Rocky Falls: Underpainting

You’ve previously seen my initial “thumbnail” sketches for my current oil painting WIP — work in progress — and you’ve seen the larger value study I made of the scene. Now, having considered composition and having studied the lights and darks, I’ve moved on to create an underpainting of the scene.

This is one of those “paintings” — unfinished though it is — that probably looks better from a distance than from up close. It is intended to be a “road map” of values in the painting. If you compare it closely to the value sketch I made, you’ll see that I didn’t follow it exactly. I also brushed in some indication of the wooded area in the background.

Underpainting is a part of the oil painting process that I sometimes use, sometimes don’t use. I should use it more often, I think. It seems that when I take time to do an underpainting, a lot of good things happen:

  • I end up with a stronger composition
  • My values are better
  • Overall, I feel more confident in what I’m doing

I first learned about underpainting from Ashley Bane Hurst’s oil painting class at The Virtual Instructor. If you’re the curious sort, you can click here to see my first attempt at doing an underpainting.

While that first attempt was fun, I really didn’t understand exactly what I was doing or why I was doing it. Oh, I grasped the basic concepts involved, but let’s just say while I knew the theory, I really couldn’t put it into practice. I just didn’t have enough experience at the time.

Later, during an online course on values — the title of which I can’t recall — I learned more about how to visually break a scene down into “value masses”. This gave me a better understanding of the process. I began to see how an underpainting based on values could be very useful.

Jerry’s Artarama has an article about underpainting. In this illustration, you can see an original monochrome underpainting compared to a finished landscape:

The article explains:

What Is Underpainting?

… first layer of paint applied to a canvas or board, and it functions as a base for other layers of paint. It acts as a foundation for your painting and is a great way to start your painting off with some built-in contrast and tonal values. It’s a technique that was widely used by the old masters as a way to develop a plan for future color placement and to establish certain values and tones within a painting’s color palette.

From here, though, we can go in a number of directions and look at “underpainting” in several different ways.

First, let me mention that before I put any oil paint on my “Rocky Falls” underpainting, I toned the canvas with a yellow acrylic. Toning a canvas can be done with acrylics or with thinned oils, and it can be seen as a type of underpainting. There are many different schools of thought. Some artists advocate always using a warm sienna, others like to choose a color that complements the primary hues of their painting. Instructors teach that using a blue “tonal ground underpainting” — the correct term for the process — imparts a “cool” feeling to a painting. Yellows (such as I’ve used) are said to add warmth, and according to the article at Jerry’s Artarama, yellows can also add a sense of dryness. Hmmm… not very appropriate for a waterfall! We’ll see how it goes. A purple ground tone can be great for warmth and shadows.

All right, fine. As you can see, there’s no real consensus about how to properly use a “tonal ground underpainting”. I do like working on a toned canvas — whatever color — because that removes the stark whiteness of the blank canvas. For what it’s worth, I always use acrylic for that sort of underpainting.

Second, we have “tonal underpainting” — which is similar to what I’ve done with my Rocky Falls painting. The illustration from Jerry’s Artarama shows a tonal underpainting using a sienna-like color. Again, this is a very popular choice for many artists, and again, we can apply the same thought process as above: blue imparts coolness, yellow leads to warmth and/or dryness, and purple provides a warm, shadowy feeling. We can also surmise that a red tonal underpainting would add a lot of heat, and green might add a sense of serenity.

The following video from Lena Danya is one of the best I’ve watched regarding underpaintings — both the “how” and the “why”.

Now, back to Rocky Falls and my underpainting. Since I’m doing the underpainting as a way of helping me see and establish values when I begin the actual painting, I find it useful to use a more-or-less black-and-white underpainting. In “Rocky Falls” you’ll see yellow areas, as well. These are places where the original acrylic tone is showing through.

When I begin painting the scene — my next step in the process — I might first make a few small adjustments to the values. I’ll then begin, most likely, with the dark rocks on the right side of the scene. After that, I’ll probably paint in the wooded background, and add in the rocky ledge to the left. This isn’t clearly delineated in my value study, so this is a correction I want to make. I’ll  then move forward to paint the waterfall itself, the rocks jutting out, and the pool of water at the lower edge.

So, that’s the plan. I do tend to do my underpaintings with a thicker paint and with more visible brushstrokes than many artists do. This is part of the overall “impasto effect” I have with my landscape style. It’s been favorably commented on by art show judges in the past, so I continue to incorporate bits of texture into my painting.

Keep in mind that the technique I’ve developed for underpainting is only one of many methods. Some artists — such as Tony Curanaj — create a highly-detailed underpainting after first doing a separate value study. And the methods discussed here are applicable to oil painting. Other techniques can be used to create underpaintings for acrylic paints and for watercolors, as well as for pastels.




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