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.
Some painters 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.
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.
Mitchell 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.
This 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.
from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Underpainting, page 132
Underpainting demonstration, page 136