What is an Underpainting?

Have you ever wondered why so many pictures painted in full, lush hues started out with a first layer that’s limited to just shades of gray, brown, or even pink? It's called an underpainting and it's more than just a tradition. It lays the groundwork for the entire piece by tackling key elements like proportion and value contrast early on, helping avoid major adjustments later. Working with limited color in the initial layer is also a good way to overcome the initial hesitation of facing a blank canvas.

Image (left): Left - The Visit to the Tenant Farmer by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1568, Right - Visit to the Tenants by Jan Brueghel the Elder ca. 1597

Purpose of an Underpainting

The underpainting helps establish a color scheme and provides the basis for layering and indirect mixtures, so imagery underneath can interact and combine with transparent layers applied on top. Historical artists had fewer colors to work with compared to what painters enjoy today, and bright colors were often expensive and hard to obtain. Starting a painting in monochrome allowed the artist to conserve costly colors while resolving all the proportions, values, and a lot of the details before tackling the challenge of a full palette.

When a painting is made in tones of black and grays, it’s called a grisaille. Sometimes this is how the entire picture is executed, for realistic images of statues and relief carvings, but a grisaille can also be the basis for a full-palette painting, as a “dead color” layer establishing a highly resolved version of the subject matter in shades of a single hue. This guides the light and dark structure of colors added later, and provides reflective light grays and whites that give luminosity to transparent colors applied on top.

Image (right): Left - Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of the painter Palamedesz Palamedes, gen. Stevaerts, 1599-1641, Right - Unknown, The Virgin and Child with Saint Andrew and Saint Peter, 1510

Using Mediums to Keep Your Underpainting Bright

To ensure that light passages in the underpainting remain bright and reflective under glazes, some artists use a medium that helps paint achieve a firm surface quickly to resist staining. The physician Théodore de Mayerne (1573-1655) recorded the use of something called “Amber Oil of Venice” in the Gentileschi studio, mixed drop by drop in white passages and flesh tones. The formula for the mysterious medium is lost to history, but is assumed to have been a cooked oil varnish with resins. Artists today can achieve a similar effect by using an alkyd-based medium for fast drying to a tough, resistant film.

Image (left): Orazio Gentileschi, “Head of a Woman” 1636

Monochromatic Underpaintings

A monochromatic underpainting doesn’t have to be devoid of color. It can also be a brunaille (brown earth) or verdaille/verdaccio (green). An earth-colored underpainting provides warm tones across the entire painting for a harmonious appearance, while a green underpainting can add essential cool tones to skin, and give a natural, realistic effect to portraits and figures.

Image (right): Left - Circle of Pietro Rotari, “Sleeping Woman” 18th c., Right: Nils Jakob Olsson Blommér - Portrait of a woman, 1852

Colored Underpaintings

With so much variety in artist’s colors today, there’s no reason to limit your choice to muted, neutral tones. Some break with tradition and choose unexpected, bright colors for underpaintings. Maxfield Parrish used bright blue as the base for his complex, layered images. This creates a radiant, dynamic glow as light reflects off the underpainting through glazes, like a stained-glass window. Regardless of whether you use bright or muted colors, however, make sure the underpainting has a relatively low oil content compared to the layers on top to ensure stable results.

Image (left): Maxfield Parrish (1870—1966). Morning, 1922

Layering Underpainting Colors

When a bright underpainting color interacts with a translucent layer of its complement, like orange glazes over a blue layer, the result can be much more dramatic than simply mixing the pair together on the palette. This kind of layering allows you to fine tune color intensity while preserving the full brightness of each layer.

Image (right): The Rubaiyat by Maxfield Parrish, 1917

Ébauche Technique

A different, full-palette approach to underpainting called the ébauche was favored by French Neoclassical artists. A sort of a sketch in oil paint, the ébauche is roughed in quickly at first with very thin paint with the canvas showing through.

There are no rules about how much or little of the underpainting to leave visible in the finished work. The ébauche sometimes covered the entire canvas, but other times focused on key visual elements, like the head and hands of a subject, leaving much of the painting ground exposed for later work. This approach leaves plenty of absorbent surface available for subsequent layers, and it’s also a great way to show the evidence of your process.

While the first layer for an oil painting is usually executed in oils, it can also be done in a different medium, as long as that medium provides a stable, lean foundation. In fact, it’s believed that oil painting began as a hybrid technique, expanding the use of oil glazes over tempera. Some artists still use egg tempera or egg-oil emulsion for this, but acrylics offer the absorbency and texture needed to provide an underpainting that supports oils later. Of course, the underpainting can also become the basis for a pure acrylic painting, using mediums and retarders to facilitate glazing and layering.

Image (left): Left - William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Summer” ca. 1880, Right - Jacques Louis David - Madame de Pastoret and Her Son, 1791

Benefits of Using Acrylics with an Underpainting

Acrylics can also incorporate inclusions and textures that would be difficult to introduce into an oil underpainting. The Cubist Georges Braque used a wide range of textures in his oil paintings, including sand and collage elements, but colleagues noted that he took great care in crafting the first layers to ensure stable results. With acrylics, texture mediums can be used with no concern for flexibility and adhesion. Acrylics can also be used to pile up bold impasto in the underpainting that dries quickly to create dramatic depth.

The best thing about an underpainting is that it helps you establish a plan, and a solid foundation for everything that follows. It lets you set guidelines to keep colors and proportions controlled, providing a framework for spontaneity and improvisation. It’s a great way to cover up a big, blank canvas and just start painting!

Image (right): Still life, Georges Braque, 1926

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