Thursday, July 16, 2009

About underpainting on location

Above is the underpainting I did for the Ducktrap picture I have been discussing.

I want to open this post by speaking a little about my upcoming critique for readers.About every six weeks or so I have invited readers of this blog to e-mail me images at I will photoshop your name of off your art and I will not disclose who did any of the paintings. I am getting sent a lot of figurative art and I am not sure how to handle that. I could be a great help to you if we were sitting together in front of the model and I could point out the discrepancies between your rendering and the model. But I don't feel I can do a very effective critique on a figure or portrait online.

That I can do it with a landscape is sort of a trick,and it surprised me that I could. Because I can't see that which you are painting, I can't address your drawing. But I can go after design principles. So when I have done online crits it is not really a full teaching exercise, I merely flag design errors and suggest solutions. So I may crtitique a figurative painting or two but I am much more likely to crit your piece if it is a landscape. I feel a little bad about that, as I know a lot of you are looking for help in that area. But I have been able to do this blog because I know the subject matter I am covering well. And I will stick to that which I know the most about. This blog is a rehearsal for a book, and I think there are many fine books on figure painting and I don't feel like I am the guy to add to that number. I do feel I can write a good book about landscape painting . Having said that of course, many of the ideas I trot out here are useful for other sorts of painting and I do try to be useful to more than just landscapeists.

In a comment yesterday I was asked; "Why do you not use white in your underpainting? The 19th century French artist Eugene Carriere said to always use white in the underpainting, but he was more a tonal painter then a colorist I just can't remember why he said to use it."

I don't use white because it slows me down, I can take things in and out with a rag dipped in mineral spirits . If I adds white it locks me in and makes alterations harder. The point of the underpainting is for me to plan the painting. While he and I are both using the word underpainting we mean by it different things. His is really a grisaille or dead color underpainting. The important thing though is, he will let his dry before painting over it. Thats a big deal. If I had wet white under my darks and everywhere else on my painting it would be getting up into my paint and causing a lot of problems. if I was doing those complex academic paintings in the studio I too would use a white in my underpainting.

OK. I want to talk a little about what can go under that painting and what different approaches might yield.

  • It is sometimes nice to wipe a light tone, often warm on a canvas before you set to work on it. An thin bit of ochre or burnt sienna, laid on with a rag and turpentine no white! It is better to judge your colors against and it gets you started out warm. Paintings should generally be warm. Life is warm, cold paintings are often unwelcoming and depressing. Like that death thing.
  • Ultramarine, or cobalt violet, are good to underpaint a landscape with because when you are drawing you are delineating the darks. Outside they tend to be violet and cool. The lights, that you will not be putting in, but leaving behind will be warm.
  • Burnt Sienna is a great color for underpainting and if it gets up into your other colors it usually looks good. It is particularly nice under skies.
  • I cant imagine underpainting in a cadmium. the bright color under some passages would be a real annoyance. Alizzirin would also be a poor choice as it is an unstable color and is also going to be a problem if it gets up into your color.
  • I think that burnt umber is not so good for underpainting. I know it is a traditional enough way of doing things but it is a bit "dirty" in color for the look of the light outside. If that "dirt" starts getting up into your paint you will have a problem with keeping your painting looking clean. Also Burnt umber seems to suck the oil out of other colors placed onto it, and that can give you dull patches in your painting.
  • In have been known to spend a whole day working out an underpainting and then coming back a second day with opaque paint and color.I really get into a lot less trouble with a good underpainting under my work. However I only do underpaintings about half the time. I have other ways of starting a painting.
  • I would recommend putting about 40% of the session into the underpainting. It may seem like a lot more work , but it will save a lot of aggravation later.
More tomorrow. Been a long day.


Gregory Becker said...

Burnt umber sucking the oil out of other colors, is that because of an accelerated drying time?
Also is there any value in a layer of varnish and then some color glazes between the underpainting and the opaque layer?

Tom said...

Thanks for the nice clear answer to my question. I have also heard that one should mix their colors as little as possible. Mix two colors together at most and only three if forced. I think it was Rubens who said (in regards to mixing) "do not torment your color." Have you found this to be true? Or in other words use your color clean and unaltered as possible .

Mary Bullock said...

What are your thoughts on some landscape painters first covering the canvas with a layer of red - as the final painting will be rendered in many greens and the undercoat of red will help with vibration.

Todd Bonita said...

Great post idea, so glad you wrote about this..I have a ton of questions here? 1) how about raw umber? Does that fall in the same category as burnt umber and the idea of dirty color? 2) what about using quick dry alkyds for an underpainting? 3) acrylics as an underpainting and then painting over them with oils? 4) just want to be you mean to suggest spending 40 percent on plein air as well as studio underpainting? So glad to hear your 40 percent idea, I have recently been spending more time on my studio under painting and considering spending more.
5) I have been doing a raw umber, wipe away the lights underpainting for years. Two years ago I started including underpainting white and selectively painting on some of the wiped away light passages. I feel this gives the lights with the underpainting white a more textural and built up start. It also follows the idea of thicker paint in the light and thinner paint in the darks, wheras just a wipe away does the opposite (thicker paint with darks and thinner with the lights). Your thoughts on this?

Jeremy Elder said...

Thanks for a great post with a lot of valuable information. Would it be safe to generalize by saying cool underpainting for warm light, warm underpainting for cool light? Also, I am guessing burnt umber is not a problem if it is completely dry?

I am looking forward to your answers to these, as well as Todd Bonita's questions - he asked some good ones.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is something I have noticed and had a a problem with using burnt umber, iot seems to be the culprit in a lot of dried in darks. I will speak to drying in tonight.All of those things on top of the underpainting are fine and part of paint technique. You won't be able to use them outside, on a one shot painting.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks I will go after that question in tonights post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will address that tonight also.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will answer those tonight in my post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks.You too will get your answer in the post tonight.