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Underpainting is the step of painting in this technique where we develop all the modeling for our painting. This is the step that you will render all your forms and really create that sense of pictorial illusionism. Pictorial Illusionism is making a flat, two-dimensional picture plane look like it has depth/ three dimensions. Our main objective is to create that sense of depth and rendering form, which is my favorite aspect of painting. The idea of creating this false sense of three-dimensional space and tricking the senses makes this entire process that much more fun. There are two types of contrast artists are trying to create: tenebroso and chiaroscuro. Tenebroso is Italian for light and dark but refers to the technique of highly contrasting the light and dark in an attempt to emphasize what is important in the light and the less important details in the dark. Chiaroscuro is Italian for “light and dark” and is used to model and create a sense of three dimensions and depth. Typically, you can only have one or the other so it is up to the artist to figure out what level of contrast they want to strive for. The further we push our contrast in the underpainting stage, the more vibrant and easier glazing will become when we begin to add color. The ultimate goal though is to create the image through sfumato, a painting technique for softening the transition between colors to mimic the area that would typically be out of focus to the human eye, or in simpler terms, a more “smoky” image. The most famous Renaissance painter to use and master the sfumato technique was Leonardo da Vinci in his piece “Mona Lisa” (c.1503-1506), most visible in her face.

Supplies Needed:

  • Alkyd White Oil Paint (

  • Oil Paint in color of tonal ground (Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Chromium Green Oxide or Ivory Black) (

  • Liquin Original (

  • Palette Paper (

  • Chip brush (

  • Turpenoid (

  • Jar (

  • Synthetic Tacklon Brushes (

  • Minimum of 3 Bristle Brushes (one for dark, one for light and one for blending) (

  • Brush cleaner (

  • Paper Towel

  • Canvas with drawing and tonal ground applied

  • Reference photo in Black and White

Getting Started:

You may notice in the supplies I listed above, I specifically wrote Alkyd white oil paint. This is crucial!!! Alkyd paint dries to the touch in 24 hours. Oil paint typically takes months to dry before you can even think about finishing and varnishing. Through the use of an alkyd oil paint, it dries quickly enough for you to be able to go to bed and wake up and continue a new layer immediately. Now you may be saying, “Justin, you only listed an alkyd white oil paint, not an alkyd color.” The best part of an alkyd white paint is it mixes with the color and will dry overnight as well!

Okay, now we’re ready to begin painting. We’re going to begin our first layer on the dry canvas. Start out by taking one brush and picking up some burnt umber (or whatever color underpainting you’re painting) and just apply a thin amount to the area you want to begin painting. As a rule of thumb, typically you start in the background and progressively move more and more to the foreground and your subject. Now take your chip brush and gently sweep the area to blend some of the dark color into the canvas. Do not rub the canvas or press too hard into the canvas, just gentle sweeping motions. Pick up some white paint with another brush and apply it to the regions where there are highlights. Take your final brush and use that to blend the two colors and start creating the modeling of the form. You can continue to add both light and dark as a way to continue turning the form and creating that illusion we discussed earlier. Be sure to every so often, wipe and squeeze excess paint from your blending brush on a piece of paper towel to allow for better blending and less muddying of the paint. Don’t worry if you can’t get that bright white highlight right off the bat. This technique is a layering technique as are most oil painting techniques.

Keep referring back to your reference. I typically have mine taped right to my easel so it is in my face the entire time I am painting. Photos have the tendency to flatten an image obviously and make it very linear. We need to ignore the lines that we see and focus on the form being created. Every linear edge we see we need to turn into a contrasted edge. In the real world, we don’t see line since we exist in three dimensions, we need to make every form appear to turn and have that illusion of a third dimension. As we build up more layers and our darks are mostly in place and close to what they are in our reference, we can begin to use thinner layers of paint to just bring out those highlights perfectly. In order for this next step to work, we need to make sure our previous layer is dry. What we are now going to do is pour a LITTLE bit of Liquin Original on your palette. A little bit of Liquin goes a long way, and it is one of the priciest supplies on our list so use it sparingly. Mix some of your white paint with a tiny bit of the Liquin to make it a bit creamier of a mixture. We do not want the white to become completely fluid or translucent, but just a thinner mixture so we can apply it better. Add some of this paint to the areas with bright highlights and just blend it out into the dark. We can also do this method different and apply the Liquin directly to the canvas. Use a cheap, synthetic brush to scrub the area of the canvas you’re working on with a thin coat of Liquin, then take your chip brush and sweep the canvas to pick up extra Liquin. Now you can apply the white paint directly from the tube onto your canvas and as done previously, blend into the shadow areas. Once you are satisfied with your underpainting and feel you have accurately depicted the subject matter as well as establish the highlights and shadows of your subject, allow all of your painting to dry. When it is dry, we are now going to take our chip brush once more and Liquin. Cover the entire canvas in a THIN layer of Liquin and allow this layer to fully dry once more. We are now ready to begin glazing, which I will go into more detail on in my next post.

A final tip I can give from my experience is if some aspect within your painting looks off or wrong, it most likely is wrong. Trust your eye and your senses to guide the way your painting turns out. I tried my best to stress this in my previous post, but I will mention it again, a high-quality reference photo will make or break your painting. When you can compare your image to the image you have chosen to work from, it will be not only easier to decipher what is wrong within the piece but easier to figure out how to correct that issue and make it look correct. Now that being said, it is not always that simple to fix an issue. In my reproduction of Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” you can see how I chose to draw her face in the photos below and how it evolved from beginning to end. Mind you this is the first time I ever really painted before in my life, Bob Ross’s technique of painting landscapes excluded, especially with a technique like this. The drawing was not the most accurate, and painting her face at such a foreshortened view was challenging for me. After struggling for a bit to accurately depict her face, my professor recommended that I just make the creative decision to switch her facial structure around slightly to make it more simplistic for me to paint. This is a decision that every artist will have to face in their time as an artist, you as the artist are allowed to make a decision to change something from your reference, and in that process, you get to put your own original twist on that artwork.

One of the last things I would like to say before finishing up this week’s post is how to properly clean our brushes. In order to remove oil paint, we use turpenoid. Pour some turpenoid into a jar, preferably one with a piece of wire or mesh at the bottom to rub our brushes against to remove paint. You can find one of these jars pretty cheap at any craft store and be sure to use a coupon at A.C. Moore, Michael's or Hobby Lobby to get it for an even cheaper price. Pour some turpenoid into the jar just above the mesh/wire. We can now clean our brushes in the turpenoid and wipe them off on some paper towel. Finally, make sure to dispose of your oil-soaked paper towels properly according to your town. Turpenoid can be used and reused multiple times until it just can not handle any more paint in the jar. I will make a separate post on cleaning out your jar shortly but just know that you can’t pour turpenoid down the drain. You can be fined for putting chemicals into the water supply and the environment, therefore, I have an old coffee can that I pour old turpenoid into and when my township has a hazardous waste disposal day, I drop off at the municipal for proper disposal. I mentioned in the supply list to buy a brush cleaner. Even after cleaning brushes used with Liquin in turpenoid, they can still dry rock hard and become stiff. After you clean the brushes, you can use a brush cleaner on them and then wash them in the sink with water and they should remain soft and ready to use next time! The brush cleaner I recommended it the best one I have come across. The soap contains pumice to help clean off all the gunk from the brush. If you accidentally forget to clean your brush and they do get hard, coat the bristles in this soap and leave it overnight, wash it off the next day and your brush will be good as new!

Thank you for joining me for another post! I hope this was helpful to you and you decide to try out this method! If you do decide to try this method, please send pictures of your work, I really enjoy seeing what you create. Also, feel free to comment or message me here or on any of my social media with any questions you may have that I did not answer in this post. I hope to see you again in my next post and that you join me to learn about finally adding colors to these monochromatic underpaintings and make them pop. Thanks again and see you next week! – Justin

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