Underpainting: What is it good for?

I use underpainting for many reasons, my favorite being that it removes all the distracting white.

When painting landscapes with an opaque medium like oil, there’s little use for starting with a white canvas. If anything, all that glaring white is a distraction. Even if you’re painting a snowstorm, the canvas won’t be pure white in the end (snow has a lot of color – more on that another day!). I find that it’s far more useful to begin with some sort of color.

What is underpainting?

An underpainting is an initial layer of color on which an artist can build the painting. Often times a neutral tone is laid down, followed by a monotone version of the painting to work out the values and composition.

For oil painting, I use either acrylic or oil as the underpainting. If using acrylic, let it dry completely before moving on. If using oil, it’s not necessary to let the underpainting dry first. However, avoid adding too much medium in the underpainting if you are continuing immediately as it will make it difficult to apply fresh paint.

Color Choice

An underpainting doesn’t have to be neutral! I like to use a vivid color – something bold that will peak through later.

Forest study with oil paint using a pink underpainting process
Forest with pink underpainting process
Forest study with oil paint using a pink underpainting
Sunny Autumn Forest oil study by Sarah Burns

In a scene with strong lighting, I may not paint the entire canvas first. As shown above, I left some areas white because I realised quickly that those areas would remain bright. Technically I was painting the darker values with the pink.

I used a bright magenta color to emphasise the brilliant autumn colors of the forest, and made a conscious effort to allow some of it to be seen in the result.

Why not just add pink as I painted? Of course that’s an option, but I wanted to have lots of dry-brush texture in this painting. Allowing the dry brush to graze over the texture and let that pink show through was a strategic choice.

Here’s another example:

Forest light underpainting process
Forest light underpainting process
Forest study with oil paint using a pink underpainting
Forest Light oil painting by Sarah Burns

The underpainting allows me to play with the composition and lighting within a landscape before I start thinking about color. This type of low risk experimentation helps me progress quickly. When painting outside it can save a lot of time and struggle to figure out the lighting.

Here’s a slightly different approach. This time, I primed the entire thing with a medium blue:

Forest River Underpainting Process
Underpainting process for the Forest River painting.
Forest River oil painting with dappled light by Sarah Burns
Forest River with dappled light, oil painting by Sarah Burns

Typically with oil, we work from dark to light. Starting with a darker canvas forces you to move into your lights sooner – or at least it does for me. I allowed the blue to become my midtone – letting it show through in the majority of the painting.

Another blue underpainting:

dark blue underpainting process
Ord Hill forest painting by Sarah Burns
“Ord Hill Forest” oil painting by Sarah Burns

The above painting started off even darker, which made it feel like I was sculpting with light while painting! This is a very specific stylistic choice, so if you want something a bit more subdued, you can use any color to replace blue.

What does it all mean?

Ultimately, it comes down to what workflow helps you paint better. I’m constantly experimenting and I still don’t feel like I’ve found my best process. I get closer a little bit each time.

In the end, I want to be excited by the process, and to enjoy the results. Doing studies like this with experimental colors helps me figure out what I like and don’t like.

I highly recommend trying a variety of underpainting techniques! Feel free to send me your experiments.

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I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

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