Underpainting techniques can influence every part of a pastel painting, from composition to color. Follow along with Stephanie Birdsall to see four different ways of starting a painting!
Stephanie says: “One of the things that’s important to me before I begin a painting is that I have a clear idea of what I’m looking for. It could be about the values. It could be about the light, it could be color, it could be the composition. And today, I really feel that with the underpainting and what we’re doing that it’s going to be about color.”
1. Value Sketch
Using vine charcoal, start by putting in a horizon line. This will help you orient everything else in the painting as you sketch in the broad shapes. Try to squint as you go to better see the values. Then, starting with the darkest areas, use a brush with a small amount of alcohol to paint out the color. Make sure not to soak the board, as it will ruin the tooth. Water will also work for this purpose, but be aware that it will not dry as quickly as the alcohol will.
Stephanie says: “The other thing these underpaintings do for me…is I can decide if I like my composition without even doing another drawing. If I don’t like it at this point, I can take a brush and brush it off, or I can use a little piece of foam, which will also take it off. I don’t care if it’s all the way off, but I might want to lighten it.”
Choose a single color that fits in well with the subjects you’re painting. Using a very light touch, you can get a very transparent effect using the side and edge of the pastel. Don’t think too hard about what you’re painting. At this point, you’re just creating mass shapes. Next, go over the shapes with alcohol. You can also use watercolor for this if you prefer. Going outside the lines is encouraged – it will help set up your background!
Stephanie says: “I’m going to use this ochre color…. The reason I’m going to use this is that very often if I work with something that’s in a higher value as opposed to a lower value, or lighter in overall color, and very often that means it’s flowers or fruit or something that’s part of nature. I want to use something that will give me what I need, but not be so dark that I can’t cover it. So I use this ochre a lot…it looks like part of everything that’s up there, and it’s an earth tone.”
3. Complementary Color
Underpainting with complementary colors can give your finished work a glow. Start with a horizon line, and make sure you use a light touch with the pastels. Try to get as close as you can to a real opposite: the complement of green is red, but for a more yellow green, a better complement might be a purple. Remember not to get tripped up on detail. These are shapes, not objects. Once you have the color massed in, go over it with the brush and alcohol, starting with darker tones first and cleaning the brush in between. If you get too much liquid on the paper, just use a smooth paper towel to lift it away.
Stephanie says: “With the peach, I have to decide if it’s predominantly orange or red or both. If it’s orange, I’m going to go to the purple. If it’s red, I’m going to use some green. And you can mix them both in. Let’s go with the greens.”
4. Local Color
“Local color” here means the main color or average value of each shape. Get the horizon line in as an anchor first, and then begin massing in the shapes with their local color. You can even begin color mixing at this stage, but make sure you clean your brush in between. Putting some warm light in the background makes for a good start here. Using the brush with alcohol allows you to not just move the color, but to begin some loose drawing as well.
Stephanie says: “It’s pretty loose, but I don’t mind that at all. I think that’s the fun part of it. I like staying loose, and then…you’ll see as we go along and do the actual still life how I like to cut in to my colors. [This] would work. It’s light, it’s bright, it tells me where everything is. I could do either more to it, put in more right now for my underpainting, or I could just start working on it.”
Want more from Stephanie? Check out these videos!
About the Artist
Trained in art formally in England, and then under the tutelage of Richard Schmid and the Putney Painters, among others, Stephanie’s work has been featured in multiple publications and has garnered major awards. She is a signature member of The Pastel Society of America, Master Circle of IAPS and a member of OPA. She has been featured by PBS. Her work is included in several museum collections. When not traveling on location to paint plein air, Stephanie conducts workshops around the country. Visit stephaniebirdsall.com for more information.