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).
- 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.
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.
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).
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.