Editor’s Note: North Light Shop has recently released the Pastel Painting Journey: Alla Prima with Richard McKinley kit. Included in this kit are three new DVD workshops teaching you how to paint alla prima, pastel impasto techniques, and composition and design all for landscape painting. Plus, you’ll get a travel sketch box and palette, pastel paper and environmentally friendly soap.
Practicing Intuition | 9 Underpainting Exercises
Whenever I’m demonstrating an underpainting technique, someone—at some point—will ask: Why did you put that color/value in that area? It’s a tough question to answer since so much of what I’m doing is responding to the current painting situation with an anticipation of what will be done with the over-layers of pastel to come.
Laying the Foundation: Underpainting for a pastel painting serves as the setup for the pastel. It can be as utilitarian or as creative as the artist desires. Whether done with pastel (spread with water, rubbing alcohol, mineral spirits or dry-rubbed) or with watercolor, gouache, liquid pure pigments or thinned oil paint, the underpainting is not meant to be a finished painting but the foundation for a painting. Deciding what value, color, tone and shape for the foundation can be a confusing proposition; there are so many possibilities. It’s good to experiment to gain insight into how each affects the pastel over-layer. Most pastelists who employ an underpainting technique have spent years testing various undertones and methods of application, and have as a result developed good intuitions. They don’t over analyze what to do; they just do it.
When I tell students that it has taken well over 40 years of experimentation to make the choices I do when underpainting, the frequent response is: Since I don’t have that many years left, is there a way to expedite the process? My solution has been to devise a series of underpainting exercises.
Underpainting Exercises: Start by selecting a successful painting that you have previously done. Make sure it has strong contrast of shape, value and color. It’s imperative that you select just one painting to copy and that it’s a subject you feel you have successfully painted; the point of the exercise is not to tackle new subject matter. Choose a single pastel surface and use it for all of your studies. If you work on more than one surface, complete the entire series of exercises on each of the different surfaces. Various surfaces have different personalities that affect the underpainting. I’ve listed nine small painting exercises. Keep them small enough to do quickly, but not so small that you don’t have enough room to respond well with pastel (I recommend 8×10 or 9×12 inches). Feel free to use the medium of your choice to create the various surface tones. This exercise is less about the technique of application and all about the response of pastel to an undertone.
- Work directly on a WHITE surface, or the lightest version of a surface available.
- Work on a BLACK surface (a lighter surface can be stained with diluted India ink).
- Work on a mid-value WARM TONE surface (similar to Burnt Sienna).
- Work on a mid-value COOL TONE surface (similar to Payne’s Gray).
- Do a monochromatic VALUE underpainting representing no more than three value masses (dull tones like Payne’s Gray or Burnt Umber work well).
- Do a value underpainting using both WARM and COOL TONES (burnt sienna and ultramarine blue work well). These can be intermixed to create a variety of tones.
- Do a value underpainting using local color associated with the subject matter. Use as many colors and mixtures as desired.
- Do a value underpainting using complementary colors of the subject matter. Select opposite colors on a color wheel to represent local color.
- Finally, do an intuitive underpainting, selecting whatever color, value, or mixture you wish. Let go and have fun!
After applying pastel and completing these exercises, you will have internalized a lot of information about what it takes to react to a specific undertone. Don’t make the exercises too precious. They do not have to be finished paintings worthy of framing. Remember, the exercises are meant to be a tool to expedite underpainting intuition. An accomplished pianist just thinks of the music, not pressing the keys.