Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Underpainting Techniques - Demonstration Spring Flowers

   In the following posts I will be demonstrating my approaches to the use of an underpainting in the Classical Method. I believe that the majority of the Old Masters used this approach and edited it down to their own needs. How much of a foundation they used I think became a very personal choice for these artists. The various types of underpaintings gave different effects that become unique tools for these painters.
   The nature of oil paint is such that it can be applied in transparent glazes or in opaque layers. It was the ingenious methods that they developed to take full advantage of these qualities that produced some of the great masterpieces of all time. For me it is the sense of light and form that gives these works the amazing Realism they have. I am continuously exploring these Classical Painting approaches to increase my understanding of them and applying them to my work.

   Any person who has viewed or studied the work of the Masters, certainly came away with a sense of astonishment over the depth, luminosity and technical virtuosity these artists processed. Although varied in style and approach they each began with similar foundations and fundamentals on which they built their art as they explored the craft of oil painting. Some started with very detailed drawings such as Durer, or highly finished underpainting in values like Vermeer and others develop a sketch in umber such as Caravaggio. Yet some seemed to combine all of these approaches. Their working sequence can only be speculated upon, some of their approaches are obvious and others are truly obscure lost to time and history.

  Today the best we can only do is emulate what we think these artists did and put it into practice in our own work. There is probably as many ways to start a painting as there are artist.. But the basic idea in the method is building your painting in transparent layers becoming richer and more detailed in each additional layer. Taking advantage of the luminosity of transparent color over top of an underpainting where the preliminary draftsmanship and composition has been refined.

First Image: click above image for a larger view.
   I begin with a drawing of my subject, in this case a small glass bottle with spring flowers. I am working with charcoal and graphite, the graphite for the initial contour drawing and charcoal to build masses and tone. Charcoal moves freely and is a very “painterly” medium. It can produce very fine lines as well as tone. You can build a full range of values very quickly, corrects easily, and use a subtract and add method of drawing. Being that you can lift out areas with a kneaded eraser and put them back in if you wish. Making it very fluid and spontaneous. Certainly my favorite drawing medium.

Second Image
   I transfer the image to the canvas panel with tracing paper. I map out the contours of the drawing, sort of a typographical map of the high and low spots of the image. Once transferred to the panel I fix these lines with ink. And wash over the entire surface with a neutral mixture of yellow ochre and burnt umber referred to as the Imprimatura. Which will fix the drawing and give me a mid tone value to judge color on.

Third Image
   The traditional method would have you producing a full underpainting in values on top of the Imprimatura. You can see an example of that here with the painting, Still Life with Two Pears from an earlier post.
   However in this variation I will move on to color layers. Working very transparent I block in each object with a thin basecoat as close to the local color as possible. I model light and shade into each object using the tone of the Imprimatura to create shadows and values. For example a very thin coat of white in the flower will tone that passage while thicker paint will block the underpainting. Producing transparent shadows and opaque full lights giving an immediate optical sense of depth.

Final Images – Completed Painting – Spring Flowers – 8” x10”
  I allow the painting to dry overnight. And go over the entire painting again with passages of transparent color and opaque highlights. I refine areas, picking out a few details and modeling light and shade with glazes of color. The results are very rich and luminous, with a wonderful sense of space that only heightens the realism of the image.
Enjoy Jim.

This piece is available, to purchase please click here.


  1. Hi Jim,
    thank you for sharing your process, i'm also in the Classical Realism metods, the only problem is the long time to bring a painting at the end.
    Best, Marco.

  2. Hello Jim!
    I am truly delighted with your amazing work and your interesting and instructive blog! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience. I will certainly be visiting you often and learning from you!

  3. Great post, Jim, very informative. The painting is lovely, especially the glass.

  4. beautiful work Jim. Just one question which medium do you use to build up the transparent layers? And how transparent is transparent? You do realise you have opened a can of worms? r:)

  5. Hi R,
    Oh yea,.. lets open those cans of worms.

    I'm using a very simple medium, one I come back to time and time again.
    Dammar Varnish, Stand Oil and Turpentine. with a ratio of about 1:1:5 to begin with. And usually end around a 1:1:3 ratio in the top layers.

    As thin as these layers of color are it will dry in twenty four hours.
    The glaze is usually thin enough to see through, and into that you apply wisps of more opaque paint and wipe out areas to make even more transparent passages. Not just one run of color, but modulating that passage with thick and thins and areas of underpainting showing through barely tinted by the glaze.

    I will have two more different demos on the underpainting technique and it's variations.
    The next one is done with a full grisaille and using a Maroger's medium. Boy is that a can of worms.

    Anyway hope this answers some of your questions. And I truly appreciate your interest.