The Grisaille Underpainting
Many good reasons for underpaintings
Underpaintings allow the artist to focus on the values (degree of light or dark) without the added complexity of color. When working with full color, it becomes easy to misjudge the actual value, particularly with intense, saturated colors. For example, here is one of my paintings.
It would be easy to look at the intense red of the pomegranate and assume it was quite bright. If I were to start painting it with full color, I might make the mistake of painting it with too high of a value. When I filter out the color, however, it becomes clear that the red is fairly dark – all middle values except for a few highlights. By focusing only on value at this stage, it becomes easier to make them accurate. A correct start makes a correct result more likely.
It’s also easier to fix problems with the composition or perspective at this stage than when working with full color. While the drawing does establish the basic layout of the composition, I never carry it to a high level of finish. It mostly exists to set the placement of the objects in the picture space:
Because the drawing is essentially a “map”, it doesn’t include a lot of important information. For instance, the drawing for this week’s painting focuses only on the outlines. Internal information is only developed as I paint. By building up these details with only black and white, it becomes easier to correct them than if I were working with a full palette and mixing multiple colors.
A good underpainting provides solid modeling of the 3 dimensional forms in opaque paint. This is important because many of the most beautiful and useful colors available are transparent to some degree. Without an underpainting, it’s difficult to convincingly give the illusion of a full-bodied object with transparent paint – the plain background would simply show through and render the object flat. However, with the form fully painted in black and white, any transparent color could then be quickly glazed on top of it – a big challenge becomes a simple and quick procedure. Glazing over underpaintings can also add a tremendous sense of depth and richness.
In some instances, the tone of an underpainting can influence the overall colors of the final layer. This is especially true with portrait and figure painting. In the past, portraits were often painted first with a Verdaccio (green tones) then with warmer flesh tones. This approach mimics human skin itself – with cooler tones underneath (for instance, look at the bluish veins in your hand) and warmer tones on top. I tend not to exploit this much, even though I’m sure there is room for using it even with still life painting.
Finally, I view an underpainting as “dress rehearsal” for the final work. When working on it, I spend hours – even days – studying the model and becoming intimately familiar with it. This allows me to understand my subject much better than if I simply started painting it. It also allows me to experiment somewhat without the concern of affecting the final work. As I mentioned above, it’s easy to change things at this stage. That small degree of psychological freedom seems important, and I think it ultimately leads to stronger work.
Dark to light
I tend to work from dark to light when making an underpainting. I will take the darkest dark – black in this case – and apply it everywhere it appears in the model. I’ll then mix the next lighter shade, and apply it everywhere it appears in the model, and so forth. In the earliest stages, this can give the work a Notan-like feeling (Notan is the Japanese concept of working with very large and simplified areas of light and dark). That can be very helpful for thinking about the solidity of the forms.
This approach helps me keep the values uniform and controlled throughout the entire painting. For instance, if I were to paint just one of the teapots, some of the values might become skewed compared to the values present in the other teapot. Focusing on just one area can lead to tunnel vision. However, this forces me to constantly compare the value I’m considering with all of the other values throughout the composition, leading to a more consistent overall result.
It also reduces the amount of paint mixing. Since I’m essentially “going up the scale”, I only need to mix the one shade of grey I’m working with at any given moment. It feels like a cleaner and more efficient process – another important psychological boost.
Finally, a word about drying times. I like my underpaintings to dry fast – overnight is ideal, so I can get to work on the color layer the next day. Since most oil paints don’t dry so quickly, they usually require some sort of medium or drier to accomplish that goal.
Many products are available for this, but I like to keep it simple and use Black Oil. This is linseed oil boiled with Litharge – a form of lead oxide. It dries especially fast and forms a solid, stable paint layer to support the rest of the work. (Note – there is no health risk from a finished painting using Black Oil unless one were to somehow eat it or sand it down and breathe the dust.)
Some are concerned that Black Oil may darken or discolor over time, but this is a concern with nearly all oils. The foremost material expert I know of admits that there just isn’t any solid research about the long term behavior of it one way or another. It’s also been in use for roughly half a millenium. Given that, I’m perfectly comfortable using it in moderation for underpaintings, especially considering that this layer will be covered up almost immediately.
For this week’s painting, I experimented with a different drying oil, commercially available from a well-respected supplier. Although this oil is advertised as drying within 16 hours, I’m sorely disappointed; after 24 hours it is nearly as wet as when I painted it on. So… that oil goes in trash and it’s back to what I know and trust for next week’s painting. The silver lining to that cloud is that it gave me a few extra hours to write this overview.
A Great Start
Working with underpaintings is clearly not for everybody. Some artists simply prefer the immediacy of direct painting techniques and do not want to introduce a longer process. However, for those artists who are inclined to work this way, underpaintings give a very solid beginning to the work. The technique offers strong advantages both in the process and the final result.