A Simple Productivity Tip from Da Vinci

Ever wondered where Da Vinci found the time to create all his masterpieces? Alongside his fine art painting he managed to dabble as a scientist, geologist, architect, mathematician, engineer, and anatomist with a bit of aeronautical design thrown in for good measure!

So how can we adopt a little bit of Da Vinci in our own practice? One of the most simple ways is to use a colored ground for our painting art. Or, as Da Vinci favored, an imprimatura.

Self-portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci, red chalk drawing, 1510-1515.
Self-portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci, red chalk drawing, 1510-1515.

An imprimatura is an initial stain of color painted onto a white ground. It is usually created using an earth color such as burnt umber or raw sienna. When painted onto your canvas it provides you with a transparent toned ground to work onto. (For more oil painting terms and definitions, here’s my free online Glossary for Oil Painting Terms–An Essential Guide for Beginners.)

Why does it speed up your process as a painting artist? The toned ground acts as your mid tone. You then just have to work on the lights and darks. This means you can quickly establish a feel and mood for the painting with very little effort.

The name Imprimatura comes from the Italian for ‘first paint layer’ and often, the initial stain is left visible in areas of the finished painting.

You can use this painting technique to prepare a selection of different colored surfaces that can be perfect for quick oil painting sketches and poster studies.

Maybe a burnt sienna imprimatura for an autumnal scene, or a terre-verte for a landscape painting?

By knocking down the white glare of the pre-primed canvas, you can quickly get your ideas down and speed up your painting time in the process.

To get started with an imprimatura try using a raw umber from your painting palette. It is a neutral, semi-transparent tone that is ideal to apply to your surface. It creates a unified layer of neutral tone that dries quickly.

How to Apply an Imprimatura

1 – Place a few small dots of raw umber evenly around the canvas.

2 – Then dip your painting brush into a small amount of turpentine.

3 – Now evenly scrub the turpentine with a coarse bristle painting brush over the small drops of paint into the surface of the canvas until all the white has been eliminated.
You are looking for a translucent, even thin layer of paint, like a stain.

Toning as such creates a clean, strong foundation for subsequent paint layers.

You can now block in your drawing with the raw umber, which is thinned to a fluid, flexible consistency with turpentine and a touch of linseed oil.

If you’d like to learn more oil painting terms I’ve just published a Glossary of Oil terms for beginners.

–Will

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Will Kemp

About Will Kemp

I’m Will Kemp, an award-winning professional artist and teacher.

My aim is to teach aspiring artists the most effective ways to succeed in painting & drawing.

Using classical painting techniques with modern teaching methods you can discover how to paint & draw in the quickest time possible.

I’ve studied Classical atelier techniques at the Florence Academy of Art, Italy alongside conceptual art at the Tate Gallery, London.

I’ve worked alongside the National Gallery, London, taught in schools, set up and ran my own gallery for 5 years and have taught hundreds of people to paint and draw.

I’ll teach you to become selective with composition, demystify color mixing and achieve perfect perspective.

I’m looking forward to you joining me on your creative journey of discovery,

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P.S. I write and create weekly videos at Will Kemp Art School about painting, drawing techniques & creativity.





6 thoughts on “A Simple Productivity Tip from Da Vinci

  1. Haha! I started reading this thinking I was finally going to find out the secret to juggling life as an artist/mom/employed person. Alas, it was not to be. Great article about imprimatura, though!!
    Suzette Vida

  2. The lesson I take from this imprimatura technique should help people like Suzette to juggle all their activities: Work smart. Think about what you’re doing. Learn from the masters. As long as it doesn’t cheapen your work, take that shortcut. Maybe take an intern also. 😀

  3. I just finished “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King. While Leonardo was an artistic genius and ahead of his time, he was not a known for his productivity. With only 14 works of art surviving him, and a host of unfinished works and commissions, who knows what we could have seen from him had he been more focused and productive.

  4. I just finished “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King. While Leonardo was an artistic genius and ahead of his time, he was not a known for his productivity. With only 14 works of art surviving him, and a host of unfinished works and commissions, who knows what we could have seen from him had he been more focused and productive.

  5. This is very cool! I’ve done similar things with glazes, but this produces an amazing effect (and saves time creating the base for the painting). Thanks!

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