final artwork he is creating.
In a two- or three-hour plein air painting session, an artist is likely best served by an underpainting that is loose and painterly, to mimic the freshness and spontaneity of the scene. But for a large commissioned family portrait, there is likely going to be more of a need to spend a much greater time on the underpainting so that the artist can be fully confident he or she is on the right track before committing to subsequent paint layers.
So in a twist fit for daytime soap operas, a dull and tedious underpainting can actually become a free-spirited process that allows us to work according to our artistic needs and style. You can create a dress rehearsal for your work and also start to understand how painting masters created complex color layers and luminous light effects.
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