Building Blocks

Wool Coats (watercolor, 12×18)

An underpainting is the first application of paint on your paper. But for me, it also provides an opportunity to add texture, shape and value to my work before beginning to paint. There’s really no limit to what you can do with an underpainting. Each option you think of has its own unique advantages, and its use is an excellent way to reach out beyond the ordinary. For instance, rather than simply paint a flat wash (a thin layer of paint) as my underpainting, I typically use one of my three favorite patterns: rectangular space divisions, abstract shapes and the checkerboard.

This week I’ll tell you how I create and use the rectangular space divisions. I’ll cover abstract shapes and the checkerboard in the next two Creativity Corner columns.

Rectangular Space Divisions
To create this underpainting, section off your paper into four or more rectangles (see the example at left). Paint each rectangle a different color, but all light in value (value is how light or dark the color is). Remember, the underpainting is the “white”—the lightest value for you to keep—of your paper. Also, each color mix should read as a color such as orange, red, yellow, green or blue—no gray, tan, khaki or beige. I don’t recommend using purple, as its complement, yellow, doesn’t look yellow when painted over

You’ll also need to decide how much of each color to use in your underpainting. Since the rectangles vary in size, which color should be used in the smallest rectangle and which in the largest? These are personal choices you’ll need to make. Sometimes I make several underpaintings before selecting what I feel is the best choice for a particular painting.

After making my selection—and having completed a value study of my subject—I draw it in pencil on the dry underpainting. As I paint, I’ll use the complementary color of the colored rectangle underneath. For example, if the underpainting rectangle is green, I paint using many reds—first light in value and then building up successive layers of intensity. In a blue rectangle I’ll paint over it with many oranges. So I don’t have to think about complements when I’m in the middle of painting, I often make notes in the margin of my paper (as at right).

Underpainting this way will force you to be jolted away from local color (the actual color of an object). We’re accustomed to thinking of blue sky, green grass, yellow bananas and pumpkin orange. With this underpainting you’ll learn about new color relationships. You’ll be shocked to see you’ve invented such exciting color fields of complementary colors. The result is tremendous color vibration as in my painting, Wool Coats, at the top of the page.

Throughout his long career, Jack Hines has taught art in various forums, including 25 years with the Zemsky/Hines Pro Art Workshops. He now paints full time in his Montana studio. Hines is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society.

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