View Full Version : Underpainting Techniques – Demonstration Spring Flowers

06-19-2009, 07:56 PM
I have been using a variety of underpainting techniques based on traditional approaches.
I am continuously exploring these Classical Painting methods to increase my understanding of them and applying them to my work.
Today the best we can only do is emulate what we think these Great Masters did and put it into practice in our own work. There is probably as many ways to start a painting as there are artist.. But the basic idea in the in-direct method is building your painting in transparent layers becoming richer and more detailed in each additional layer. Taking advantage of the luminosity of transparent color over top of an underpainting where the preliminary draftsmanship and composition has been refined.


First Image:
I begin with a drawing of my subject, in this case a small glass bottle with spring flowers. I am working with charcoal and graphite, the graphite for the initial contour drawing and charcoal to build masses and tone. Charcoal moves freely and is a very “painterly” medium. It can produce very fine lines as well as tone. You can build a full range of values very quickly, corrects easily, and use a subtract and add method of drawing. Being that you can lift out areas with a kneaded eraser and put them back in if you wish. Making it very fluid and spontaneous. Certainly my favorite drawing medium.

Second Image
I transfer the image to the canvas panel with tracing paper. I map out the contours of the drawing, sort of a typographical map of the high and low spots of the image. Once transferred to the panel I fix these lines with ink. And wash over the entire surface with a neutral mixture of yellow ochre and burnt umber referred to as the Imprimatura. Which will fix the drawing and give me a mid tone value to judge color on.

Third Image
The traditional method would have you producing a full underpainting in values on top of the Imprimatura. You can see an example on my Blog (http://www.jimserrettstudio.blogspot.com/)with the painting, Still Life with Two Pears (http://jimserrettstudio.blogspot.com/2008/10/study-for-still-life-of-two-pears.html)from an earlier post.
However in this variation I will move on to color layers. Working very transparent I block in each object with a thin basecoat as close to the local as possible. I model light and shade into each object using the tone of the Imprimatura to create shadows. For example a very thin coat of white in the flower will tone that passage while thicker paint will block the underpainting. Producing transparent shadows and opaque full lights giving an immediate optical sense of depth.

Final Images – Completed Painting – Spring Flowers – 8” x10”
I allow the painting to dry overnight. And go over the entire painting again with passages of transparent color and opaque highlights. I refine areas, picking out a few details and modeling light and shade with glazes of color. The results are very rich and luminous, with a wonderful sense of space that only heightens the realism of the image.


Thanks for looking. Jim

06-20-2009, 06:03 AM
No, thank YOU for the brilliant demonstration. The final painting has depth, luminosity and so much more. Anna

06-20-2009, 07:25 AM
thank you for sharing this very interesting technique.. i will try it !!

06-20-2009, 07:29 AM
Good demo...makes me want to try it!:D

06-20-2009, 07:30 AM
Thanks for demonstrating the method of under painting.
the painting is very beautiful. I'll try it.

06-20-2009, 06:47 PM
Jim, thank you for sharing this technique. Your end result is awesome!!


06-21-2009, 06:49 PM
Anna, Vasilis, Deirdre, aarthi, Katherine.

Thank you..................:angel:

I truly appreciate the comments, and I am so glad you found the thread of interest. I am never too sure of how much to post as descriptions when I work on these small demonstrations. Again thanks for taking the time to read them and I hope you found something of use.

07-02-2009, 09:38 AM
Thanks for posting your beautiful painting and the steps to it's conclusion. I might give it a try on a simple item to start with to see how it works out. Just curious, how long from start to finish for this painting?

07-07-2009, 06:03 PM
Hi Purple,
Sorry have not been in the forum for a while, so I missed your question.

But anyway, done over five days, the preliminary drawing being one session, transferring the drawing and letting it dry completely a second sitting. And the first color layer a third. I picked at it in two more sittings, and was fairly happy with the results, even letting some of the underpainting show through.
But you could run multiple layers of glazes at this point. And truly define and refine the depth and image, I felt for a simple demonstration for this approach this piece was at a good stopping point. And shows the potentials of the classical method.

Thanks for the questions and you should have a go at it. It is a good exercise for any artist no matter what their technique or direction might be.
I ceratinly learn more from each one of these I do.

07-07-2009, 07:59 PM
This is great! Glad you shared this information.

07-09-2009, 07:32 PM
Hi Gaugin,

It is so beautiful, especially the bottle. Thanks so much for posting this and explaining it in detail. :)

07-11-2009, 12:15 PM
Thanks for the comments, and your welcome.
Thanks for the input, always glad to hear from you two.

07-13-2009, 11:44 PM
Great information in your tutorial. Your painting is splendid. Thanks for sharing.

07-16-2009, 10:37 PM
Thanks for the comment, aspiring artist.
Glad it was of interest.

07-25-2009, 08:10 AM
Simply beautiful and the steps taken were well worth the final scene. The glass jar really sparkles and worthy of the contents.
You said you used INK to transfer the design. I've heard this before and would like to try it. What kind of ink, color, pen, where to get and can it be used for both oils and acrylics? AND, what else could one use to draw the design, pencil, charcoal, what? shrl

irish artist
07-27-2009, 08:26 AM
gaugin, I like the ink transfer idea, the Old Masters used that and I think it would be an effective way to transfer. This was very interesting, good WIP!

07-28-2009, 07:49 PM
The drawing was transfer to the panel using graphite paper, between the panel and the drawing. Use a hard point lead or stylus to trace over it and the graphite will transfer your contour lines. I use Sally's graphite paper by Saral. Being real graphite you can erase and correct it just like a drawn line with a pencil. Nice material.
I just wanted to point that out, how I am getting the image to the panel to clarify any confusion.
After you have the graphite drawing transfered to the panel, ink in the lines you want and apply an imprimtura over that.

As far as the ink, Indian Ink has been used historically and is a fine method.
I like the sepia tone best. And can be applied with steel pen or tech pen.(third image)

However I prefer to just mix some oil paint to an inky consistency and use a steel nib pen and a fine liner brush. (first two images)

I have also tried the Sharpie fine point pens, they work great, but are probably not archival, and may case some bleed through later. But for studies and experiments they are very convenient. (fourth image)

And the last image is a clutch pencil, very handy for refining your drawing before the ink lines or as a stylus to transfer the drawing.

I often sketch directly on canvas with vine charcoal for a painting but always reinforce those lines with paint and wipe out the charcoal. Charcoal and graphite dirty colors quickly, just very hard to cover up once they are in your paint. One of the reasons the Old Masters reinforced their drawing with ink or thinned paint.

Hope this was of some help, look foreward to seeing your effort with this technique.


07-28-2009, 08:00 PM
irish artist
Thanks for the comment. The Old Masters techniques certainly varied, but they seemed to have the underpainting approach in common. I am experimenting with those different approaches, and will post others soon.
Really enjoyed your found object still life.

07-28-2009, 08:09 PM
Wonderful demo and a great painting.

08-04-2009, 09:38 AM
Thanks aspenman.
Love those Pear paintings of yours.