View Full Version : Maggie Price's Underpainting Light and Shadow

Deborah Secor
01-25-2008, 12:37 AM
Today in my master class we decided to try Maggie's exercise underpainting light and shadow. Maggie, who lives in the same area and is a good friend of mine (in case you all didn't know that), has told me that this exercise has been revolutionary for some of her students. I wondered if the advanced gang would benefit as much as prehaps some of those who hadn't as much experience.

Here's how it works, briefly: to start I think it simplifies things if you have a photo that has good strong shadow and light patterns. Seek out six colors, 3 yellow-orange and 3 blues. They should progress in value from lightest yellow to darkest blue. Make sure the darkest yellow is a little lighter than the lightest blue.

http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/25-Jan-2008/23609-DSCN7663.JPG (From the book)

On a piece of virgin Wallis paper, sketch in the outline of the scene using a yellow or orange pastel pencil or sharpened Nupe, and then begin with your lightest yellow--generally the sky, of course. Find all the areas in light, no matter what color they are, and use your yellows to fill them in. Then work from light to dark in the shadows with the blues. Go easy, not making the pastel too thick.

Sounds like a piece of cake, huh? Not so easy--trust me! :eek: It takes some real discipline to put dark yellow where the deep green of sunlit trees are! It's hard to remember to keep the sky yellow, not blue!

One you have a fairly nicely rendered yellow and blue layer in place, use a smaller paintbrush to fix it in place with turpenoid or other solvent. I used water and it worked fine, though I used a light hand with it. Think 'paint by number' at this point, carefully preserving the colors side by side. It's best to start with the lightest yellow and proceed to darkest blue, like paint by numbers, cleaning off your brush between colors so you don't make greens! Let it dry, or use a hairdryer, before going on. (You'll find a lot more details in her book, Painting with Pastels.)

Then you can begin to paint the colors of nature over the top of the underpainting. I think you'll find it very interesting just to do the underpainting. It's so instructive to see differently, to be challenged to think of the land in terms not of all the different values (you only have three lights and three darks) but in terms of sunlight-light, sunlight-medium, sunlight-dark, and shadow-light, shadow-medium, and shadow-dark. No paying attention to the 'real' colors, no thought about subtle values.

I'm sorry not to have an photos of my progress, but tomorrow or the next day I'll show the painting I began as the demo for this class, and next week I'll see if I can get any pix of my students' work, too. Next time I try one here at the studio I'll shoot progress shots as a demo for you, but in the meantime if anyone tries it, feel free to show it here, if you want to.

All in all this wa a very intriguing and challenging exercise. Give it a go!


01-25-2008, 01:36 AM
Deborah, I am going to try this. We worked this week on underpainting in Richard's class and we tried a new method of using a burnt sienna in the middle, a sienna and aliz. crimson in the foreground and for the top part of the painting aliz. crimson + purple + ultramarine, all in watercolor of course. I tried it in watercolor and gouache. Sorry I don't have pics, I forgot my camera. We then re-drew the composition on top of that. Then I used my pan pastels to block in the masses. I want to learn all I can about underpainting and I love experimenting so I will try this exercise. I have Maggie's book but I have never tried the exercises.

01-25-2008, 04:57 AM
Deborah, I think this is an excellent method for establishing the lights and darks. I do something very similar, but use all colours. All the 'warm' colours for lights, and all the 'cool' colours for darks. This yellow/blue seems like a simpler (easier to remember type of 'simple') way of doing it. The way I do it only adds a bit of aerial perspective (or light key of time and season) right at the start, and keeps blue-in-light cool (where a yellow underpainting would gray and warm it).

Very curious to learn how your students responded to this!

Deborah Secor
01-25-2008, 02:46 PM
Shari, I think there's a lot to underpainting and the more experiments we can do the better. I'm still learning things as I play around, too, and it's really fun to see what the medium can do! The Pans add another dimension altogether.

In answer to your question, Charlie, yesterday I heard a lot of groans from my students at first, but pretty soon they were saying how interesting this was. The emphasis on warm/cool and light/shadow, rather than values or colors, makes for an interesting mind-shift.

I'll see if I can get into the studio to do some work on my demo piece and show it. Not sure how instructive it will be, since I don't have a shot of the underpainting--which is really what this is all about! Oh well...


01-26-2008, 03:33 PM
Deborah: I would be very interested in seeing a finished piece. Thank you for sharing this.


01-26-2008, 03:51 PM
Thank you for sharing this. It would be very helpful for me to see each stage/color as it looks at that point. I've never gotten the vision/hang of underpainting in any medium. Yeah, I know, I'm kind of slow on some things!

Deborah Secor
01-26-2008, 05:06 PM
I'm posting this painting as it stands after an hour or so of work, including the underpainting in light and shadow. I have some close shots that might help you see what is still lurking underneath it all!

(Color is off a bit but I haven't time to adjust now. I'll try to get it more accurate in the next stage for you!)

Details to show undercolor:

Blue beneath shadow area.

Yellow beneath sand and strokes of blue where shadows are.

Light and medium yellow-oranges beneath distant trees on right-hand side.

Dark blue beneath middle of tree--IRL it's a little darker than this.

I hope that helps some... I'll show the painting with altogether better color quality when I finish it!

I know a step-by-step would be more helpful than this, but I haven't enough time to do it all, so forgive me for only sharing what I have now! If someone else has Maggie's book and wants to give this a go, a step-by-step would be great, I agree--and when and if I have time I'll try to show it...

At the moment I'm trying to clean my big palette of colors, something I've already put off way too long (mostly spending too much time here having fun, obviously! :lol:)


Donna T
01-28-2008, 04:31 PM
Deborah, I use this method too, only I use a few more values of each color. I've had good luck with this in my plein air work and decided to try a little studio piece today. I'll show the stages I went through. Please remove this if you don't like the fact that I didn't strictly follow Maggie Price's guidelines. Sometimes I just need a bigger value range and the thought of using that bright yellow... I just can't! :)

Here's my basic colors in their little tin:
I took a photo of a field of weeds all lit up by the late afternoon sun, still a little snow on the ground. Here are all the values, it felt strange using the light orange for the snow areas and the sky! I use a dry brush and blend/push the pastel into the tooth. The bottom hasn't been done yet.

After I get all the white covered and the colors blended (always outdoors)the way I want I give the whole thing a spritz with rubbing alcohol. This is my first time using Museum Wallis. There's a note on the cover of the pad that says "heavy alcohol use is not encouraged" but with such a light spray I've had no problems. I know that Wallis can get kind of gummy if you brush alcohol around. This is dry by the time I carry it back inside.

Here's what it looks like after the "spritz" stage. Sometimes these underpaintings look more like watercolor than pastel.
Finally, here's the finish. 5x7 on Wallis Museum. C&C always welcome!
Thank for looking!


Deborah Secor
01-28-2008, 05:26 PM
Yum, Donna! No, not a problem! I love this and your final painting is delightful! I figure Maggie gave us the idea to use and make our own, not as some hard and fast rules. Lovely mood in this one! :thumbsup:


Deborah Secor
01-28-2008, 05:33 PM
I have another phase to show you. Here's a better color shot of the painting a little farther along:

I worked on the mountains and midground to the left side of the tree here.

And here is the almost-finished painting:

And a closeup of the trees' base and shadow area:
I used some strokes of charcoal to establish the trunks and branches.

I have a sense of the bright ellow still coming through the light on the tree and the dark blue in the shadow of the middle of the three that I really like.


Donna T
01-28-2008, 05:54 PM
That's gorgeous, Deborah! I love the close-up of the trees' base and shadow; it makes a beautiful picture on its own! I agree, it's so neat to see little spots of the underpainting showing through. Sometimes the color's just perfect as it is so I leave it. Thanks for the comments on my little painting. I was really happy that the Wallis didn't warp at all - I'll try a watercolor underpainting on it too.


Deborah Secor
01-28-2008, 07:54 PM
The water works really well. I don't spritz it, I used a paint brush to keep things from running too much. If the drips and blurs are part of the process it really works well, however. For my own taste I'd just let 'er rip--but sometimes as a teacher you want to be a little more disciplined... :O

I have found the alcohol can make the surface of Wallis gummy if it's too thickly sprayed on, but even a light brush is okay on it. This technique does build up a little pastel in the tooth, so it isn't quite as deep as it normally is.


01-29-2008, 12:49 AM
Thanks to both of you for showing your experiments. I haven't tried using a sprayer for the alcohol, so thanks for the tip. I have to be so careful with a brush, cleaning after brushing each color. I like the sprayer idea.

Hope to try some of these experiments with light and shadow.

01-29-2008, 01:43 AM
Wow these are wonderful! Thanks for sharing this technique! There is so much to learn!

01-29-2008, 12:05 PM
Thank you Deborah. You make it look so simple. Its lovely.


01-30-2008, 01:50 PM
:wave: My, my, my, go away for a couple weeks and wonderful stuff is almost missed.
What a great thread. I've got to try this!
Thanks, Deborah and all.