Underpainting serves many purposes and can be used to achieve a variety of different things. For one, it is a good way to get ready to paint and wipe off the stark white off the canvas. But overall, the underpainting gives work more depth and more dimension.
It can also create levels of contrast. It can better enhance areas of light, dark, and shadow. It is a technique that all artists should be aware of and should, at the very least, try.
Some artists particularly waaaaay back, would choose a monochromatic underpainting, such as burnt sienna, raw sienna or even blue (ultramarine blue). But depending on your preference, I believe an underpainting provides a good base to help a painter determine values (light and dark).
There are many different types of underpaintings, and have been used in traditional and classical styles, working each layer of transparent washes on top of each other, developing the painting so you have light, medium and dark values.
Some use a grey underpainting, where the lightest greyish white would be the source of light progressing to middle grey and the darkest dark would be dark grey. This is called “Grisaille Method”. Thin layers of paint are applied, allowing some of the white background of the canvas to show through. But you can also use burnt umber or other neutrals to do the Grisaille Method.
Personally, I started with the Grisaille method, using burnt sienna as my method of rendering the values in my painting before moving into colour. I did this method for several years, until I discovered the French Impressionists and The Group of Seven in Canada. I, then, started to play with orange underpainting and render all my values with this colour. But for the past 15 years, I have always started my paintings with just a red wash. Primarily using Quinacridone Magenta or Bright Red.
I feel these colours bring out the best in my landscape paintings, red being the complimentary colour of green while orange being the complimentary colour of blue. I did a YouTube video on why I choose a Red Wash with the link here. When you see hints of these colours pop in the painting, (e.g. blue skies or green foliage) it brings out the complimentary colours beside it. It provides an overall harmony to the painting, and I really like the effect. I do not necessarily do all the value studies/rendering anymore. But I do take note of the dark values, after I work on the overall outline.
If you have never tried painting with an underpainting, I would recommend you try it, I am sure it will be a great learning experience and reduce the fear of gazing at a white canvas!
Till the next blog!