The Importance of an Underpainting

The Importance of the


It is my contention that a solid drawing followed by an underpainting is crucial to create a painting with graceful lines and structure.

In art history, the underpainting was also known by different names. The word grisalle is one that was used in the 19th Century French Academies. The master, Ingres, used grisalle throughout his career.

I had also heard the phrase “dead color” to describe the underpainting. I imagine the phrase takes into account that when color is added to this monotoned layer, the painting comes to life. The underpainting could be in any monotoned color, although black and white is most often used.

When painting portraits the Venetian painters used a reddish-brown underpainting. This technique emulates the flesh and blood under the skin. This method is only successful when employing thin layers of color called glazes.

My approach to painting is very pragmatic. I like to break down the complex elements of a painting into simple steps that will get me to the desired completion when the painting is finished. The line drawing will take care of the contours and proportions, the underpainting will address the value relationships, while the color takes care of the chroma and the saturation. If this method was good enough for Ingres, it is definitely good enough for me.

When executing an underpainting it is important to create the values about 2 values lighter ( on a scale from 1 to 8, from black to white). This is because when you apply the color glazes over the underpainting it will turn the values darker. This will show up in the lightest of values. Where this is very dark areas (almost black) it’s ok to have the values closer in the underpainting.

It is so difficult to solve all three issues of line, value, and color all at once. If the end result is the same, why make the journey more difficult?

Work on the drawing, the underpainting, and then the color, as a chess player is planning many moves ahead; setting up his/her pieces before the attack. It is imperative that you have a plan that is both detailed and loose enough to adjust to any challenges you may face during the painting process. Nothing can prepare you fully for the painting progress itself, just as all the planning in war can never fully prepare one for the battle itself; However, you stand a better chance at success with proper preparation.

Let me further explain this concept to you. Let us say that you created a very sound line drawing and then in the underpainting process, you have pressed too hard with the pencil and a line can not be fully erased. It is in times like that you will need to think on the fly. I said that because this happened to me this week. It was upsetting however I stopped and assessed the situation. My resolution was to go back over the line area with the gesso mixture and a brush. It worked with a sigh of relief.

Remember what I said about painting like a chess player? I want you to remember those times of problem-solving with detailed notes that you may later refer to during the next painting. The best defense against any trouble is to not be there in the first place. Notes will help you to not make the same mistakes twice.

I can not stress enough to keep the underpainting lighter than your reference, by 2 values. Later in the color process it will be so much easier to darken subtle areas of shadow.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of an Underpainting”

  1. Once a painting is blocked in with an underpainting, details are easier to 58 imagine and build on. This is especially true when it comes to the composition, shadows, and proportion.

    1. Thank you so much for your insight. I agree that the underpainting is one of the most crucial elements in a portrait painting.

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