Playing With Your Shapes

Best Foot Forward (watercolor, 22×30)

Underpaintings are like visual collages: They make paintings richer, adding mystery and establishing rhythm. You can use them to put your paper to work before you undertake the major design elements, allowing you to start with an abstract pattern rather than realism. This week I’ll demonstrate how I weave abstract shapes into my more realistic subjects by using the underpainting.

To easily and quickly produce an abstract underpainting, take a piece of low-tack adhesive film (like Contac paper) and cut some interesting shapes out of it. I use scissors to do this (I haven’t had much success with a mat knife)—inventing shapes and trying not to work with preconceived shapes like circles or squares. This allows me to be much more creative.

Next move these shapes around on your paper to form an interesting design—the number of shapes you use is up to you. When you find the composition that works for you, remove the backing of each shape and attach it to your painting paper. (Even after they’re adhered you can still carefully lift them up and redesign if you want to.) In making the abstract design, allow some shapes to overlap the edges of the watercolor paper—doing so will force you to fill the entire page with a unified design. It also helps to keep the subject from “floating.”

When your abstract pattern is the way you want it, brush a light wash of graded color over part of it. Now choose another color and underpaint another part of the paper. You can do this with several different colors as I did in my examples above, right, and below, but be careful not to use colors that are so dark that your overpainting won’t show up. As well, remember that you’ll probably want to use variations of the same colors in your underpainting throughout the work so your colors will harmonize.

Remove the film when the paper is dry and you’ll see the exciting rhythmic pattern underneath. Next draw your subject on top of the underpainting. Then paint the light midtone on the dry underpainting, being careful not to rewet the underpainting as you build up to darker colors. You’ll be able to see the abstract shapes throughout the completed painting, as in Best Foot Forward at the top of the page, but mainly in the lighter areas. This will add a touch of mystery to the composition.

Tera Leigh is a writer and artist living near San Francisco. She writes columns for several magazines, including Decorative Artist’s Workbook and Artist’s Sketchbook (from the editors of The Artist’s Magazine). Her Web site is

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