Thursday, July 30, 2009

Underpainting Techniques - Demonstration Two -Woodland Phlox

This is the second in a series of explorations in underpainting techniques. In this demonstration I will produce a complete underpainting in monochrome, thus establishing a full tonal range and three dimensional form for later color glazes. The underpainting is done in a neutral grey, called a “Grisaille’, or a cool greenish grey, referred to as a “Verdaccio.”

But before we get into the demo, lets talk about dimension.
Truth is… without some research or a guide, I can not tell you what most of the Old Master’s works are about. What the narrative, myth or Biblical story they might be telling us is, nor do I actually care. What I do know is that in the sixteenth and seventh centuries a handful of artist where producing work that has not been match since. When I look at these works, it is not so much about “content” as it is about “form”.
These artists, in a way unmatched for centuries, took an object, canvas or panel, that only has two dimensions, width and height, and gave it a third, …depth.
Not just linear depth but a true glowing internal illusion of space.
This depth gave them a means to truly express, in a masterfully beautiful way, anything they wished to say.
Their methods are certainly an artistic tradition worth investigating.

The Venetian Method:

First Image: click above image for larger view.

I start with a dry panel that was toned with an imprimatura of umber. And begin to sketch the image directly and thinly in umber. Paying attention to the outline and shadow patterns of the image. My paint is about the consistency of ink, and I will mainly use a soft hair brush. But a steel nib pen can be used to literally draw with the paint some of the finer lines of the contours. I worked this stage in two layers of umber. Refining and correcting until I felt the light and shadow pattern made visual sense and distinguished the most obvious contrast.

Second Image:

I begin working on the umber drawing with a mixture of black, white and ochre. Sort of a cold olive grey called a Verdaccio. Describing the effect of light and shade. I am building in layers opaquely, modeling the form and values to explain in more detail the light family, (planes on the image turned towards the source of light), and shadow family, (planes on the image turned away from the source of light).

Third Image:

Several painting sessions later I have my completed underpainting. I try to keep everything cool, neutral and in a mid tone range, saving the lightest lights and darkest darks for the color glazing step. At this stage the light, middle-tones, shadows, reflected lights and cast shadows should all be well refined. The high-lights will be applied at the end stage. Outside of that, this is the completed painting in monochrome.

Fourth Image: - WIP – Woodland Phlox – 8”x10”

After allowing the underpainting to dry completely I begin the color layers. It always amazes me how little pigment it takes at this stage to start getting some of those deep effects of depth and form. When glazing I will use three brushes, one to apply some medium very thinly to the underpainting in the area I will be working,(called a Couch) and wiping off the excess. Another to apply the paint into the couch and push the glaze around and a third brush to wipe out portions of the glaze. The glazes should have different levels to them, taking full advantage of the values in the underpainting, not applied like a varnish over a piece of wood. I continue building the layers keeping the shadows thin and transparent and the light becoming more and more opaque with scumbling, scumbling lightens up the dried layer, making it more opaque, where glazing darkens the tone of the color on top. I apply the highlight in opaque impasto to finish the piece, hopefully creating the illusion of three dimensional space I was looking for.

At this point I will leave the painting to dry for several days, returning later with a fresh eye to decide if this work is complete.

Thanks for looking.
Enjoy Jim


  1. Enjoyed this post, Jim. Beautiful composition with the flowers...that shadow adds so much to the overall image. Good explanation of the underpainting. Do you have any books you would recommend on the subject? Thanks in advance.

  2. Hi Candace.
    I recently purchased a copy of "Traditional Oil Painting"
    by Virgil Elliott.
    Absolutely the best material I've read yet, wish I had had it years ago.