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Jul 23, 2010

Master a Technique Every Painter Needs

Master a Technique Every Painter Needs
The process of underpainting has such a buttoned-up reputation. If it were cast in a movie, it would be the uptight, by-the-book stickler that no one wants to hangout with. But there’s another side to underpainting—one that’s freewheeling with an “anything goes” attitude. It allows artists to take a dry run at the canvas, working out compositional questions and value issues or mapping out a complex color scheme while keeping a lot of options open so that painting can evolve organically.

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The multi-hued underpainting of
The Bouquet by John Taye.
      The Bouquet by John Taye,
2008, oil, 16 x 12.
Most artists tend to work gesturally when underpainting. They block in large elements or passages of color and save the fine details for the final stages of the piece. But beyond that, there are no hard and fast rules about the process. Although underpaintings historically tend to be monochromatic, with pigments used for an almost watercolorlike effect, artists can also incorporate multiple colors into underpaintings or play off adjacent complements, much like Seurat and Signac did, as well as contemporary artist John Taye.
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Columbia Clouds by Scott Gellatly    
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An underpainting can also invigorate areas of a composition that are fairly uniform but also have many facets to them, such as large expanses of air or water. Laying down blue over orange or green over red and allowing parts of an underpainting to push through can help capture light and atmospheric effects on canvas and adds vibrancy and visual interest to the final painting.
So in a twist fit for daytime soap operas, a dull and tedious underpainting can actually become a free-spirited process that allows us to work according to our artistic needs and style. You can create a dress rehearsal for your work and also start to understand how painting masters created complex color layers and luminous light effects. How do you approach underpainting in your work? Leave a comment and let us know. And for a better understanding of the material aspects of your chosen medium, The Encyclopedia of Oil Painting Techniques, The Encyclopedia of Acrylic Techniques, and The Encyclopedia of Pastel Techniques are available and may give you insight on how underpainting—and more—contributes to the versatile visual effects of each medium.

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