Why use an underpainting?
A good and important question for any painter. But the answer is even more important. In this blog post I’ll try to explain why using underpaintings will make all your paintings better.
Pure white canvas doesn’t look natural
Look around you and try to find a nice still life. There’s always something: a cup of coffee, a few apples in a bowl; everything can be a still life. Now: do you see pure white? The answer will be no, always. When painting from life – a still life, a landscape, a portrait, it doesn’t matter what -, light and shadows will alway affect the colors of your subject. Even the highlights on your subject won’t be as white as the pure white paint directly from your tube.
So: you can almost never effectively use the white from your canvas in a painting. When painting from life, sooner or later a pure white background will probably start to bother you.
Warm middle tones
Mostly, I’ll start a new painting with applying a thinned layer of acrylic paint on my piece of linen. The color I prefer for this, is burnt sienna. The reason why I use acrylic paint for my underpainting, is simply because it dries very quickly. And afterwards you can paint over it with oil paint (the other way around doesn’t work!).
Try using a wet sponge to spread your thin layer of paint over your canvas. Just a little bit of paint on your sponge will do! You don’t want to see the white of your canvas anymore, but you certainly don’t want a thick layer of paint covering all the structure of your canvas either. The structure of your canvas should still show through.
The reason why I use burnt sienna, is because this is a neutral but warm color. A color which you can easily use later on in your painting. An underpainting of burnt sienna can form a perfect middle tone. The best way to understand this, is by looking at an example. In the painting I used for this blog post, you can clearly see the different tones of color: the darkest colors for the shadows on the face, the highlights (on the forehead, nose and chin) and finally in between: the middle tones. Or better said: my underpainting!