What is an under painting exactly? Why do one? And why one earth is this one red? I’m going to answer all those questions and more!
Years ago, I was taking a painting workshop and we were discussing the pros and cons of doing an under painting. One of the workshop students related this story. While taking another class with a very well known artist, which unfortunately didn’t include all that much actual instruction, he began his painting his usual way, they way he had previously been taught, with an under painting. When The Well Known Artist Instructor saw this he was fit to be tied. “What are you doing?”, he asked with considerable irritation. The poor student hesitantly replied “Making an under painting.” To that The Well Known Artist Instructor replied with exasperation “Why would you want to paint your painting twice?”
Even as a much less experienced painter I knew right then that The Well Known Artist Instructor didn’t really understand what an under painting was or what its value was to the painting process.
The painting process can take one of two paths, direct painting and indirect painting.
Direct painting is usually though of as they way impressionist painters work. Vibrant color laid down directly on a white canvas. Usually monet is looked to as an example of this. However, while doing some research I cam across this….An excerpt from Monet by Trewin Copplestone:
“Monet usually painted on standard-sized canvases with a white priming, a break from earlier tradition, in which forms and tones had been built up from dark to light on a dark-toned ground. However, although he said in 1920 that he “always insisted on painting on white canvases, in order to establish on them my scale of values,” this statement is not entirely true; in fact he used a wide range of mid-toned primings, often a warm beige or light gray. From about 1860 the color of these primings became an element in the paintings, with small areas either being left unpainted or very lightly covered.”
Indirect painting is the opposite that is referred to in the above paragraph about Monet’s painting practice. That is, before color is applied forms are established by building up tones/values, working from a dark toned ground. Indirect painting methods also include, blending, glazing and scumbling during the painting process once color is being used. Direct painting lays down individual brush strokes side by side or on top of one another to visually blend color instead of physically blending it with the brush.
While both indirect and direct painting methods may build up layers, indirect painting integrates the layers (ex. glazing) while direct painting piles on separate daubs of paint.
I think it’s interesting that in the quote above, what Monet said on one occasion didn’t really match what he sometimes did: use a wide range of mid-toned primings, often a warm beige or light gray. That’s because there are so many, many ways to construct a painting very few artists always do the same thing for their whole careers.
I very often use a light to mid-toned primer on my canvas before the under painting. For that I like to use Daniel Smith colored gesso in Stone Gray or Buff Titanium
Why Paint your Painting Twice?
I think most of you realize that creating an under painting doesn’t mean you’re painting your painting twice. Strictly speaking if you’re making a grisaille, an old academic technique, some artists still use, you might be able to make that argument. In the case of a grisaille you create a completely developed, refined and fully finished painting in gray, umber or some other neutral tone and then you build up transparent layers of colored glaze, over that. Something like hand coloring a black and white photo.
Any way, in a regular under painting, which is generally very loose, you establish composition, shape, size and value relationships as well as the feeling and mood of the piece and the big broad movements within the piece, all before you address color.
Color is what makes a painting a painting. It can often be the most difficult aspect of a painting to wrestle with and even if you have a strong natural affinity for excellent color handling, color can be a distraction. The beauty and joy you get from using color, may inhibit your ability to have a critical eye for things like composition, value relationships and drawing accuracy. It’s very easy to fall in love with the color scheme we are creating in a painting, and to absolutely be enamored by the color relationships in certain parts of our paintings and that can blind us to poor drawing, or composition.
Doing an under painting first allows you to address some of those more analytical concerns, like break up of space, and value pattern without being bewitched by color.
I’ve made, and have seen, many paintings that have great color but fall down in many other critical aspects of a well constructed painting.
Once your painting is working in the under painting stage you have a lot less to worry about and you can dive into those glorious colors with abandon knowing your composition is solid, and your value patterns are correct.
What Color to use for an Under Painting?
There are basically two choices. Go with the complement, as I did in the first example, choosing a red to act as a foil for all the green that will ultimately define the painting, or go with something analogous/harmonious to amplify the dominant color or temperature of the piece.
Same goes for what color to prime you canvas with. You can choose a complementary color or temperature for “pop” or you can keep things harmonious.
You can also play with intensity here. Under paintings can be very intensely colored or much more neutral and earthy. An intense under painting can provide a bit a sparkle and excitement if small bits of it are left to show through a realistically painted piece or on the flip side if bits of a neutral under painting are left to show through a vibrantly colored piece they can provide balance and rest areas in your final painting.
Under Painting vs Finished Piece
If you clicked through to any of the final versions of my painting’s you’ll see that a lot of changes can happen during the painting process and sometimes the final version of the painting looks a lot different than the under painting. Sometimes that happens because your vision for the piece evolves during the painting process, but sometimes it happens because you didn’t work out all your issues with composition and value in the under painting. Either way you’re never really painting your painting twice in a boring, slavish way. The under painting serves a vital function in the construction of a painting and its loose, expressive qualities often peek through in the final version adding energy, uniqueness and life to a painting.