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    The Uses of Underpaintings (as explained by Ilaekae and Jason Manly)

    Ok, so I am working on my acrylic/oil painting skills. Up until now I have been practicing simply apply my paint to the surface. Sometimes all go all wild and crazy and tone the ground first. In class today, we started talking about and doing under paintings. I'm really not sure I understand what the concept of the underpainting is for. I was reading a "Painting like the old Masters" book in Barnes and Noble and I see for example, if the artist is doing a nude painting, he/she would underpaint the flesh tone areas grey with all of the values being applied in values of grey. I have seen portraits that are more reddish when completed started with a green underpainting and the painting of a pheasant that I was doing in class was recommended to be underpainted in purple because the bird was burgandy with golden yellow areas as the dominant colors. I don't understand why. Can someone explain it, or at least answer these questions?

    1. If an underpainting is done in the compliment of the end point color, how does that help?
    2. Doesn't the top layer of paint cover over the underpainting and effectively nullify it?
    3. Why would grey be used as the underpaint instead of the compliment.
    4. Should only the subject and focal points be underpainted with the designated color or should the entire piece be washed with the color as well.

    Help. I'm just not getting it.
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    Underpainting is essentially a technique to organize the painting process or arrive at another technique (luminous lighting via glazing).

    It's like using construction lines when drawing or having a loose sketch before you do a tight overlay drawing. You take care one bit of the painting process at the beginning (values, light-shadow relationships, etc.) so you could worry about other things after that (what paints to use, color mixing, how loose or tight would you stroke details, etc.).

    You don't have to use this technique it if doesn't really benefit what you're trying to paint (i.e., you have a photo ref that already indicates how values relate to each other).

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    Underpainting is an extremely complex subject because there are many reasons for it. The results desired determine the why/way it's done.

    If you can give me a day or two, I can get a few samples together as a kind of tutorial to give a better idea of how and why it's done and post 'em here.

    Basically, there are a number of ways an underpainting is done...

    1. A value painting is done in grays or another "neutral" color like umber, bluish violet or whatever. This is extremely accurate except for being in a funny color. Then glazes are layered onto the piece to build up the real and final color. It's not unusual to have 200-300 seperate applications of glazes in a complex piece.

    2. A value painting is done as above, but in the primary complementary color of the piece. For example, if the piece is a sunny city scene with a lot of sun-drenched yellowish buildings, the underpainting would be in deep purple. A greenish outdoor scene would require a red underpainting, and a flaming warthog from hell would require green. The initial glazes would form a luminescent neutral shadow system, and the final strokes would usually be applied more opaquely.

    3. In dry brush, especially on a rough painting surface, the initial sketch is blocked in with fairly bright areas of color that are complementary to the final colors desired. The painting is then done rather opaquely and "roughly"--with lots of underpaint spots showing through. This make the painting "sparkle" a bit because the all the areas have complementary spots throughtout--blue sky has orange spots, grass has red undernearth, sunny people have bright lavendar and purple spots, etc. In this case, the underpainting isn't necessarily as accurate as the drawing under the above two examples.

    4. A much more extreme version of Number 3 above. This is close to the Pointellist and extreme Impressionist methodology. The final paint is applied rather opaguely, or in layers that gradually get more opaque, but the strong complementaries underneath are left highly exposed to interact with the final colors on top. The visual mixing of these spots can be controlled to give a lot of depth to the painting, creating imagined OPTICAL colors rather than true mixed shades of various real colors.

    5. an underpainting can be done as a mid tone, as if you were working on a strongly toned paper with charcoal and white chalk. A layer of paint is put done with the image accurately depicted as a kind of ghosty image. This would approximate the middle tones of the final piece. then darks and lights are applied sparingly to create the final piece. Nice way to do the human figure.

    I could probably come up with anther ten examples if I sat and thought about it. Basically, you're trying to save time or increase visual depth by playing color off color, or building color on color.

    In the early days of illustration (maxfield parrish era), color seperations were so primitive that the artists actuall layered their colors on as glazes of black, cyan, yellow and magenta so they wouldn't accidently create a color that the sep camera couldn't "see." That why these old illustrations look so "old" or saturated.

    At one time, illustrations were actually done as seperations in place on four different registered surfaces. ALL (repeat--ALL) the art was executed in black and shades of gray, one for each of the CMYK seps. The artist had to know mentally where the appropriate black or gray value had to be in order for the final piece to come out right. (It is now time for everybody here under the age of fifty to go "HOLY SHIT!," "HOLY FUCK!," or some other appropriate comment...). To get a real grasp of how this works, take one of your color pieces in photoshop and go to channels. What you see is a stack of four black/gray drawings that make up the final full color art you've done. This is after the fact in photoshop, but imagine having to do what you see in the channels in order TO GET YOUR FINAL PIECE...

    heeheehee
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    Please do that tutorial Ilaekae! I had been wondering about this too and your explanation clarified alot, but seeing it in pictures would be even better.
    -hal

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    Ilaekae,
    Thank you my friend for the extremely in depth explanation. I will need to read those over a couple more times to really get the grasp, but It is starting to become clear. If you would be so kind, I would appreciate the tutorial that you eluded to and I can wait until you have time to gather and arrange it. I seem to be better at getting the explanation first, processing it and then applying it to an example as opposed to the other way around, which is what is happening in class. The synapses just aren't firing the right way as I'm stand there painting a purple chicken.

    Thanks all for the responses and I (al well as others) eagerly await your tutorial!
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    But what's the point of an underpainting with the main complimentary color? i have seen it done... will it make the end result richer?
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    I think we should give Ilaekae a medal or something. Thanks for that info.


    Oh, and CMYK steps? HOLY SHIT!

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    Gringoloco, the underpainting definitely makes the piece more luminescent. The interaction of the underpainting with the transparent/translucent glazes allows light to penetrate to the base color, so when it reflects back, it's a much more vibrant and exciting mix than just plunking down a solid mechanically mixed color.

    Here's an experiment that anybody can try really fast...

    Rough pencil a bunch of 2" squares on some board. Fill two with a solid bright green, another two with a deeper darker green, and another with a washy slap of a bright green so there are obvious brush strokes showing.

    Make sure everything drys.

    On one of the solid bright greens, wack on some cad red med or something similar (bright red) as if you were doing a water color. Use a lot of med so its fairly transparent in some spots.

    On the second bright green square, make up some OPAQUE bright red and using a small brush, cover about 85-90% of the green with a random pattern of daubs of red. You want to end up with a red square with just touches of exposed green showing through.

    Do exactly the same thing to the two squares with the much darker green in them.

    On the fifth washy-looking green square, take your transparent glaze of red and cover the entire square with red in a washy manner, just as you did to the underpainting.

    When these all dry, take a good look at them. You will see a completely different effect with each, and if you squint, you'll start to see various little bits that surprise you. The fifth square may seem to vibrate a bit in some areas, and you'll notice areas that are more red, areas that are more green, and areas that are just wierd color. When you squint at this one, you should see a lot more luminosity and depth to the colors. This is the primary benefit of underpainting over solid color. It makes your brain work, which makes the viewing of the art more pleasurable.
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    I did that experiment. Here's the image link. I used gouache cause I didn't wanna have to wait two days for my oils to dry. And maybe that's where I went wrong cause I don't see the effects you said I was going to see... The square that looks best to me is the top left one, but the only difference I see in that one compared to the square with no underpaint at all is that the first one is darker. Maybe I oughta try this in oils instead.
    -hal

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    Boogie, gouache is opaque by nature. You need to use something that will allow transparent glazes like acrylics. You can use the gouache for the underpainting but not the overpainting unless you want totally opaque results. I'm right in the middle of something right now, but if you give me two days, I'll get a demonstration together for you and post it in here...sorry to make you wait...but it will be a lot easier to see than to describe it verbally...
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    Quote Originally Posted by Boogieman
    I used gouache cause I didn't wanna have to wait two days for my oils to dry. And maybe that's where I went wrong cause I don't see the effects you said I was going to see...Maybe I oughta try this in oils instead.
    Bingo.

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    N 36...
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    you can use the new water oils. they dry in an hour or so.
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    Quote Originally Posted by hylandr2
    I'm really not sure I understand what the concept of the underpainting is for. I was reading a "Painting like the old Masters" book in Barnes and Noble and I see for example, if the artist is doing a nude painting, he/she would underpaint the flesh tone areas grey with all of the values being applied in values of grey.

    I have seen portraits that are more reddish when completed started with a green underpainting and the painting of a pheasant that I was doing in class was recommended to be underpainted in purple because the bird was burgandy with golden yellow areas as the dominant colors. I don't understand why. Can someone explain it, or at least answer these questions?

    1. If an underpainting is done in the compliment of the end point color, how does that help?
    2. Doesn't the top layer of paint cover over the underpainting and effectively nullify it?
    3. Why would grey be used as the underpaint instead of the compliment.
    4. Should only the subject and focal points be underpainted with the designated color or should the entire piece be washed with the color as well.

    Help. I'm just not getting it.
    forgive if these have been answered better already...just felt like answering the questions and thinking about this stuff myself. I went back up and read more and think that my thoughts will echo Ilaekae's quite a bit.


    You are very close to getting it. Whoever is talking to you is giving you good information. Prob is finding someone who can show how it is done and why rather than just theory, but it will make you a stronger artist if you figure it out yourself. Asking focused questions like this is always good. Do more research into looking at paintings to find these answers. Look to find these answers in the images in Art History. This is where your teachers find some of that info...finding it yourself will get rid of their "teacher filter". Same goes here.


    1. Underpainting Compliment Base Color: A key to the school of painting you are studying is "contrast". Appropriate choice of value, temperature, and saturation/intensity contrasts will help the image retain vibrancy of color and reflection of natural color/tonal light vibration in the eye of the viewer. You are entering into the area called "color theory".

    Paint and canvas are not as vibrant as light in life. You are studying light and how to create that feeling in the eye that "light actually has" within a painting(which does not because its mud and solvent and not the sun or a candle or a lamp). Your teachers are pointing you down the path of understanding how to "fake" the feeling of natural light in your paintings...and how to use those devices to control your communication and narrative with color composition

    There are ways in which you can get colors to vibrate as light does. Having complimentary undertones is perhaps the easiest way in which you can get your light and shade to dance visually. This has to do with optical color mixing, which happens every day in front of you when your eyes are open. It has to do with the fact that light and shadow are COMPLIMENTS in all ways. Using an "opposite color underpainting technique" assists you in getting "light compliment theory" accomplished in the image. There is technique in the process of getting strokes of mud and oil to mimic what light actually does in life.

    Often, light and shadow are not just to be seen as lighter or darker...but unsaturated and saturated...color compliments...warmer and cooler....LOOK FOR THESE THINGS in life if this is your path of study. You will find true subtlety of these theories and at times will even find ways to prove them wrong. That is what I love about art theory. It is a constant search to prove oneself wrong so we can learn. By having pieces of your underpainting in contrast you can begin to lure they eye around compositionally. You can create focus. You see, your teachers are simply trying to get you to control color...to see. LOOK.

    2. If you paint over the entire underpainting then the compliment color underpainting technique can be used along the way so that you can make color choices. It allows the artist to be aware of colors that are brushed on the canvas as they have colors to compare against. However, there will be places where the underpainting color would be used anyway so at that point the only reason to paint over your underpainting is to gain a particular finish to the paint quality and paint surface. It does not nullify the underpainting if you are using it as a guide for accuracy or perfection of your expression. Some artists believed it to be a waste of time, others swore by it as it allowed them to do things they could not do otherwise with the paint. The underpainting is like the scaffold for which the rest of your painting sits. Some artists wouldnt use it as they believed it took from the freshness of the painting process and the loose qualities they appreciated. Most extremely polished paintings use an underpainting process. But, loose images can also do this. Rembrandts rough paintings are still using the underpainting process and they are far from stiff and clean. It all comes down to what you want to accomplish with your paint.

    Your teachers are teaching a slew of painting theory from different time periods at you. What you are getting is a cross section of art theory from different time (Baroque, 19th century, Impressionist, 20th century illustration). You could study into the bones of the different periods of painting in terms of technique, color, composition, idea, feeling, mood, expression etc. This will allow you to choose which way of working best suits your needs for communication. Now that you are getting into painting 101, dig deeper.

    3. Gray is a cool..or a warm... If you put any other color on it, it will seem to be a color. If you put a green gray stroke down on that gray surface and then put down a violet gray stroke the canvas base would seem like a blue gray..or a yellow gray...depending on what gray you have as your base. If it seems to be a blue in comparison and you put a warmer blue gray down then the painting base will seem like a cooler blue. Do you see where this is going?

    A gray underpainting or "grisaille" was the foundation for most painting happening in the baroque time period. It was explored prior to that but became one of the primary techniques around the time of rembrandt. The easiest way to explain it is that it was used as a base for warm light paintings. There is a technique developed that requires many oil glazes and washes to be used over the gray underpainting to develop deep transparent shadows. Then, the light is painted on opaquely and this helps to reflect the light off the paint surface and back to the viewer..where the transparent glazes in the shadows draw in light and fill the shadow paint with "fill light".

    Typically at that time, if the paintings were of a warm light source, the underpainting was gray. If it was a cool light source the underpainting was based in the burnt sienna range. This allows for easy and immediate seperation of temperature between light and dark as you paint...assuming you are paying attention.

    Another reason to build off middle values (like gray) is that most of the things in your environment when you paint are not pure darks and pure lights. Working from middle values toward light..and toward dark...allow you to save your lightest lights and darkests darks til last more easily in an art school setting. It is simply easier for the eye to judge lights, darks and colors when there is a base down to paint on.

    There many ways to use an underpainting. These are just a couple.

    4. for compositional color unity...i.e. your painting looks like it is all made up of parts from the same color world and atmosphere...you can have your colors sprinkled about throughout the composition. focal areas are where you place all your best contrasts...balanced to work with your color composition. Too many contrasts might make it garish...perhaps...or perhaps not. It all depends on your image and balance of color/tonal composition and light. If your underpainting is the appropriate contrasting color for that area, then you could leave it..or paint over it with the same color if you wanted to hide the underpainting surface...if it is not the right color for that area then you would paint it out or adjust it. It is all relative. You must be the judge of that.



    Best,


    JM

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    How's this??

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    [EDIT] Wow, great post, Manly.
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