What governs my choices for an underpainting: Part 2

4-saffron-crowns.jpgIn continuing the conversation about underpaintings from the previous blog, I now come to concerns of color and value. Such visual aspects affect our choices when we begin to place the pastel on top of an underpainting. (To understand why things look a certain way when placed on top of something else, refer to my earlier blog entry about simultaneous contrast.) Everything we see shares a relationship, and by setting up the foundation of the painting, I can better facilitate what I want the upper layer of pastel to look like. Since I have to deal with this foundation when the pastel application begins, the choices I make will have ramifications.

Set yourself up for what you want to do with the pastel. For example, if I want to paint the shadow shapes, I’ll underpaint lighter, and so on. Many artists use complementary color choices in an underpainting to add luminosity to the finished painting. I like to use this in some areas and go for the local color in others.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many underpainting techniques for my pastel paintings, which has led to my current method of working on a sanded pastel surface. I begin with a drawing, followed by a loose, wet underpainting. My favorite underpainting methods are: pastel spread with water; watercolor; or washes of oil paint, thinned with mineral spirits. Each method has its  advantages and disadvantages. Since liquid swells most surfaces, I work on pre-mounted paper or a very rigid prepared surface.

Here’s an exercise I like to give students to strengthen their intuition when making choices for underpaintings: Select a subject you have painted many times—not something intimidating or new. Work up a series of small paintings of this subject using different underpaintings. Start with one on a black surface, then a white surface, a mid-value warm orange surface, and a mid-value cool, blue/violet surface. After working on these flat-toned surfaces, try painting the same subject by blocking in major areas, utilizing color and value variations. Working on a white surface, do an underpainting in which you work with only a warm and cool tone, such as burnt sienna and ultramarine blue; then another in which you utilize opposite colors under the major color masses, such as a rose color under the blue sky; and finally, an underpainting in which you paint however you please.

When it comes to these choices, it’s up to each artist to find his or her own personal voice. By trying many things—and going through a lot of product!—you’ll have a stronger intuition the next time you decide to underpaint.

I used a black surface for Saffron Crowns (pastel on grit board, 16×20) above.

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2 thoughts on “What governs my choices for an underpainting: Part 2

  1. Richard McKinley

    Mary, Thanks for the comment. I use a variety of mediums for underpaintings. Through experimentation I have discovered a few that have become favorites, like thin watercolor washes and pastel spread with mineral spirits. Depending on the surface the paper may need to be mounted before working so it will not buckle. A technique utilizing underpainting is often used by artists working with all subject matter, not just landscape. It helps to create a unified/harmonious subsurface for the application of pastel. Hope this helps – have fun!

  2. Mary Ann Cimino

    I read alot about underpainting when using pastels, what do you you for an underpainting? I am fairly new pastel painter and I never used an underpainting- I usually know where I want to my composition and just go..This is used more in a landscape?
    Thank you, I love your paintings, I have visited you quite a bit!I just started today blogging….any tips would be great!!
    Thanks, Mary Ann Cimino