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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Verhoven

Reasons why an underpainting can make painting easy (But, isn’t it twice the work?!)

My paintings are always done in three layers; the underpainting, the first color layer, and a second color layer. Someone asked me the other day why I always begin with an underpainting if it creates more work. I thought this would be a great topic to talk about since I often asked myself this same question as a young artist.

Raw Umber underpainting of the oil painting Sunrise
A look at the underpainting for 'Sunrise'

It's all about the values 🖌

I only use one single color in my underpaintings - Raw Umber. Working in color has never come naturally to me. By only using one color, I'm able to really focus on value alone without throwing color into the mix and confusing my brain. Once you add color you have other things to worry about like hue, chroma, saturation, etc.

When you're working with only one color, how light, or dark an area is depends on how much paint you're putting onto the canvas. I work on an extremely smooth and non absorbent surface (oil ground on wood panel), and by doing so I can easily wipe away paint with things like qtips and rags for lighter areas. The only other thing I'm concerned about in this stage is edges. I try to keep everything very soft.

Can you use other colors for an underpainting? 🎨

Yes! Tons of artists use other colors for their underpaintings, the sky is the limit. It all depends on the effect you're looking to achieve. Other popular colors I've seen are Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Ultramarine Blue. The thing to keep in mind is that lower layers on a painting will shine through on the finished piece, this is one of the magical things about oil paint as a medium. I prefer Raw Umber because it gives me a nice neutral brown base. I tend to mix oversaturated colors, so having this as my base layer tones down my palette a bit. The other benefit to Raw Umber is its very fast drying time. This color will dry in 24 hours or less allowing me to start the next layer very quickly.

You can also use two colors by adding white into the mix to achieve your light values; this is called a grisaille. I used to work this way until one of my mentors showed me that working with one color could be just as effective for the look I was tying to achieve and be even less work. Work smarter not harder! 🤓

Creating an oil painting of 'The Empress'
Working on the first color layer of 'The Empress'

Contrast and lighting effects ✨

Focusing on value is also extremely essential for the types of lighting effects I try to depict in my work. When I was just starting out my painting career I would try to create strong lighting effects only to get frustrated when I wasn't seeing the results I wanted. This was because although I was using various colors, my values were all skewing very light. Without any darker contrast areas, the whole thing would look very washed out.

As always if you have any questions, please let me know! 😊

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