Understanding Underpainting – How important is it?

There are different styles of painting and not all of them need underpainting. However the style of work that I do requires it, and the final results cannot be achieved without it.

This is a continuing conversation.  I am revisiting this topic, because I consider that understanding  underpainting provides you with a wonderful tool. Underpainting can be found from the works of the classical masters to the modern ones. Even many contemporary abstract artists make use of underpainting. Often several layers of paint will contribute to the look of the finished painting. If you are just learning to paint and trying to copy someone elses work, understanding underpainting , may help you to figure out what they have done.  Look for subtle colour changes beneath the top layer of paint, and try to determine what colour they might have used.

The painting below by J.W. Waterhouse, well known Pre-Raphaelite painter,  is in two contrasting colors which separates the figure from the background but underpinned with a base of Raw Umber.

understanding underpainting in 2 colours, Waterhouse

Tonal underpainting in 3 colours

We see here that the background is underpainted with Raw Umber  and then Waterhouse has overpainted and further developed the image with Sap Green on top. He has painted the dress with a very thinned down Cadmium Red. This work is done in oils and the paint thinned considerably with a medium.

Look For Thursday’s Post: My latest artwork finished 

Next Monday’s Post: Adobe and Moleskin Team Up

Posted By: Kadira Jennings


I recently went to a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in Sydney.  Some of my favourite painters were there – Waterhouse, Al Tadema, Lord Leighton.  There were other well know artists of the period also – like William Holman-Hunt.  What I found interesting as I walked around was that the paintings fell into two very distinct categories.  The majority of the works are technically perfect if not brilliant.

Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod' by J. W. Waterhouse

Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod' by J. W. Waterhouse

However what I noticed was that some of these works, even though highly skilled representations of their subject, lacked something.  What they lacked was subtle, almost indefinable.  There is an elusive spirit that infuses some works and not others.  This is I believe, the thing that we strive for as creators regardless of our medium.  We have all seen actors who never become their character and remain themselves, or have ‘wooden’ performances.  This is like the secret ingredient in the creatives recipe, what distinguishes one creative work from another and raises it above the rest.

Waterhouse is not only a technical expert, he also achieves this transmission of the subtle, unknown, into our experience as we view the work.  We become lost for a time in the world he has created with such beauty and magnificence.

If you like this kind of art here are a couple of great blogs  with interesting tidbits and lots of pictures about the Pre-Raphaelites.

Beth’s – Boatshedchic and

Matthew’s – Underpaintings

Next post ….. more about ‘that secret ingredient’

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