How to Develop the Underpainting
Many artists start oil paintings by first creating an underpainting, which is a simple sketch created
with one color. An artist can use an underpainting
to develop a drawing, as well as the forms, values, plains, and edges that are later added to that drawing.
When you create an underpainting, you get a clear idea of what your painting will look like before it is actually finished.
There are no rules for creating an underpainting. An underpainting can be created as a pencil sketch, pen
and ink wash, basic color wash, or wash-in with raw umber oil paints.
I prefer to use raw umber oil paint as my medium
for the underpainting. It has very little chroma
(color intensity), which makes it easy to develop the drawing and values. The raw umber underpainting also serves as the foundation for the final painting process.
An underpainting is similar to the foundation of a house. A solid foundation can provide the best opportunity to create a well-developed painting.
Underpainting is also the process of layering a painting to create more luminosity. You see, the underpainting never completely disappears
when the painting is complete. It is not visible to the eye. But light travels through the layers of paint, reaching the underpainting, then reflects that light through the over-painting layers. This is what gives a painting the luminosity so admired in masterworks over the centuries. Paintings without underpainting never achieve the same degree of luminosity because they lack depth of paint layering.
Many painters today use an alla prima method of painting, which is a direct method of painting with little to no preparation. Alla prima paintings can be started and finished in one painting session. You can achieve luminosity from an alla prima painting, but there’s a much different optical effect, which is evident in paintings that were executed with an underpainting.
Several different methods of underpainting were used by the old masters.
Grisaille (pronounced griz-eye)
This is a method of underpainting with gray paints.
The paints can be made up of neutral grey or variations of cool and warm grey paint.
A method of underpainting with an olive, green gray color of paint in the light areas of the painting. A Verdaccio underpainting might resemble a moonlighting effect. Verdaccio underpainting was a favored method used by old masters such as Peter Paul Rubens.
This method of underpainting uses a transparent layer of earth colors such as raw umber or burnt umber.
This is the first stain of color or toning of the canvas.
This is a variation of the Imprimatura method of underpainting. The subject or composition can be drawn into a thin semi-transparent layer of raw umber or burnt umber. Rags, paper towels and paint brushes are used to lift out the paint exposing the lights to illuminate the subject. Paint brushes would also be used to model the forms and mass shadows and lights.
I like to take the underpainting process a step further by sketching a thin layer of colors over my raw umber underpainting. This is the second step in the final painting process. The color sketch will help finalize the underpainting process and add to the luminosity of the finished painting.
The final painting process involves adding direct layers, glazes and scumbles of oil paint over the underpainting until the painting looks complete. I change the drawing and make many subtle color changes as I finish the painting.
If you want to learn how to create an underpainting take a look at my E-Book,
How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-by-Step Guide. The E-Book will teach you the techniques you’ll need to successfully complete an underpainting. This step-by-step guide has photos and explanations for every step of the painting process. Click here for more information about this E-Book and sign up for a FREE excerpt. I also produced a video on the same underpainting method, Underpainting Secrets for Artists. The video will show you my step-by-step process. Click here for information and a preview of this video.