Red underpainting landscape painting

Why paint a landscape on a red canvas?

An interesting stage of painting – one often not seen or appreciated because it happens underneath the final image – is underpainting. 

Underpainting is the step after the painting surface is sealed with gesso and before starting on the final image. It’s the first layer of paint, a base layer on top of the gesso which is not paint but a primer. From time to time you’ll see me use red, but I use other colours too (and sometimes skip this step entirely). 

Why underpainting?

  • it seals every pore and crevice in the canvas so if I miss a spot in the final painting the colour peeks through.
  • it ‘messes’ up the canvas and takes away the intimidation factor of starting at a blank white surface (a real hurdle some days!)
  • it makes any chalk sketch marks easy to see.
  • it can deepen and intensify the paint applied over top.

Red underpainting on a square canvas

Why red?

Because underpainting can intensify the colours in a painting, the choice of colour for an underpainting really matters.  Why that is, and why I use red can be explained with a bit of colour theory.

Colour wheel


For impact I want to create a dynamic contrast between the underpainting and the main colours in the final painting. For a landscape this means a red underpainting.  Red is complementary (opposite) to blue and green (think land and trees), and ‘hot’ compared to the ‘coolness’ of blue (think sky and water).

Landscape on red underpainted canvas

If I were painting an orange scene, I might choose blue for the underpainting. Again, the opposite colour to the final image: a cool/calm colour to contrast the heat/energy of orange. 

You can also use a rainbow of colours underneath which results in a bright and lively piece because all of those colours peek through between the brushstrokes of the final  piece.

But as with so many things, it depends.  Sometimes I just start with a white underpainting because I like my whites really white and my skies to be somewhat softer than they are with an undercolour.

Every painting presents a different challenge to solve – some need to feel softer, some need to be bold – and underpainting is a great step toward the final outcome no matter what.

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