What Color is Your Underpainting? The Monochromatic and Two-Color Methods

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underpainting-monochromatic

A traditional underpainting is monochromatic, made with a single pigment color that is chosen in response to the color of the scene. Here a warm golden undertone of raw sienna wil harmonize with the many warm colors found in the scene.

As any of my students will tell you, I am a great advocate of starting a painting with an underpainting. Also called a block-in or wipe out, the underpainting develops the composition, placement, and value relationships at the outset. It’s the ultimate foundational approach.

I present the underpainting technique step-by-step in my book, Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice. In this article, I’d like to address a specific aspect of underpainting in greater detail: What color should the underpainting be?

Underpainting is typically monochromatic — it’s made with only a single pigment color. The pigment is applied thinly, in an additive and subtractive manner, to achieve a full range of values. The particular pigment color, however, is a color so it will profoundly influence the color direction of the painting.

There are three general approaches to choosing a color for the underpainting. Two approaches are monochromatic: one uses a color that is similar to the dominant color of the scene; the other uses a color that contrasts with the overall color. The third approach is called a two-color underpainting, which I’ll discuss last.

There are many colors that are traditionally used for underpainting: burnt or raw umber, burnt sienna, or ultramarine blue. Almost any pigment can be used as long as it is capable of producing an adequate value range from light to dark. Yellow or medium-toned pigments, for example, cannot do this. The broader question, however, is whether the underpainting color should be similar to the dominant color of the subject, or contrast with it?

Monochromatic underpainting with harmonizing color

In this approach I ask myself, What is the average overall color of the scene? In University Bridge the subject was predominantly blue, so I chose ultramarine blue for the underpainting color. Because it corresponds to many of the blues found in the subject, the underpainting immediately aligns itself with the overall color direction of the subject.

  • Advantages: Easier than two-color underpainting (see below). Recommended for those just learning the underpainting method, but also a solid choice for seasoned painters. Makes tonal studies that are beautiful in their own right.
  • Disadvantages: Initial strokes of full color paint may look out of place against the monochromatic underpainting until more coverage is achieved.
underpainting-harmonizing-university-brdige

In University Bridge, the ultramarine blue underpainting corresponds to the many blues found in the subject — in the sky, the water, and the shadows of the bridge. Color contrast is achieved as the warmer colors — like the warm base of the bridge and the green girders — are laid over the cooler undertones. In some spots the original ultramarine blue shows through the final layers of paint.

Some painters often choose the same underpainting color for every painting, even pre-toning the surfaces before they begin. I’ve always preferred to decide what color to use as an immediate response to the impression of color of light I see in the subject.

Monochromatic underpainting with contrasting hue

This is a favorite approach among landscape painters. Rather than selecting a color for the underpainting that corresponds to the dominant color of the scene, the painter intentionally choose one that contrasts. In a scene with lots of green, for example, the painter might choose a complementary color like alizarin or burnt sienna. The idea is that the underlying red can react with subsequent layers of green, adding vibration and interest to the color tapestry. The red might even show through the final layers of color in many areas.

  • Advantage: Can provide exciting color reactions as the subsequent layers of colors react with the underlying color.
  • Disadvantages: Like the monochromatic underpainting, initial strokes of full color may seem out of place until enough coverage is achieved.
underpainting-contrasting-cama-beach

Cama Beach Ford, oil on canvas, 12 x 16. An undertone of burnt sienna (a reddish orange) contrasts with almost every color in the scene except the red Ford. On this cool blue-gray day, I might have selected a cool-gray underpainting, but by choosing burnt sienna, it shows through successive layers of color and activates what might otherwise be a boring, gray painting. The burnt sienna undertone shows through in the sky, the water, and the foreground grasses.

Two-color underpainting

I began experimenting with two-color underpainting about five years ago and found it to be a very direct approach to establishing the color direction of the painting. It is technically more difficult than monochromatic underpainting and requires a greater ability to interpret the colors within the scene. So I usually advise painters to achieve some proficiency with the monochromatic method before trying the two-color. If the two colors are chosen well, the underpainting can establish a light and dark structure, temperature difference, and overall color direction of the painting.

underpainting-2-color-cottonwoodMitchell Albala, The Cottonwood, oil on paper, 11 x 8.25.
LEFT: The initial layer is a solid undertone of naples yellow, which corresponds to the sunlit and warm areas of the subject. (Be sure that this first layer adheres to the gessoed surface very well. The second color can easily dissolve and blend with this underlying layer, so the more firmly it adheres, the better.) Then I begin roughing in my drawing and composition using ultramarine blue. The ultramarine corresponds to the cooler shadow areas of the subject. The beauty of the two-color method is that the underpainting can immediately establish light and dark, cool and warm, and overall color direction of the painting. If the two colors used are complementary, then I can get even more color contrast to occur (see example below). RIGHT: The final painting is certainly more developed color-wise, but it also has a lot in common with the two-color underpainting — which is the idea. By choosing the two colors I did for the warm lights and the cool darks, I was able to build a basic color composition that closely targeted the color direction of the final painting. This can be a huge time-saver when painting outdoors.

  • Advantages: Can immediately establish the overall color direction of the painting, in both light (warm) and cool (dark) areas. Initial strokes of full color do not look as out of place as they might in a monochromatic underpainting.
  • Disadvantage: Technically more difficult than the monochromatic underpainting. Requires an ability to interpret the color of the subject.

A word of caution

One on the reasons the two-color underpainting is more difficult is because of the potential for the second color (in my examples, the darker, cooler colors) to mix and blend with the underlying layer. Some mixing and blending is to be expected. It is, after all, oil paint. In the yellow-violet example below, some neutral tones are created as the violet mixes slightly with the underlying ochre. A little blending is alright; the neutrals that are created can be desirable. But as with all underpainting methods, if you avoid rubbing too much or using too much solvent, you are less likely to get the blending that can create mud.

underpainting-2-color-sunsetThis two-color underpainting also demonstrates how much can be established at the very start. As in The Cottonwood, above, the inital layer was also warm (yellow ochre), which corresponds to the lights. Over that, I developed my drawing and composition with dioxazine purple, which corresponds to the darker shadow areas. The yellow and violet complementary relationship creates a vibration that is very helpful in suggesting a sunset. And all this happens before I even begin applying full color.

Additional Resources

from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Underpainting, page 132
Underpainting demonstration, page 136

 

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with over 35,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

14 Comments

  1. I am so grateful for your clear and informative online explanations of your strategies. I do own your book and refer to it regularly. I would dearly enjoy attending one of your workshops, but at 83 years and living in the East, it is unlikely that I will have the opportunity. I continue to enjoy oil painting and conscientiously attempt to loosen my style as well as become more innovative in my approach to composition. Thank you for all the pertinent instruction and pleasure you provide both through your book and your online messages.

  2. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks for taking the time to write. It makes all the time I spend creating these articles worthwhile.

  3. Very good explanation of underpainting and the advantages for obtaining initial structure, a unifying effect along with selective vibrancy. Thank you for the good painting examples too.

  4. I think I will try a burnt sienna underpainting of one of our many very green North Carolina mountain scenes. Perhaps to it will help with the devil greens that we love here but are difficult to say the least. Thank you for the example and lesson.

  5. Mitchell Albala on

    Yes, “devil greens” is the right choice of words. In my workshops I sometimes challenge my students by asking them to do a landscape with as little green as possible. You’d be surprised at the results. And there are many excellent examples in the magazines and books, both classical and contemporary. Smart landscape painters use little green or “support” their greens with an abundance of other colors.

  6. Another interesting and informative post, Mitch! Thanks for sharing! I use burnt sienna almost exclusively for my underpainting, and use at for the toning more than half of the time, too. The more technical the drawing, the more I rely on a detailed underpainting, using the wipeout technique. This really frees me up to be painterly and to enjoy the coloring process that comes next! I can’t imagine introducing a second underpainting color! I’ll try it 10 years down the road.

  7. Mitchell Albala on

    Glad to hear it, Britt. Burnt sienna is a good choice when there is a lot of green. If each scene has a unique color of light, then perhaps the underpainting color might be chosen specifically for that color or light, as well.

  8. Pam Eshelman on

    Great, clear information that helped me understand how I can try and use the underpainting as a tool not just for finalizing my composition and capturing the lights and darks before they’re gone! I took your 2011 workshop in La Conner, and just re-read your book in preparation for Orcas this week. I did several “dry runs” using raw sienna, and look forward to branching out and MAYBE trying a two tone underpainting! Great info and inspiring!

  9. Excellent description of the monochromatic and two-color methods for underpainting. I have used the monochromatic method but frequently leave out this essential step in my “rush” to get to color. It usually results in paintings that take longer, as well as being more work and less fun. These paintings end up being less successful or in need of more work to save. The clear way you present this material is very helpful. Thanks!

  10. Thanks for this! Perfect timing! I was just wondering how to decide what color/colors to begin with, and this really helped. I have your book, and hope you will soon write another for more advanced students who would like to come to one of your workshops, but can’t get there.

  11. Marilou Doerflinger on

    I have been using the techniques of underpainting you taught at Alderbrook for the past few weeks. It has completely changed the way I paint – trying to achieve color harmony no longer haunts me. Laying out the composition and values THEN focusing on the color notes has allowed me such freedom!

  12. April Silverman on

    I eagerly look forward to reading your book on landscape painting. I have used monochromatic underpainting before, and have found it extremely helpful, but I look forward to experimenting with two-tone underpainting. My teacher, Dot Bunn, sent me your exciting email, for which I’m very grateful.

  13. Mitchell Albala on

    Glad you’re working with underpainting, April. You’ll find the book filled with many other key concepts on landscape painting, as well. Let me know how you like it. Happy painting trails!

  14. Mitchell Albala on

    I’m delighted to hear your success with underpainting, Marilou! As I tell everyone in the workshops, I’ve never found a better way of beginning a painting, that does quite as much as this method. And it’s achievable — that is, it doesn’t takes months of practice to get it. If anyone has a better approach, i’d like to hear it!