The Importance of an Underpainting


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Layering is an important part of creating representational color drawings and paintings. It’s the layering of colors that produces the depth and richness that translates into accuracy. Without layering, a painting can look flat and colors can look contrived.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you tried to mix a color, but the result still looks artificial when it is applied to the canvas? It’s likely that the problem you encountered had little to do with your mixing. Instead, the artificial color or lack of depth in the color could be attributed to a lack of layers in your painting.

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Creating Layers in a Painting

So, how do we create layers in a painting? Knowing that layering is important is one thing, but knowing how to layer colors in a painting is something entirely different. It would be absurd to simply build up layers of the same color, just to say say that we layered colors, right? Doing this won’t lead to depth in color. Instead, it will just lead to a surface with thick paint.

The secret of layering colors to produce color depth in a painting lies in the underpainting. An underpainting is simply a step in the process of creating a representational painting. Many artists see it as an optional step. However, if your goal is to produce realistic colors and a believable light source, I wouldn’t recommend skipping it.

An underpainting can take on many forms. Most commonly though, the goal of the underpainting should be to establish the values in the image. The values are the darks and lights in an image. It’s how we see and perceive light. Without accurate values, you have no defined light. No defined light in your work, and you have an unsuccessful painting.

If we establish the values that we see in our reference during the underpainting step, when it comes time to add local color, or the actual color of the objects, we can focus all of our attention on the colors that we are seeing. We can apply the local color as transparent and semi-transparent washes, allowing the value that we’ve established underneath to show through. By adding washes of color on top of the underpainting, our color develops depth and becomes more realistic.

Underpaintings can also be used to create an expressive undertone in a work. Using cool colors or warm colors in the underpainting can effect the overall mood of the completed image.

Each painting medium differs in how underpainting should be approached. For acrylics, an underpainting is especially useful. Since acrylic paints dry quickly, an underpainting can be developed and layered upon in a short amount of time. Semi-transparent washes can added on top of the underpainting without waiting long periods of time for the underpainting to dry completely.

Making an underpainting an important step in your painting process will lead to more depth in color and more realistic colors and light in your paintings.

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