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What is an "underpainting"?

What is an “underpainting”? Often times I am asked that question when the term comes up in conversation. Both artists and non-artists have asked me this question over the years.

When you look at a painting, you may not realize that often there is actually a separate, but similar, painting beneath the final painting that serves as its foundation.

In its simplest terms, an underpainting is typically a monochromatic rough sketch that will serve to unite all of the elements of the final painting. I like to use an underpainting on many of my works. There are several reasons why underpaintings are an excellent tool for an artist. It allows me to create a value study to establish the dark and light areas of the image as well as defining composition. Once I am satisfied with the overall shapes and values I can start laying in “local” colors on top of the underpainting. Local color is the term used to describe the color in nature or reality that we are all familiar with such as grass is green and the sky is blue.

One of the great and most useful functions of the underpainting is that when the painting is done, the base color “comes through” and can be seen throughout the painting. In the example here, I created an underpainting using burnt sienna to lay in the basic shapes and values of my painting “Last Summer”.

During the underpainting stages, I am able to make corrections, if needed, when I start applying the local color on top of the underpainting. It is during this time that I can revise shapes in order to improve composition or resolve any issues that arise. I use this opportunity to add or remove elements in order to make the painting “work”.

In the finished painting one can see the burnt sienna color “come through” in the sky, the distant ground, the foreground and even in the wood of the barn itself. This serves to tie the whole painting together with a common “feel” and tone.

It is important to note that the initial underpainting color is a conscious choice that I must make. Do I want the overall feel to be warm? If so, I use warm colors like oranges, browns and reds. If a cooler atmosphere is desired, common colors used are ultramarine blue, dioxizine purple and other cooler colors.

In my painting “It’s All About Ewe” I created a cool underpainting of dioxizine purple. In the video linked below that shows the painting progress, you can see the effects of starting with a roughed-in underpainting and the corrections in value that are made when laying in the final color.

That’s a very basic description of an underpainting so…now you know! If you are an artist and haven’t tried this method before, give it a whirl. I think you’ll like it! If you are a non-artist who appreciates artwork and the processes involved, now you know what this means if an artist mentions it.

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