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Tuition and Guidance for the Artist in Everyone

Tuition and Guidance for the Artist in Everyone

Art Workshop with Paul : Oils Part 1- Underpainting

"Hello Paul,
I am a beginner and am trying to experiment and teach myself oil painting. My basic problem is that I can't work out which colour should be used for the underpainting and initial layers. Can I assume it depends on the main colours in the painting/picture and if so, is there some way that I can look for the right ones?"

Painting Companion Query - Gina from United Arab Emirates

This is such a common dilemma, as it is one faced by all those starting out in oil painting; not to mention many who already paint and wish to develop their skills into the traditional method of painting in layers.

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A portrait, composed mainly of warm colours, will benefit from underlying cool colours such as blue or green. 


On the other hand, the cool blue of a sky can be excited, by being painted over a warm orange or brown.
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The principal function of an underpainting layer is to remove all traces of white so that you are painting colour on colour. In oil painting there is also a secondary element, that of developing texture, which can be exploited in layers to come.

Colours of an underpainting can simply be an overall wash that is laid to contrast against the nature of the subject on which it is to be painted.

However, since there are no rules, almost any colours will suffice. As you will see in Common Problems, I like to start on a canvas or board that has been the recipient of unused paint scraped from my painting palette at the end of a painting session.

Since oil painting depends on layers of colour and their effects on one another, it is generally the aim to never completely overpaint any layer. Allowing tiny accents of the underpainting to show through can mean that its colour could be used as an important element of the painting's structure

.Here I show three ways in which the same painting can be made to differ through underpainting in different colours.

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Option 1

In the first, the underpainting is no more than a dull version of the final colours. The difference in value between under and over painting creates the contrasts necessary to suggest value and light.


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Option 2

By using complementary colours beneath there is an additional element of contrast. Not only have I moved form dark to light as the layers are built, but also from warm to cool.


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Option 3

Using light complementary underpainting is unusual and exotic. Now you can really feel the impact of painting colour over colour.