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Oil Painting - Underpainting Tutorial

What is an "under-Painting"?                                                                                  Skip to next section

Generally this is a transparent "oil sketch" which is made mostly with pigment and turpentine, and which remains underneath the finished painting. It can serve several uses ranging from being a simple composition guide; to being an integral background element visible in the finished painting.. It may be a very rough sketch, or a finely rendered image. It's chief value is in creating luminescence in the painting, since light reflects through it from the back of the canvas; and also for uniting color values in the overall painting by adding a subjective dominant color key .

Under-paintings can be tonal, or color blocked. Here are samples of  3 types of under-paintings, and then the next layer painted on top in local color..

Under-Painted layer Next layer painted on top  
Tonal Ground
The entire canvas has a single transparent color evenly applied (or as a gradient), showing through as the shadow color to the painting. This creates luminescent shadows, and tones the entire composition. The greens and whites were painted on top after the brown layer was dry.
Under-Painted layer Next layer painted on top  
Tonal Under-Painting
Contrast only has been painted with a  single transparent color. The white parts are not white paint: they are unpainted canvas. This is what's important! The lightest areas show the naked canvas underneath. Notice how much brighter these highlights appear as more colors are applied. This method can give you very bright and pure top colors and gives you a strong start on developing the form of objects, plus uniting the painting with a dominant color tone.
Under-Painted layer Next layer painted on top  
Color-Block Under-Painting
Contrast only is painted, but with the local color of each object or area. This also gives you the bright highlights and jump on developing form, but you can use color composition instead of tonal unity.

Using different hues for mood.
I was thinking of painting some kind of "Swamp Thing" unfortunately it looks like someone caught in the woods without toilet paper.
That's what poor planning will do for you.

Choosing the hue of the underpainting should first take into consideration the overall emotion to be expressed. 
Second, it's good to think about how to color contrast shadows with the rest of the color scheme to make the objects pop out 
     (which helps to create a sense of depth) 
OR how to make backgrounds blend in such as foliage or background stuff that you want to create an impression of, but don't 
     want to paint in detail.

The previous tonal examples with the frog are painted with Burnt Sienna, which is always a safe choice, and particularly well suited for underpainting flesh tones. As a color near the end of the visual spectrum, it works well as a shadow color, and has a pleasant warm tone.

These next samples are of the bottom layer only -the underpainting-. After this layer is dry you would continue to paint local colors over most of it; but what remains or shows through has a significant influence on the mood of the painting.

Other color examples:

     This is the basic sketch for the canvas

     When you apply paint as an underpainting, don't use medium. Thin the pigment with 
     pure distilled Turpentine. As you paint over in subsequent layers, this will lift off a
     bit and blend seamlessly with the other layers.

     If you have an area that you KNOW will remain exposed, it's best to first do a very
tonal ground  to get rid of the stark white canvas. Then apply the under
     paint with fresh medium and a brush dampened with turpentine. This will bind the 
     pigment adequately.

     If you use a lot of medium in the first layers of a painting; you risk the outer layers 
     cracking and peeling off as it ages. (read about binding in the Scumbling section).

     Cool transparent purplish- hues are good for warm over-painted layers; Great for 
     the shadows in flowers, landscapes, and lonely emotions This color is made from 
     Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue. 

     A better color is a wine-red purple made from 1/2 yellow ochre and 1/4 each    
    Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue. If you add some white to that it makes subtle 
     Mauve and Rose hues that are very different from the Sienna rose tones.

     You will notice from mixing that Cadmium Red really does not make any kind of
     a good purple. Cerulian Blue also tends to desaturate and grey the color out to a hue 
     that's really flat.

     Blue tonal under paintings look very cold, of course.

     This is straight Yellow Ochre. Yellow as an underpainting makes the  climate look
     hot. Ochre is preferable in under layers because it has superior binding properties.

     Yellow under-paintings also look phenomenal for pottery and other still-lifes.

     You can create different tonal areas (this is not color blocking; where the color 
     matches the local object) Using contrasting colors makes the composition dramatic
     and often edgy. Using analogous colors heightens the presence of objects, but 
     appears more stable.
     This is basically a color-blocked underpainting, where the colors match the 
     local objects. It's a quick way to rough out the composition and basic color
     scheme; if you find you don't like the hue you can wipe off an offending color  with 
     a turpentine rag and replace it.
     This was under-painted with Raw Umber which is one of the best colors for
     foliage backgrounds due to it's subtle green-brown hue. 

     Some local color was painted in a second layer on top.


Here are some other examples of under-paintings:

     J.W. Waterhouse

     Tonal underpainting in two contrasting tones.


     These under-paintings are in contrasting colors to separate the figure 
      from the background.

     The background is under-painted with Raw Umber, and then some 
     Sap Green at the top.

     The dress is painted with Cadmium Red.

     Helen Schjerfbeck



     A simple color-block (local color) underpainting.

     Maurice Prendergast (detail of "Central Park"

     Tonal Ground



     This already has quite a bit of build-up top layers, but you can see 
     around the edges that it has a Burnt Umber (dark brown) tonal ground. 
     (like the first from picture)



These are paintings from my portfolio that show the influence of the underpainting:

Tonal under-painting

Under-painted with Burnt Sienna

     Tonal under-painting

     Under-painted with a wine - purple

     (Yellow Ochre + Alizarin Crimson + Ultramarine Blue = wine hue)

     Color-block (local color) under-painting in contrasting tones (warm & cool)

     Body with cool black

     Background with Raw Sienna

     Ultramarine Blue + Raw Umber + cool black hue
     Ultramarine Blue + Burnt Umber = Warm black hue.



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Jess Bates
PO Box 497 Aspen CO 81612
Reproduction allowed with attribution

jessbates (at) gmail.com