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Overpainting the Overpainted Underpainting

As I wrote about earlier, I often begin my paintings with a coat of red. This coat of bold colour — the 'underpainting' because it's underneath the final painting  is an excellent way to infuse the canvas with energy, removing the blank fear of a stark and pristine white surface.

In an ideal world, it would be a straightforward march across the finish line from there. With the underpainting completed, perhaps a few loose and sketchy brushstrokes to outline the plan, it should be easy to cover up that red base coat and watch the final painting come together without any mistakes, right? Perfection from start to finish.


Well, perfection has no home in my studio, and many of my paintings go awry at least once, often multiple times along the way, and sometimes altogether.

If I'm faced with something that isn't working or feels wrong in some way, I often retreat back to red. I use it somewhat like an eraser, covering up areas that aren't working. This allows me a "do-over" of sorts, putting me back at the starting point to take a second run at what I was working on.

overpainting floral acrylic underpainting


Layering paint over paint is a fundamental aspect of the creative process for most parinters, in all mediums. The guiding principle is 'fat over thin,' heavier applications over thinner layers, mainly for drying purposes.

Layers build depth of colour. For instance, a wash of one colour over another allows the colour underneath to seep or peek through which affects whatever is on top. Layers of material or paint can add interest and texture as the paint builds up (although this is not always welcome if the marks from underneath show through in ways that distract).

Layering is also just part of the painting process, adding/subtracting with each decision of the brush. Red is my subtraction colour. My do-over button. My U-turn back to the beginning.

 red acrylic underpainting as overpainting

The Point of No Return

But there comes a point when there's too much paint on a canvas—a moment when the surface is marked and gummy from layer upon layer upon layer of paint. All canvas texture has long since disappeared beneath the paint, and any additional layers might not apply evenly or feel good on the brush going down.

There are marks and grooves and dried blobs from whatever's underneath leading to some inevitable frustration for the painter. At this point, it's easy for the artist to feel as if the canvas is cursed. Only then do I rip it off the frame to start over with a fresh piece of canvas. (I've written more about that here)

Until that point, it's layers.


A parting thought about layers of painting and the journey of a painting

Interestingly, while I like my skies to feel light and ethereal and aim for light application of paint to match, I'm much more tolerant of "too much" paint when it comes to my abstracts.  I don't mind seeing underneath marks showing, or the solid look of a thick surface.  To me it's a reflection of the effort put into the work, the mistakes and wrong turns made along the way. I actually quite like seeing evidence of the struggle as it reminds me that the beautiful end was worth the messy middle.

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