View Full Version : Underpainting

07-15-2005, 11:09 AM
Okay, another *real basic* newbie question here. :o

The question is about underpainting. Now I have read about it here - but I can't recall seeing a mention of it in the books I have at home. I'm not quite sure I even grasp the concept of it.

I mean, at the most basic, just what *is* underpainting? I gather that one paints the surface you plan to do the pastel on. Is this correct? What sort of paint do people use to do this. *Why* do you do this?

Is it to cover up the possibly white background? If you were underpainting a landscape would underpaint the field green, and the sky blue? Do you underpaint the whole thing with one color? Well obviously different people do different things, but I'm just curious what others do.

And how many people *do* underpaint. I have certainly never done it. It would not even have occurred to me that I could until I read about it here. And frankly I don't think it's for me. When I'm ready to do a picture I want to DO it right NOW! If I had to underpaint and then wait for paint to dry I'd probably lose all interest in the picture by then. :) But I'm curious to know more about it, and wonder who many people do it and why they do.

Debbie C.

Piper Ballou
07-15-2005, 11:24 AM
Debbie, I think this is a very good question. I am jumping on board with this thread with you.
I recently did a watercolor underpainting and liked the effect. I just took basic colors and did pretty much did a wash of the colors I wanted for the painting, actually a lot of complementary colors. Think one underpaints so add color and depth to their painting, and you do not have to use as many layers of pastels..
but I am just a newbie too with underpainting and have no real experience, so looking forward to what others have to say

07-15-2005, 11:32 AM
I actually found a great thread in the library a few months ago about underpainting
Different members have given their techniques in there so it is well worth a read.

There is also a thread on kitty's forum on underpainting with the createx pure pigments.

I did a fair bit of underpainting a while back, but haven't lately. It is basically a way to cover your support with colour so you cacn get to the fun of pastel painting faster. I found that when I used watercolour or acrylic paint, I was not that thrilled with the results, but when I used gouache I was thrilled. I tend to use local colour, but I know there are some people here who will underpaint in complimentary tones and their work just glows because of it.

CM Neidhofer
07-15-2005, 11:37 AM
Hi Debbie. I've attached a piece that I did in a pastel class a few years ago. We used white water color paper and did an underpaingting with watercolors. Washed out blue for they sky, a little more pigment added for the water, and washed out brown for the foreground. Then we applied pastles to create the painting. But, as Cori said, an underpainting can also be just the first layer of pastels, in complementary colors. I use that method a lot. As in the Trees WIP demo that Marsha Savage did. She did an underpainting of red before applying any other colors. Hope this helps.


07-15-2005, 11:37 AM
In my class last week the teacher had us to do a complementary color underpainting. For the orange adobe I put blue under it. For the greens I put reds, etc. We used hard pastels then used turpenoid over it to wash it in & spread it. It dried in 10 min so there wasn't much waiting. An underpainting provides a good color base without filling up much tooth. It especially gives a good start on dark colors when the paper isn't dark. If you do complementary colors the idea is to leave some showing to give it extra sparkle.
In the past, I've only used hard pastels to start that I rubbed in to give a good base without turpenoid or water. This week we're supposed to come to class with a watercolor wash already done.
Hopefully, someone else will jump in & fill in any info I missed.

07-15-2005, 11:54 AM
I just remembered having set up a WIP for a painting I worked through with Preston a few months ago. Here's the link:

I did a gouache underpainting for this one.

07-15-2005, 12:09 PM
One thing I thought about after we did the class underpainting was if you used Nupastels some of them are said to fade with time. I don't have many of those so I don't have to wonder about that fading when you leave it exposed some. I had begun to completely cover my Canson for fear it would fade & change my painting some day. I need to sell another painting or two so I can buy some Polychromos to use for hard pastels in underpainting. Some people also have used Prismacolor markers for underpainting.

07-15-2005, 12:44 PM
I think the main idea for some is to get some dense pigment down without filling up the tooth of the paper with a heavy pastel layer. Second would be to get the underlying values started and the complementary thing for resonance. It's not a requirement, but I can see how it's a neat technique; I just haven't used it much so far, tho I plan to try it more often in future. Instead of underpainting, I often use a paper color to give me a start on a picture -- if I'm going to have a lot of green trees, for instance, that really dark green Colourfix paper is cool, etc. White paper is somewhat difficult to cover entirely sometimes.

Laura Shelley
07-15-2005, 02:20 PM
I almost always underpaint these days, since I admire Kitty Wallis's procedure and results. I like working on a colored surface, but not necessarily the SAME color all over. However, you could underpaint monochromatically too! It's a versatile technique. Local color, contrasting color, establishing values or contrasting values--there are endless possibilities.

Especially when establishing darks in pastel, it's very nice to underpaint an area with a rich color and not have to overwork the pastel itself. You can get a freer result with less layering necessary. Frankly, it's faster to underpaint than to try to cover the whole surface with pastel, so I think it's an aid to speed rather than the other way around!

I use watercolors, Createx and a hair dryer. My surfaces are either white Wallis paper or a homemade marble dust ground on rag paper. Underpainting isn't for lightweight unsanded papers like Canson, though obviously watercolor paper would work well. I put very little detail in the underpainting, and use the biggest brushes I have. Since a lot of it will be covered, I don't stress it; it's a fun and spontaneous part of the process.


07-15-2005, 04:10 PM
Hi everyone,
Thanks so much for the information and the examples, and the link to the underpainting thread. I had tried to find such a thread myself but had not turned it up. After reading all you have to say I realize that most of the time I do sort of do an "underpainting" myself, though I have done it with pastels - using the flat side of my Nupastels and then blending with my finger - though not assured enough to try anything like complementary colors - just the "basic" color of that area. I'll post an example of mine.

A couple months ago when I took my beginning drawing class and started trying pastels my sister began bugging me to do a "portrait" of her daughter, in particular playing her guitar. Well really that was way beyond my level of expertise (and still is!) but she kept mentioning it every time she saw me, so I finally decided to give it a try from a reference photo I had. Well it didn't turn out that well but I was brand-new at the time, and gave it my best shot.

But it was the first picture that I had the idea of taking photos of it at different stages of progress. So I'll post here the "finished" product, and an earlier stage when I had laid down my basic colors. I guess this is sort of similar to underpainting, except I did it with pastel. Am I grasping the underpainting concept or not?

Debbie C.

Kathryn Wilson
07-15-2005, 07:06 PM
Here ya go - a WIP done by Marsha Savage - a great lesson in underpainting and the resulting painting -


Deborah Secor
07-15-2005, 07:08 PM
Interesting. I don't underpaint as often as I do an underdrawing. I tone my paper a solid color, choosing one that's either a complement to the general hues or one that's analogous, depending on the effect I want to achieve. I can't tell you exactly what will work or why, but over time by using different colors you start to sense what's good and what isn't.

I advise my beginning pastel students to tone with a medium-dark color, not black, not a medium, but in between these. I find that when they use this medium-dark value they seem to nail the darks without as much problem, and the other colors harmonize almost instantly. If in doubt, they can always use a medium dark to dark gray.

I tape my Wallis paper down all the way around, then lay the board flat and put down a loose layer of one color all over it with the broad open side of a pastel. The Nu-Pastels are good for this, because they're inexpensive and you'll generally cover most of the color, but you can use any pastel you want to! Then I use a 3" foam house painting brush and vigorously scrub all over in all directions until the color is thoroughly worked into the sandpaper. I brush off any excess so that it doesn't sully the other colors. This sets a nice color in place that unifies the entire composition, as well.

Then I use extra soft thin vine charcoal to do an underdrawing that lays down all of the medium and dark values. I can easily erase this with a swipe of my foam brush and redraw until I'm happy with it. Then I start with my colors. It begins the process gently so that you don't have that 'white paper' syndrome, and allows you to draw what you want before doing the color, plus if you muff the painting you can simply use the foam brush and erase it down to the original color (well, a version of it--not as pure, of course) and go to it again!

Of course, I've used turpentine over pastels, as well as alcohol, but since I'm not a painter I don't like bothering with wet media. Drying time makes me crazy. This way is instant and gratifyingly easy. An if you dislike what comes of it, you just swipe it away, lay the paper in the bathtub and scrub it off, let it dry and you have a nearly new piece to use.

Try it--it's simple, and if you need more advice I'll do a thread on it for ya.


07-16-2005, 12:53 PM
Wow, this thread is a wonderful addition. Thanks for starting it and thanks for all the input. Options, skills from all are great.


07-16-2005, 12:56 PM
This is a very interesting thread. I started a new pastel yesterday, and I did something different for the first time... I sketched it out and put some basic shading in with an off white pastel pencil. I thought to myself that I felt like I was underpainting!

07-16-2005, 02:34 PM
I got a question to add to this thread:

What papers can and can not be used for underpainting? Can not...Why not?

I know Wallis and wc papers are good.
Canson would probably just buckle and warp.

I have done only a couple of pastels with underpainting, all with wc paper. Been wondering if I can use some of my Colourfix, but concerned that water/liquid will cause the surface to lift..... :confused:

Kathryn Wilson
07-16-2005, 05:46 PM
Art Spectrum is safe for use with watercolors, acrylic and gouache - but I would hesitate with turpenoid until someone else comes forward and says they've used on that paper.

LaCarte is a no-no for use with liquids of any kind - the surface is a vegetable fiber and comes off even with water.

07-16-2005, 08:46 PM
My teacher said you can use turpenoid on Canson but I haven't tried it.

07-18-2005, 11:23 AM
I have done underpaintings on White Colourfix with Gouache and it has worked out just fine. Beyond that - just on Wallis.