View Full Version : What are some good color choices for doing underpainting in acrylics?

04-21-2011, 11:51 AM
I am trying to do underpainting -before I go for the final colors, in my wildlife/landscapes. I have always used watercolors, or opaque watercolors, where I just used the white of the paper as the background color, and the only "underpainting" I did was to lay down the exact color I wanted. Now, with acrylics, I see that underpainting a base color coating on the white prepared canvas is the thing to do. I have never understood the purpose of underpainting. Now I see it is very important to first know exactly where your values are, and I guess, the details too. I am wondering though, when it comes to painting anything over it that is opaque- with Titanium White- then all the underpainting detail is lost. So, it is useful as a guide, but not as a real rendition, unless it is only painted over with transparaent glazes. Is that right?
I am also wondering, is the underpainting color meant to show through, or be a temporary value guide that you paint over anyway. If the underpainting colors influence the colors on top, do I go for the same colors in my underpainting that I will be putting on top- just like a watercolor? I have seen underpaintings for landscapes done in Burnt Sienna and Nickle Azo Gold, and it looks pretty good. The landscape demo I saw was a summer scene, and the gold made a good background color for the golds and greens that went on top.
But in painting a winter scene, with the colors being a lot of blues, purples, lavenders, and salmon colors of the setting sun on the mountain in the background, would I still use a "gold/sienna brown" colored underpainting for it? Does it matter, since it will all be covered over with Titanium White paint(most likely) in the end? Why use gold underpainting for a painting that has a lot of blue? Does it matter what colors I use? I assume it matters - a lot more than I realize. The color I choose for the underpainting may be the main factor in getting the results I am after in the end, ultimately. So I am really trying to understand this mystery, and it is almost like unlocking a carefully gaurded secret, some sort of sacred knowledge that has been passed down from the old masters, and only given to certain students who proved their worthiness to the arts, in some secret ancient ritual of pain and sacrifice. I mean, I am going crazy with this!
If I use the gold/sienna combination, do I just use those pure colors to acheive my darkest darks- and then use a series of lighter washes to define the light areas? It doesn't seem to be very dark, at it's darkest value. What about using some "dark" color as my dark, like burnt umber, or AZ Crimson(?) to mix with gold/sienna, ( *I am thinking a dark blue, like ultramarine- would turn the gold into green- and that would not be good for this winter painting) and then add Titanium white to define my lighter/lightest value areas? I have seen orange underpainting used for a blue sky, and I still can't understand why. Does it matter what colors I use? Can I just use a series of neutral grays/ white combo instead of colors? Do I need to do underpainting at all- since I cover it over in the end with opaque colors with the Titanium White? I have taken painting classes in college, and none of my teachers ever talked about underpainting. Could someone please help me in understanding the "underpainting mystery"? Thanks, Tim

04-21-2011, 05:31 PM
Hi, welcome to the Acrylics forum. Underpainting is very much a matter of what works for the individual, not just in colour but in the need to do any at all.

Many acrylic painters do some rudimentary underpainting across the whole picture area in a single colour like Burnt Umber for example but others begin the main painting over just an imprimatura or toned ground, with or without a sketch or detailed drawing to help position elements. You can also do a far more involved monochromatic underpainting (something more common when painting in oils) using tints of umber or various greys.

Does it matter what colors I use?
Personally I don't think it does at the end of the day unless there is some of the underpainting peeking through thinner applications of the top colours, or in small spots between brushstrokes (the latter I think can be most effective).

If you will be going the whole hog and achieving a very uniform, solid acrylic paint layer where no underpainting shows through at all then using a colour that makes sense to you or simply that you find aesthetically pleasing seems the way to go.

There are quite a few prior threads on underpainting if you'd like to do a search. If you need pointers on how to search there's a link in my sig.


04-21-2011, 06:38 PM
I am just starting with Acrylic and this is one of the questions I have. Thanks for the question and for the answer.

Here's a thread I found about underpainting.


04-22-2011, 07:56 PM
Frequently, I will use a compliment for the initial work, especially if I am going to allow some of it to show throuh. I.e., if a landscape, I might use red or red orange for the contrast. For still life I like purple, for figure work, I like a blue. Just a thought.

04-23-2011, 09:51 AM
Like has already been said, underpainting is usually used either to lay in a value scheme so you have sort of a blueprint to go by, or just to cover up the white of the canvas so you don't fell the need to fill it all in to eliminate the white from showing.
As far as winter scenes, I use a method called the seven step method from a book by Brian Simons (he is a member here, too, by the way) and he uses burnt sienna for the underpainting, sometimes adding a purple color when he needs a darker color. This method works beautifully on winter scenes. Here is a link to where you can see some of his winter paintings:
Hope that helps! Good luck.