Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Skipping the Underpainting

Back when I first started painting in oil, I was taught about creating an underpainting. An underpainting is typically done with thinned paint, although you can also just scrub in the color right from the tube thinly. The underpainting allows you to:
  • Refine the composition that you lightly sketched in at the start;
  • Establish the values of the masses; and
  • Establish the general color of the masses.
To be sure, these are good goals. They make the process of applying thicker, perhaps more opaque paint as you "build" the painting easier. The benefits include:
  • Giving you a compositional framework to place elements on without having to guess;
  • Giving you already-determined values to match; and
  • Giving you already-determined colors to match.
I've found some drawbacks, though. Any lines you may have drawn in your sketch usually have to be redrawn, otherwise they get covered up by later layers of paint. Sometimes the underpainting lightens as the paint soaks in, especially on an absorbent ground with transparent darks (e.g. Ultramarine Blue), and must be re-established. Finally, adding white to colors changes the quality of those colors, and what you lay down on earlier, more transparent passages may no longer match. Most times, I have the time to deal with these problems. But when I don't, I skip the underpainting altogether.

Skipping the underpainting requires a clear vision of what you want the final painting to look like.

When I bypass this step, I still make a rough sketch so I know where to place my key elements. But after that, I dive right in by mixing paint as close to what it needs to be. If I have a pale violet hill in the distance, I'll mix a tiny speck of Alizarin Crimson with a bit of blue into my white and try to match exactly what I see. Of course, all color and value is relative, so I try to fine-tune these relationships between areas as I go.

There are no transparent passages in this approach. I achieve my effects only with opaque paint.

I've found that, for small paintings in particular such as a 5x7, this is a more expeditious way to paint. I can complete a 5x7 in short order -- a great goal on a cold winter day! Here's an example I did this week.

"Old Orchard by the Sea" - SOLD
5x7, oil, en plein air

PS My 2008 calendar is still available! Click here for more.

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