Finding Value in Acrylics

Each new day brings opportunities for me to learn — and try — new things as I continue on my journey of discovery in art. Little by little I’m finding myself as an artist, coming to understand my likes and dislikes, and putting together a process that works well for me.

But, from time to time, it’s good to explore different ways of doing things, and that’s what I’ve been doing this morning. A recent practice exercise involved underpainting, a technique that has always puzzled me a bit.

I first learned about — and tried my hand at — underpainting back in January, 2017, following one of the lessons in an oil painting course at The Virtual Instructor. If you were reading the blog back then, you might remember my “Old Gray Mare.” She was first painted in oil as a value study. Much later I added colors, and as you can see from the painting below, I struggled in a few places.


To be very honest about it, I’m not sure doing this underpainting served any real purpose. Of course, at the time, I was still very new to oil painting and didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to really benefit from the exercise.

I haven’t done much value study underpainting since. My approach to painting has been drawing out a basic sketch — usually in charcoal — and turning that into a value study for the painting. Again, in all honesty, I’m not sure how helpful that practice has actually been for me.

But recently, I did an underpainting for a seascape I hope to complete. This time, though, instead of using oils, I used acrylics. I’ve heard of the technique before, and I do use acrylic to tone my canvases. I’ve never dared try creating a value study with acrylics, though. Why? Well, you know me and acrylics. We’re not exactly friends.

And so it was with trepidation that I mixed together a bit of acrylic paint. I had previously toned the canvas, and earlier, in graphite, I had sketched in a seascape scene with rocks and waves.

Using a mixture of brown and blue acrylics, I began creating a value study, trying to locate the darkest darks in the painting. I also added white to create light coming in to the scene.

I like the way it’s looking at this point. Doing this in acrylics wasn’t easy for me, but I kept at it, and in the end, I was pleased with the results I got.

Acrylic Underpainting

I think it will be interesting to use oils over the acrylic underpainting, and I’m really looking forward to working on this scene. The canvas, by the way, was originally toned with a pale yellow acrylic.

How do you approach oil painting? Do you tone your canvas first? With oil? With acrylic? Do you do a value study with a separate sketch? On the canvas with oil? Or have you used the acrylic underpainting method for a value study?

As I learn more about oil painting, I’m always interested in hearing how other artists approach the easel. Please share your tips and tricks!




  1. I’ve done oil underpaintings, particularly if I’m doing a commission, because it allows the customer to see a progress step where we can make adjustments – but I do love alla prima also. I’ve done under drawings also, infrequently and mainly for commissions, but never tried an acrylic underpainting.

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