Master Value, Light, and More Through Underpainting

As a painter, there are endless ways to grow in your craft and hone your skills. For some fine artists, it’s a matter of finding new inspiration. For others, it can be simply a matter of testing out different mediums or experimenting with different types of brushes and paints. But for many artists, the best way to take your skills to the next level is to try out new painting techniques.

Today we’ll provide a thorough examination of one of the many techniques that can give brand new life to your painting style:

Underpainting.

Underpainting serves many purposes and can be used to achieve a variety of different things. It can give your work more depth and more dimension. It can create levels of contrast. It can better enhance areas of light, dark, and shadow. It’s a technique that all artists should be aware of and should, at the very least, try. 

Ready to learn some new tricks? Here’s how you can master value, light, and more through underpainting.

What is Underpainting?

Underpainting is precisely what it sounds like: applying a layer of paint to your canvas or surface prior to painting it.

Some artists use underpainting as: 

  • A blueprint for the image they intend to paint.
  • As a base layer so as not to have to stare at a blank canvas.
  • As a way to build contrast and tonal values into their canvas, creating dark and light portions that will make those areas of the canvas lighter or darker once you apply paint on top.
  • And as an outline for future color placement.

Underpainting serves a variety of different purposes, all of which can make the end result more exciting and appealing. And if you’re painting a realistic subject matter, it’s almost a must.

Depending on the precise colors you choose, you can also give your work a completely different tone and feel than you would get if you simply started to lay down your paint on a blank canvas.

If you’re the type of artist who methodically plans and maps out a painting before ever dipping your brush in paint, underpainting can give your work an entirely different look. For the meticulous painter who has their entire work planned in their mind, it can also help to use underpainting in combination with underdrawing.

How and for what purpose you decide to underpaint is entirely up to the individual artist. There is truly no right or wrong method; it’s only essential to use the method that works for you.

The History of Underpainting

The concept of underpainting dates back to the old masters of the Renaissance period. Art historians credit the technique back to Titian, whose well-known 16th-century works include Venus of Urbino, Assumption of the Virgin, and Bacchus and Ariadne.

Titian was a pioneer in the concept of underpainting, and art historians believe that he used opaque underpainting with multiple tones as a way to make his paintings seem more lifelike. Titian’s works indicate that he left the edges of his underpaintings soft to make more adjustments later. He would cover his underpainting with transparent glazes before building it up with opaque tones.

Famed old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt also used this technique. They used it as a way to create the initial structure of a painting, which is a testament to how sincerely they took their work and to what lengths they were willing to go to achieve mastery in their art.

Over the centuries, numerous artists have expanded upon Titian’s technique, discovering new ways to underpaint and new reasons to use it. It is a technique that many artists still use today, specifically those who work in oil paints or acrylics.

The Basics of Underpainting

 

Basics of Underpainting

 

Underpainting is used primarily with acrylic paints and oil paints. There are two main methods that most artists use, both of which produce different effects.

The Imprimatura Method

In Italian, imprimatura means “the first layer of paint.” This underpainting technique allows painters to mute the brightness of a stark white canvas simply. 

Imprimatura is typically applied in a thin, transparent layer, allowing some of the white background to show through.

The Grisaille Method

The Grisaille technique involves layering on additional shades of medium and dark tones in order to build light and value into your canvas before you start glazing or applying paints.

The Grisaille underpainting method often uses monochromatic tones in shades of gray, burnt umber, or other neutrals. It can serve as a blueprint or map for your work. You’ll already have light, medium, and dark tones built into your canvas, making it easier to achieve better contrast and more value in your final painting.

Understanding the Underpainting Technique

The first step in the underpainting process is to choose a color. As mentioned, underpainting is most effective when painted in monochromatic tones. Many artists use darker tones, such as burnt sienna, raw umber, or ultramarine blue to achieve the most significant effect. If the purpose of underpainting is to develop greater values in your painting, lighter colors, such as yellows, are less effective.

If you’re using oil paints, start by thinning your oil paint with a solvent (such as turpenoid) and a binder. Using thinner paint will allow the underpainting to blend in better with later layers of paint.  If you don’t want to use a solvent, water-mixable oil paint is a good alternative. Simply thin it with water to achieve a lighter, more blendable base layer.

Once your paint’s consistency is where you need it to be, apply a thin layer of your chosen color over the entire canvas from edge to edge. This initial layer is the Imprimatura, and some artists stop at this step.

Those looking to create greater values with underpainting take the next step to Grisaille underpainting by layering paint in the areas that they want to have the darkest values. By building up the underpainting in varying tones, you’ll automatically create light and dark values within the painting.

Some artists go even one step further and paint an entire blueprint to serve as a monochromatic sketch of the whole work. The effect you want to achieve will determine how many layers of underpainting you decide to apply.

You can also use acrylics as underpainting layers beneath oil, but not vice versa. If you do choose acrylics for underpainting, keep the fat over lean concept in mind. Paint your acrylics in thin layers to keep them as lean as possible beneath the subsequent layers of oil paints you intend to apply on top. 

Depending on the final appearance you’re aiming to achieve, you can choose to paint on a wet underpainting or allow your underpainting to dry entirely before applying subsequent layers. There can be benefits in allowing your underpainting to mix and blend with your other colors, but most artists allow their underpainting to dry before applying layers on top.

How to Master Value Through Underpainting

When we talk about value in an oil painting or acrylic painting, we refer to how light or dark a particular color is. By creating a layered underpainting as a map for your finished work, you can build those values into your canvas before you ever add your colorful pigments.

To achieve greater value in your finished product:

  1. Create your underpainting with a series of thin washes. 

  2. Build up your underpainting by adding thin layers at a time, applied directly on top of each other in the areas that you want to have medium values. 

  3. Apply additional layers in the regions that you want to have the darkest values.

For the areas of the canvas where you want to achieve lighter values, you can either leave the canvas white or apply one very thin wash of color to simply dull down the canvas’s brightness.

For example, if you choose to underpaint in shades of gray, use a very pale gray (almost white) in the areas where you want the lightest values, a mid-tone gray where you want medium values, and very dark grays (almost blacks) where you want the darkest values.

Once you’ve developed areas of light, medium, and dark values on your canvas, you can apply opaque pigments or translucent glazes on top. With the values of your painting already built into your canvas, a single wash of a single pigment will reflect back with different areas of light, medium, and dark values. 

How to Master Light Through Underpainting

Light in a painting doesn’t refer to how light or dark a color is, but rather the illumination that comes from the light source of a color. Areas of your canvas with darker values will reflect less light. Those with lighter values will reflect more light.

And just as layering your underpainting in monochromatic tones creates value, it also creates light. Without underpainting, your work will look less realistic, as the naked eye sees the illumination and reflection of light in everything we view. 

Underpainting to achieve light may or may not be of concern in an abstract subject matter, but it is of great significance when painting realistic images, such as portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. 

The human eye already has an expectation of where light and shadow should fall. If your painting doesn’t reflect the light as it should, it will most likely fall flat (and not have the realistic appearance you want).

How to Create Contrast With Underpainting

 

Underpainting

 

The color you choose for underpainting can significantly affect the overall mood and feeling of your finished work. For this reason, underpainting with specific colors can create even greater contrast within your art.

Underpainting in shades of gray or brown is the typical Grisaille method and a great way to build value and light into a painting. But underpainting in other pigments can make your work feel cold, establish a sense of warmth, or evoke a feeling of heat.

For example, underpainting in shades of blue can make a painting feel icy and cold. Shades of yellow ocher can make a painting feel warm. Shades of purple can provide an excellent source of shadow if you plan to layer warmer colors on top.

Keep in mind that the underpainting color you choose will affect your subsequent layers. Every pigment reacts differently to every other pigment, so painting a layer of red on top of a blue underpainting will give the red a different look and value than if you were to paint that same shade of red on top of a yellow underpainting.

How thin your layers or glazes are will also make a difference. The thinner or more transparent the top layer, the more your underpainting will show through. Some artists prefer portions of their underpainting to show through, while others simply use it as a foundation and a way to build that contrast they’re hoping to develop.

Conclusion

Some artists use the underpainting technique as a way to calm the anxiety they feel when staring at a stark white canvas. Others use it as a way to master their painting techniques and build light, value, and contrast into the work that they create.

For some artists, underpainting is an unnecessary added step in an already complicated process. But don’t rule it out until you’ve tried it. When done correctly, it can have a significant effect on your finished work.

Ready to take your work to the next level by adding a layer of underpainting underneath? Shop Rileystreet now for acrylic paints, oil paints, solvents, and more to prepare your next canvas.