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Drawing for Underpainting

Hello everybody! If you’re new, welcome, and if you’re returning, I’m glad you’re all back. Underpainting is a key portion of the painting technique I am going to explain to you over the course of the next few posts. In the underpainting stage, this is essentially where you create all your modeling of the form and establish your darks and lights. During this stage, this is where you really want to establish your contrast. The more contrast you can establish here, the easier it will become when we get to the next stage of glazing. Below are the supplies you will need for this portion of the painting.

Supply List: (some of these you can find cheaper elsewhere but I added links to amazon for those that can't.)

  • Charcoal pencils/Compressed Charcoal (NOT Vine Charcoal) -

  • A regular HB pencil -

  • A Kneaded Eraser -

  • Standard Eraser -

  • Blank stretched canvas – any size -

  • Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Light Green, or Black acrylic paint -

  • Chip Brush -

  • Paper Plate or Palette Paper -

  • Reference Photo (Color and B&W)

First thing is first; we need to select a reference image. I was taught by using an old master’s painting as a reference for my first painting. I selected The Rape of Europa by Titan. The next step was to select a canvas size that I felt comfortable working on and I chose 18in x 24in. Since the original painting is 70in x 81in, there is no possible way I could shrink the entire image down and still maintain the level of detail within the image, so I decided to focus on one small section of the painting to reproduce. I decided on painting the lower right corner of the image since it was most visually appealing to me, showing Europa on the bull with a cloth flowing in the breeze and a large fish peeking out of the water. Once you select the portion you want to paint, crop your image and print two images, one in black and white and one in color to be used later. (If you want to save paper and have an iPad or laptop, you can work with the image digitally on one of those, I have used both methods in my work.) At this stage you can also put a grid over your image, I typically use Adobe Photoshop to put my grid on, but however you’d like to add your grid to your image is perfectly fine. You simply create an image that is exactly the size of your canvas and import your image. Then go up to view --> show --> grid and select it. It should create a grid exactly proportionate to the dimensions of your canvas.

Okay, now that we have our reference image selected and printed, we are going to grab our canvas. Begin by taking your canvas and drawing a grid 1in x 1in grid on the canvas using your HB pencil. Once your grid is drawn, you should have, in my case, 18 squares across the top and 24 squares down the canvas. As I said earlier, to begin our underpainting, we are actually going to start with a charcoal drawing on our canvas. At this point, we are going to start working with our charcoal pencils and start to draw our image proportionate to the grid we created on the image. We use charcoal rather than pencil because when we eventually put the wash on, charcoal is more likely to show up clearly under the wash. Additionally, a pencil can eat through your oil paint over time and it has a tendency to smudge more if you were not sealing it. We also use charcoal pencils or compressed charcoal over vine charcoal because vine charcoal will completely wash away when we apply the tonal ground wash shortly. This really is crucial, if you lose your drawing once it is sealed, you can’t regain the charcoal back, you would have to go back and redraw it, now only using a white charcoal pencil for the outline. I usually start with an outline. Once my outline is completed, and all the portions of the image look like they are in the right spaces, we are going to erase the gridlines and then begin to add the shading. Your image does not have to be a 100% spot on replicated drawing, but we need to at least get the sense of form and the turning of light and dark to continue to the next stages.

Beginning Stages of Charcoal Drawing

Now that your charcoal drawing is complete, we are going to seal the image so we can work directly over the top it. You’ll notice in the supply list, I listed four different colors of acrylic paint. Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Light Green, and Black are the four most common tonal grounds used for this style of painting. A tonal ground is exactly what it sounds like; we are taking one of these four colors and putting a wash of it over the entire image to seal the image and bring our image altogether. Light green creates beautiful skin tones when glazed later on as does burnt sienna, but I find establishing contrast to be more difficult with these colors. Black and burnt umber are fantastic for modeling your images and creating a nice contrast between light and dark. For this attempt, I personally recommend burnt umber as your tonal ground, but the decision is ultimately up to you. Remember that whatever tonal ground you decide to use, you are going to need that shade of oil paint later on when we finally begin painting so if you used a burnt umber ground, you will need burnt umber oil paint.

Four Tonal Ground Colors

We are finally ready to seal our drawing and begin painting. We are going to grab some palette paper or even a paper plate will be just fine. We are going to squeeze just a bit of our acrylic paint onto the plate, no need to squeeze a ton as we are going to dilute it with water to make the color more transparent. Next, pour some water into the plate and mix the paint and water together until you get a thinned out, watery version of the paint. Lay the canvas down flat on a table or the ground, put plenty of newspaper down as this step DOES make a mess, it is best if you can work outside where you don’t mind if some paint splatters, not on your mom’s nice dining room table (trust me… been there and she won’t be happy with you afterward). Take your chip brush, which you can get cheaply at any hardware store or even at Walmart in the painting aisle, and apply a THIN wash all over the canvas. Do not keep going back over the same spot multiple times, as you will begin to wash the charcoal away. Once the entire canvas is covered, hopefully, you can still see your drawing through the wash, if you can’t, no need to worry, it will be okay and you will lose some parts, but we can get those back once we start painting.

Tonal Ground on and beginning stages of painting

Either way, allow the canvas to completely dry before moving it or touching it. If you lost your entire image or portions of it, fear not, you can redraw the outlines over the tonal ground with a white charcoal pencil and you will be just fine to continue your image. Don’t worry if anything goes wrong. Something is almost guaranteed to be lost during this step; especially the first go and we can still create a beautiful image from it! Once the canvas is dry, we are ready to paint! I will explain the painting process in more depth in the next portion of this series. I hope you found this helpful and you give this technique a shot. If you do, please send/tag me in your pictures, I would love to see what you guys create and answer any questions you may have!! See you in the next post!


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