Are You Using This Critical Painting Technique?

Is No One Underpainting?

The multi-hued underpainting of The Bouquet by John Taye.

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.

The Bouquet by John Taye, 2008, oil painting, 16 x 12.

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.

Using Colors

Wetlands Sunset by Scott Gellatly, oil painting, 2012.
Wetlands Sunset by Scott Gellatly, oil painting, 2012.

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.

And for a better understanding of the material aspects of your chosen medium by trusted artists and instructors, the North Light Shop is having their Buy One, Get One for $5 sale with so many great art instruction books available that give you the scoop on the versatile visual effects of your chosen medium–and then you get to choose a video download for just $5.  Enjoy!




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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

8 thoughts on “Are You Using This Critical Painting Technique?

  1. I recently had a weekend workshop on this technique. The results were interesting. I usually do a monochromatic underpainting, but I think I’ll incorporate some of the new lessons.

  2. Richard McKinley has a wonderful DVD, “Bold Underpaintings for Pastel”, but I am sure the principles would apply to any medium. It gave me the courage to try a new technique and the results have been very gratifying. Have fun!

  3. I do colorful, abstract underpaintings, sometimes incorporating textures in acrylic gel medium. Often the underpainting suggests a subject, or I refer to sketches or photographs. I enjoy letting some of the underpainting show through, adding a depth dimension and mystery to the finished piece. I use this technique with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and oils. Examples are on my web site:

  4. I rarely paint right on a white canvas. Love to do a warm thin value defining underpainting. This works great for leaving some “hot” accents on landscape paintings. Back in school we learned how effective the underpainting of complimentary colors can be in still lifes. One of my favorite paintings from my school days was an extreme closeup of colorful lollipops. The red one was first painted green underneath etc. The visual interest you get in the values is incredible compared to just painting a darker red for the dark spots.
    Great article,

  5. I generally don’t tone canvas, and I only paint an underpainting when I want transparent, watercolor like effects. I use dark transparent pigments, like Alizarin, Sap Green, or Ultra Marine Dark. I love these effects in the dark shadow areas, as they breath life into them.

  6. I usually tone by working surface with the opposite temperature of what my light source is, then I can leave areas shining through and dry brush over them so that the opposite temperature shines through. My underdrawing is monochromatic, but with either a cool or warm temperature, so that I can really push that in my final painting.

  7. I only recently started doing underpaintings in my work. I never understood the need and I guess I was maybe a little intimidated. Now I use them all the time to map out my larger shapes; and to identify the different value questions in my work. Since my work is mostly plein aire, my underpaintings tend to be loose representations of the subject.

  8. Could you please make it possible to see larger versions of the images you use in your articles? You make a point about some aspect, I an intregued, only to be frustrated by the size of the image. Couldn’t you make it so that we could click on it to see it larger?