Look Beneath the Surface

In traditional oil painting, the underpainting is a monochromatic foundation—often made up of white and either burnt umber or raw umber—that’s used to establish the basic forms and values of the subject. The artist then glazes over this underpainting with layers of thinned color. The underpainting remains visible through these subsequent glazes, creating the illusion of realistic depth and dimension.

To create an underpainting for your own work, begin by using burnt umber (as I did in Step 1 above) or raw umber to establish the proportions and value patterns that make up your basic composition. Keep it loose and move things around until the design looks the way you want. When the first layer dries, use white to add another layer of information, still concentrating on shape and value, but working toward a greater feeling of depth. Try mixing the white and umber in varying values, occasionally clarifying shadow areas with a wash of umber. At this point, you may choose to start building up layers of color, as I did in these examples, or you may decide to add more layers of underpainting to create a more finished monochromatic image. Whichever route you take, you’ll discover that, with a little work, you can create a more solid structure for the painting you envision.

A native of Ukraine trained at the Moscow Surikov Academy for Fine Arts, Leon Belsky moved to Canada in 1992 and now lives in Toronto. He has participated in numerous national and international exhibitions, including a 1993 show at the Museum of Contemporary Israeli Art in Tel Aviv. He’s a member of the Artist Union of Russia, the Painters and Sculptors Association of Israel and the Ontario Society of Artists. Also the creator of many book covers, posters and logos, Belsky is represented by the Peterson Fine Art Gallery in Toronto.

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