Sunday, March 27, 2011

Underpainting Techniques – Demonstration Four - Copper Pot Video

The Copper Pot painting is another exploration of traditional oil painting techniques.
With a grisaille the artist develops form and value, separate from color.
By glazing color over the grisaille (monochrome underpainting) the shading (values) is already established, creating the correct values essential to realism.

The indirect method or the process of painting in layers allows for a wide range of approaches, techniques and effects, starting with a grisaille. The artist has a full arsenal of painting methods at his disposal, scumbling, sgraffito, frottie, scraping, rubbing, blending, hatching, impasto, velaturas and glazing. A range of painting techniques that makes complete use of the unique characteristics of oil painting.

In two earlier posts I went over the charcoal study and grisaille underpainting which you may want to review.

As I start working with color I establish local colors for each object describing them by (hue and chroma). Hue is a color’s characteristic, where it lies in the color spectrum, and which temperature it leans towards, warm or cool. Chroma is the degree of brilliance a color has, from intense to dull. The first passage of the color lay-in is thin enough so the grey underpainting will show through and modify the hue producing (value).
 The basic values will be established by the underpainting, but unlike direct painting, (alla-prima) the hue and chroma can be modified by any of the techniques listed above. The temperature, chroma and value can continually be manipulated by transparent and semi-transparent passages of color. Thus, what is so interesting in this approach is that the actual color lay-in can be either duller than the final envisioned color and the chroma increased with consecutive layers of glazing or the first color lay-in done in higher chroma and toned down with further layers. Sort of sneaking up on the exact color desired.

The painting was continued by building layers of more opaque passages in the light areas and semi-transparent (velatura) passages in the halftones. Blending and dry brushing (scumbling) those into each other, and then adjusting all those passages with glazes, continuing this process in several layers building the (chiaroscuro) or light and dark modeling.  I finished the final overall layer with glazes and scumbles for more subtlety of color and tone.

Overall I’m pretty content with the end result, certainly there are areas I don’t think work as well as others. But I was at a point where I was tweaking little details and not improving the big picture or relationships. I really wanted to interpret the light effect (chiaroscuro) and interesting relationship within those restrained colors and neutral tones, which I feel read well. I believe the scumbling technique worked wonderfully, but think the halftones transition into shadow could be resolved further. An area that I can learn to improve with practice, the success of this work or any is always the knowledge and experience I gain.
I have begun to see glazing as a much broader and dynamic process, and the subtle and unique difference in the optical effect of glazing, veluatra and scumbling.

But one has to realize as they practice these methods, that the masters approached a painting with a tool box full of techniques, they combined them, modified them and manipulated them at will, like a conductor leading an orchestra. These were not tricks or gimmicks like you find in “how to” books on painting but an instrument they used to interpret form so they could concentrate on the bigger idea, what they where saying with their art.

They understood the language of their craft before they spoke.

Glossary and Terminology of Techniques

 If we look back at what our predecessors did we need to understand the terminology they used if we are to develop an understanding of it and put it to use.

 Modern painters can easily discuss these techniques using simple language about paint, such as dragged, dry brushed, stippled, blended. Clear glazes that are like looking through color glass or semi-opaque glazes that are like fog. But if you rummage around in old dusty art books you’ll find that the terminology was very different from today.

I have tried to make these definitions as simple and clear as possible, but I must admit it was hard to pin down some terms in text. What complicates the effort is that the really good writing on classical techniques usually have no illustrations, and many of the descriptions seem to overlap. So these definitions are the sum of my research and trial and error painting efforts.

Unless you are so fortunate to be studying with a living master, this leaves us with really only two methods to get a handle on these processes, one is to understand what those terms mean in a modern context and translation, and most importantly, go see these works in the real. And two, pull out the paints and try to paint those effects. This is how I arrived at these terms, understanding that all painting approaches are not seen individually but in combination.

Glossary of terms

Alla-prima – Italian expression loosely translated “at first try”. Direct painting (wet into wet), a method which is completed in a single session without previous preparation or latter layers of paint.

Blending – in basic term the smooth transition of one color to another, in broader terms (sfumato) softening edges of paint after they have been applied, usually with a clean brush or finger. Characterize by da Vinci’s practice of blurring the outlines of the model.

Body Tone – or mass tone, designate the value and color of an object that is illuminated by light and part of the light pattern, a color modified by light, or in line with light.

Chroma – is the colors intensity, the degree of brilliance of a color, from intense to dull.

Chiaroscuro – The contrast of light and shade and the distribution of these elements in a painting that form pattern and composition. First and best exemplified in the work of Caravaggio (1569- 1609) and later the Dutch master Rembrandt.

Frottage – Thick paint rubbed or dragged over a dry paint. Generally applied by painting bright colors over darker ones, to complete areas of light, shining parts or highlights. The master Titian used this technique often with great skill, often applying it as a half-impasto in bold strokes to bring high reflection to silk, or metal. Most often seen in the finished layer of a painting.

Frottie - or frottis  Fr. - frotter (to rub) Transparent to semi-transparent glaze rubbed into the ground in the initial phases of painting, generally the first color layer done directly over top of a drawing, in either a single color or as the local color of each passage.
You can produce a complete monochrome in this way, or lay-in all of the ground colors of the picture until it has much of the effect of the complete painting. It quickly covers the white of the canvas with local color or mass tone. A process probably first introduced in the French Academy, eloquently utilized by the master painter William- Adolpe Bouguereau.

Glazing – transparent pigment diluted with medium. It is the application of darker transparent paint flowed over a lighter, opaque dry under layer. Glazes can be worked together and modeled wet into wet, rubbed in, lifted out with a brush, wiped out entirely and left in the crevices of the underpainting or canvas, brushed into with varying degrees of thicker paint “wisps” of color and value, and overlaid in various degrees to modify the underlying paint (like layering veils of glass) to add harmony, depth and luminosity to the surface. A glaze is a dynamic procedure applying paint made of undulating degrees of thickness, opacity and translucency. Not merely a flood of color.

Grisaille – ( griz-eye’) fr.- grey a underpainting done entirely in monochrome shades of gray.

Hatching - strokes or cross-strokes in wet paint that blend at a distance.

Hue - is a color’s characteristic, where it lies in the color spectrum, and which   temperature it leans towards, warm or cool.

Impasto – Italian meaning (paste). Thick opaque paint applied with a brush or knife that stand visibly proud of the surface.

Local Color – The hue of an object, not modified by light, shade or reflected color.

Scumbling – is the complement of glazing. A style of glazing that is scrubbed or dry brushed over top of dry or almost dry paint using a film of opaque or semi opaque color. The scumbled layer is thinly applied using a brush containing very little paint creating a delicate veil which only partially obscures the underlying color producing an optical blending. Generally with light colors over dark it can be used to soften colors or outlines and even model form, modifying the transition from light to dark. Or create a hazy, atmospheric “opalescent” effect.

Value – is the relative degree of grayness, dark to light.

Velaturas – Italian (veiling). A velatura is a glaze with some degree of opacity. A semi- transparent glaze, tinted with a small amount of white that allows the undercoat to appear as though a milky or foggy haze, often referred to as the half-paste or semi-glaze. My understanding is the application of a velatura is sort of the middle ground between a glaze and a scumble, the major difference in the viscosity of the paint film, it being fluid and with more medium. Its effect is to soften and unify the appearance of the underlying layer.

“Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”
- Winslow Homer

Explore - Question - Learn - Enjoy, Jim


Eastlake, Sir Charles Lock. Methods and Material’s of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters. (1847) reprinted New York: Dover Publications, 1960

Elliot, Virgil. Traditional Oil Painting. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2007

Palmer, Frederick. Encyclopaedia of Oil Painting Materials and Techniques. Cincinati, Ohio, North Light, 1984

Parkhurst, Daniel Burliegh. The Painter in Oil. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1898

Reprinted Dover Publications: New York, 2006

Ridolfi,Carlo. (1594-1658); The Life of Titian, translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter E. Bondanella, Penn State Press, 1996

Sheppard, Joseph. How to Paint Like the Old Masters.

New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1983

Speed, Harold. The Practice and Science of Oil Painting. London: Seeley, 1924. Reprinted as Oil Painting Techniques and Materials. New York: Dover Publications, 1987


  1. Very informative post, Jim; it's always interesting to read about other artist's painting process. I'm not sure I have the attention span to do the grisaille underpainting technique with layers of glazing, I definitely love seeing the results others get - that copper kettle looks fantastic!

  2. An excellent post Jim, just the right amount of information to inspire. I will refer back to it if I ever get around to trying this method I am sure.

  3. Thank for your comment, Sonya.
    It is definitely a process that requires some planning, the underpainting is mostly direct and the glaze layers dry fairly quickly, can work back over most of them the next day.
    In future work I see me using more color block than grisaille.
    Nice work you have, very fresh and interesting alla-prima style.

  4. I've been following your Pochade site, but only just hit the studio site. Very cool stuff here, love the video demos.

  5. Tina, this was probably the hardest article I have written for this blog.
    Finding the right balance of information was difficult; I listed some great reference at the bottom of the post.

    BeeKing, Hey thanks for subscribing to both of my sites. Your support is greatly appreciated.