Underpainting…or Creating Light?

Underpainting, as the word implies, is an initial layer of paint that generally serves as a base for the subsequent layers of paint that we, the viewer, regard as the finished work. Underpainting can help connect color values, creating a tonal foundation that adds coherence to the painting as a whole, and can help set the mood of the painting—for example, depending on the color of the underpainting, it can create a feeling of warmth and light or a feeling of cold, windswept isolation.

There are two basic types of underpainting: tonal grounds underpainting and tonal underpainting.

  • Tonal grounds underpainting, is a single stain or wash of color that covers the entire canvas. Then, as the top layers of paint are applied, the initial layer will create “backlighting shadows that will tone the entire painting and provide contrast for complementary colors.” Not only does it create, as previously mentioned, an overall unity to the painting’s color palette, but also a vibrancy, a shimmering effect that results when contrasting colors—orange against blue, for example—are placed adjacent or on top of one another.
  • Tonal underpainting, is also usually monochromatic—comprised of one color—but in tonal underpainting, the artist maps out where the darker and lighter areas of the canvas will be, effectively creating a sketch in light and shadow of the work.

Of course, there are many paths that one may take when underpainting, and the two basic types listed above are by no means the only methods that are applied. An artist may choose to underpaint only a portion of the canvas, which will allow the canvas to “shine through” in sections, creating areas of brightness that would otherwise not exist with a completely underpainted surface. Additionally, there is no reason to be monochromatic. A multicolor underpainting was apparently preferred by the likes of renaissance masters Titian and Giotto!

As a technique, underpainting was a staple of renaissance masters. Also referred to as imprimatura—literally “first paint layer”—they tended toward a style of underpainting that is closer to the tonal underpainting technique described above, using the technique to both sketch out, in monochrome (usually a warm earth tone like raw umber), the composition and “distribute the darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination” (see the example below). This version of tonal underpainting can be traced to the middle ages, and was practiced by renaissance luminaries such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn!

The Sacrifice of Isaac

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Andrea del Sarto, c. 1527, Cleveland Museum of Art

This unfinished painting shows the underpainting technique employed by renaissance painters. Notice that only the wings have begun to receive the top layer of paint while the body of the angel still exists as an early monochrome sketch.

Each artist’s approach to underpainting is different. As noted above, Titian preferred a multicolor underpainting, Vermeer a monochrome one. Also, neither of these artists created in the 20th or 21st centuries. This is worth noting, for as the number painting styles have increased over the past century, so too have the number of underpainting styles. Additionally, as personal style has become more important, most artists who practice underpainting have developed an idiosyncratic technique for underpainting that defines the character of their painting style as much the finished product that is plainly more visible.

My personal underpainting technique begins with my gessoing process. After applying a layer (or layers) of gesso, many artists sand the gesso smooth. This smoothness is something that I have come to avoid. Instead, I usually apply three layers of gesso to the canvas and sand each layer very lightly. As a result, some of the gesso brush strokes remain; they become part of the painting and create a texture that, like the tonal grounds underpainting, unifies the surface of the canvas.

Anyone who has seen my work knows that I’m not a figurative painter—or rather, when underpainting, I’m not sketching out a cherub in sepia tones like Raphael. Instead, I add a wash of bright color, which is usually uneven. The unevenness is important in that it can act as a creative starting point; a darker area can become a cloud, a thick line can turn into a tree. The two examples below show the beginning stages of an underpainting, and the finished underpainting.

As important as the underpainting is, the work I do on top, and the way the top layer of paint combines with the underpainting, is just as essential. In fact, this is how I create the interior glow that I hope accompanies each painting. Usually, the palette of the top layer contrasts with the underpainting (or vice versa). For example, if the underpainting is comprised of orange tones (as above), then the top layer (and subject matter) will be comprised primarily of blues. I generally thin the paint a little, applying several layers of paint over the underpainting. This technique allows the color of the underpainting to leak through the top layers of paint; the fewer the number of layers the greater the amount of underpainting that leaks through.

As previously mentioned, contrasting the color of the top layer (or layers) of paint against a complementary underpainting creates a vibrating effect; it creates the illusion of light shimmering from the canvas (for an excellent (and extreme) example of this effect, click here for Wall Drawing #880 by Sol Lewitt). Additionally, if I wish to exaggerate this effect, I will not paint over selected portions of the underpainted canvas. The examples below display this nicely. Both the clouds in the painting on the left, and the light that shines through the trees in the painting on the right, are areas of exposed underpainting, and these areas are what create the interior glow of each painting, they are what create the effect of evening.

At the conceptual heart of my work is the notion that I can capture the quality of light that exists at different moments in time. But, of course concept is one thing, execution is another. Underpainting then stands not only as one of the primary techniques that I employ in order to execute that concept, it also helps to create a coherent color scheme across the entire canvas, it helps to create a work that exists as one thing—a single unit that glows with the luminescence of memory.