Underpainting. You’ve probably heard the term, but what is it and why should you and your students give it a try?
Underpainting is simply the application of a layer of paint to your entire blank canvas. There are several reasons to consider using the technique, one frequently used by the masters of old, including providing a foundation for your next layers of paint, adding color contrast and luminosity, checking your composition and the shape, size, and placement of your elements, and, not least of all, to cover that empty white canvas and ease the stress of your first strokes of color. Let’s examine these benefits one at a time.
Washing your canvas in color creates a foundation for the rest of your work. You might choose to apply an even layer of color over your entire canvas or to rough out your scene in a single color, layering darker and lighter in areas of shadow and light. Either way, this first layer of paint will cover much of your paper’s texture, creating a smoother surface for your work.
Applying a specific color to your entire canvas can also add a subtle tone to the finished piece, affecting the layered colors you choose and unifying your work. For example, choosing a cool shade, like a blue, for your underpaint layer can give a piece a cold feeling, while a reddish base will give the entire finished piece a warm glow. Underpainting with a lighter color can also create that glowing, luminous feeling the classic painters achieved, by reflecting the light that travels through the various layers of paint back at the viewer.
And last, a blank canvas can be daunting. Covering the entire piece in a wash of color is an easy way to get past your nerves and get started. Plus, roughing out your scene this way gives you a chance to examine your composition, scale, and the placement of various elements before you really dig in with color.
The actual process of underpainting is fairly simple. There are a few different ways to do it, including:
1. Covering your entire canvas in one, transparent color.
2. Layering your single underpaint color to connote the shadowed areas in your piece. (The old masters used a process called grisaille, whereby they actually painted their entire scene in their single underpaint color.)
3. Using chalk on your dry underpaint layer to quickly rough your scene, then wiping it away again.
4. Leaving some areas of your canvas unpainted—the color you use to cover these white spots will be more vibrant than your other colors, making those areas shine brighter.
5. Leaving some of your underpainted color uncovered in your final work, allowing the underpaint color to show through.
A high quality oil or acrylic paint thinned with a bit of turpentine or other thinning medium makes the perfect underpainting consistency. You’ll want to choose your underpaint color carefully, according to your objectives—light earth tones or other muted tones will provide a natural base and reflect lots of light; darker colors will affect the tone of your other, layered colors and may show through your painting. Consider using a color wheel to help you select an underpaint color that’s complimentary to the colors of your finished piece.
Have you underpainted with your students or on any of your own works? Share your own tips, tricks, and questions with your fellow teachers below.