How to make an underpainting – it makes painting easier

The old masters would paint in a systematic way.

Each layer of the painting had a specific goal.

They painted with an underpainting before finishing with the overpainting. This made the painting process easier. The problems of drawing, tones, and color could be worked out separately. The artist could then concentrate their full attention on one painting problem at a time.

While Underpainting, there was no color to think about. The painter could devote all of their time to working on the tones of the painting. A very logical thing to do…

…to make things easier!

An underpainting really can be classified as any paint that has dried and is again painted upon.

Your underpainting is where you build your foundation. Your main areas of light and dark are planned out in your underpainting. Some people paint an underpainting in one or two colors and some use a full palette.

Personally, I like to make an underpainting in one or two colors. I will establish the main part of my painting and worry about color later, when I can devote my full attention to it.

Think if you had to type a letter, do a math calculation, and cook a meal, all at the same time. It’s kind of hard to concentrate on all three things at once isn’t it? Painting provides different problems, but they are definitely problems. If your colors are wrong, you won’t be happy. If your tones are too dark, you won’t be happy. Wouldn’t you type that letter better if you were concentrating only on typing that letter?

It is the same with an underpainting. Forget color for now. It’s time to think about tones and drawing. You don’t need the added burden of color right now.

You should want your underpainting to dry quickly because you will paint over it. Therefore you should use mediums that will help your paint dry faster. The less medium in your underpainting the better, but if you add medium to your paint make sure it is quick drying.

Using a medium that has a lot of oil in it is a bad idea. Adding oil to your paint will make your paint dry slower. Of course this is not what you want from an underpainting.

As you add layers to your painting, they should contain more oil in them. This is technically the right way to paint to prevent damage in your painting. Perhaps you have heard about the term “fat over lean”…I will explain this term, to those of you who do not understand, it in a minute.

Your painting can crack, bubble, and other problems will result if you paint a very oily layer of paint as your underpainting and then put a non oily layer on top of this. Why? The layer on top will dry all the way through before the layer underneath has dried all the way through. While this layer underneath is drying it will contract. Literally the paint will move! Your eye cannot see it, but it happens. This moving of the paint will crack the paint layers on top which have already dried and stopped moving.

A good analogy is an earthquake. When layers of the earth that are underground move and shift, the surface of the earth shakes and cracks. We see this as an earthquake. This is what happens in your painting while it is drying. If you have a layer on top has dried, and the underpainting hasn’t, an “earthquake” could result. And then your paint will crack, bubble, and other similar problems occur.

This is one reason you should paint “fat over lean” This simply refers to the amount of oil in your paint.

Oil is known as a “fatty” medium. So fat over lean means that your first paint layers should contain less of a fatty medium (oil ) in them. The layers on top should contain more oil so they will dry more slowly.

Don’t Make It Harder For Yourself

What an underpainting does is divide your painting problems into stages. An underpainting is not a layer to think about color. It is the time to think about drawing and composition. Light and dark. Big shapes. Establishing the main parts of your painting.

Details are not part of an underpainting. Underpainting is a preparation layer. You must keep in mind that you are painting this layer to help you with the paint layers that will follow.

Titian is an artist famous for his underpaintings. It is said he painted most of his painting, the underpainting, using three colors. Red, black, and white. All his stronger colors are then applied in the overpainting after he has worked out his drawing problems.

Painting can be thought of as solving a series of problems.

Painting is hard enough without you making it harder on yourself by trying to solve every problem all at once.

Think of the problems you have to solve.

• Drawing
• Tonal values
• Composition
• Color
• Special effects such as getting a glowing or transparent look.
• And others…

Even if you just take color by itself you have a number of problems that need to be solved…Color can be used opaquely and transparently. It can be used thickly or thinly.

How are you supposed to concentrate on all of these problems at one time? You don’t have to. You can divide the problems up and take care of them separately.

Using an underpainting is a great way to do this. In this way we do not think about color until later. We think only about drawing and composition at first. Getting the right tonal values.

arrows pointing to underpainting showing throughMany people simply use black and white for their underpainting. Some people do a very rough lay-in. Other people do a more complete job on their underpainting.

If you look at the paintings in museums, you will sometimes see the underpainting showing through the layers of paint on top. Sometimes the painting wasn’t finished and the underpainting is very clear.

Look at the illustration to the left. This is a detail of a painting by Rubens.

The arrows point to where you can clearly see his underpainting.

This underpainting was done in brown alone and you can see it very clearly in the photograph.

Here is how I go about painting my underpainting.

I will use only black and white or sometimes a color such as burnt umber and white.

I have no fear of mixing mud because I am using only 1 or 2 colors.

Also, I can freely lighten or darken my painting simply by adding more white or black (or burnt umber if that’s what I’m using.)

I do not use much medium at all. I paint very freely without regards to mistakes!

I can always wipe out areas and start again since an underpainting is the first layer of paint.

If I am not happy with the result I am getting I will simply use my palette knife and scrape off what I have done or use a rag with some turpentine on it to wipe off the paint and begin again.

I concentrate on my tones; getting my light and darks correct. I am making the painting in monochrome. One color. Hey isn’t that great, I don’t have to worry about mixing mud! How can you get mud when you are using one color?

I do not paint very thickly at this stage of the painting process. More paint will go over this underpainting and I am aware of this.

When this underpainting is dry, I can then begin the process of the overpainting. It is at this point that I will gradually add color.

The more I paint over the underpainting, the more color I will add. I will not have to worry about the main “structure” of the painting. It was already taken care of in the underpainting.

When a house is built, you cannot put the windows on the house before you have put down a foundation, added walls, etc…The windows are like color in a painting. And the foundation and walls are like an underpainting.

If you would like full demonstrations on video of me creating an underpainting, check out my 7 Video Instructional series.

If you prefer written instruction, I go very much into detail about underpainting in my Secrets of Oil Painting Techniques e-book. I teach you not only painting processes, but how you should be thinking during the underpainting process. Your thinking will change and you’ll be thinking like an oil painter . This way, you can answer your questions when they come up and end that confusion that you are going through.


painting of a girls head

Step by Step To Begin Your Oil Painting

I had the following question sent to me – “Pretend it’s the very first time you tried to paint, could you give me a step by step method to get started?”

That’s something many people can relate to. The person also told me the reason for this question…”That blank canvas is rather unnerving!”

So, let me answer the question because I’ll bet many of you have the same question.

First, is the preparation of your painting surface. Most of the time this is canvas, but it can be a wooden panel, even paper. I won’t cover the steps to properly prepare your canvas here because that is it’s own VERY IMPORTANT lesson.

Let’s assume you have the painting surface prepared properly, you most likely will want to get rid of the harsh white of the canvas.

(There are sometimes when you may want to keep the white of the painting surface – for example…When you get more advanced or when you want a very high keyed – bright looking work – Like some impressionists used for their outdoor scenes)

Let me first tell you why I want you to start with a toning layer.

The most important reason is that it will help you and make things easier for you. The old masters did many things out of logic and necessity. Toning your canvas to get rid of the white was logical.

This tone value will play a role in the building up of your underpainting that you are going to start with.

In the beginning layer of paint, when you either leave this dark tone layer to show on it’s own or lightly cover it will play a role in the painting.

1) I want you to start with a monochrome underpainting.

This is the traditional way and it makes things easier for you and I am all about making things easier for you.

You see, dividing the painting process this way separates all the parts of making a painting into their own sections. You don’t have to deal with all the problems all at once. So, for a beginner I want you to start with a dark brown toned canvas. Again, I can’t cover exactly how to tone tone your painting surface here, I am just giving you the basic steps that you will follow to begin your painting.

2) Squeeze out some white paint (a fast drying white) and black on to your palette.

Note: If you ask “how much?” my answer is enough to use. Don’t get so worried about something so trivial. You squeeze out enough paint to use. If it’s not enough, squeeze out more.

You are going to let the darker tone of your canvas play an important role in your underpainting.

Using one of your smaller bristle brushes and mix up a light gray.

To make this mixture: Start with the white and slowly add the black into it instead of starting the opposite way. It’s easier to make a light color darker, than make a darker color lighter.

3) Start Making Your Drawing.

You will now take that smaller bristle brush and start placing some outlines to make your “skeleton” drawing. (this is just one of the ways you can place your drawing) You can use one of the methods and techniques I demonstrate for you in my “How to begin?” course for how to get a good composition and other ways to get your drawing on your painting surface. I won’t cover that here.

Your painting surface, properly prepared will make the application of paint very easy…much more so than if you were to just buy one of those cheap canvases in a craft store, rip open the packaging and begin.

I will say over and over again – bad preparation and bad materials lead to bad paintings.

If you need to, dip your brush into a little bit of your medium to make the paint you are using a little bit thinner and more flowing, only if you need to.

Don’t just add medium blindly, or because someone told you once that you have to. Only use it if you need it…

The same way you wash a pot by pouring some liquid soap into it, add water and then judge if you need more
water or not.

Do not take much paint on your brush while you are doing these steps. You will build up the amount of paint as you go. Of course, don’t be so scared of using too much paint that you barely make a mark on the canvas.

DO NOT: make one outline and think you are doing something wrong if you adjust it. Nothing is final yet. This is not a paint by numbers set.

You are using just white and black so there are really no mistakes you can make.

You can mix up a light gray and use it thinly so that the dark tone of your canvas shows throw or you can lay the gray on a little thicker to cover the dark tone layer and you will see what a variation of tone values you can attain just by varying the thickness of your gray mixture. The thicker your mixture, the more your toning layer will be covered. The thinner your mixture, the more your original toning layer will show through.

Think of drawing with white chalk on a blackboard.

The picture at the top of this article, was created with the procedure I am describing. If you look at the girls face in her cheek and chin, as well as some other places, you can see the gray underpainting showing through.

4) Divide everything you see, in your mind, into light and dark.

You do not care about the color of any object right now, only the tone values the lights and darks.

You can pick if you want to start with darks or lights of the objects you are painting and then work toward the opposite end…

Dark to light or light to dark.

In the darker areas, you will leave the darker tone of your canvas to show through.

You can add a gray that is darker than the tone value you already have and use this mixture for the darkest darks. And, you can use the light gray mixture that you started with and apply thicker for lighter areas.

For the lightest light you may want to use just pure white and lightly add it into the paint you already have on the canvas.

Do not be scared of making mud, as it’s impossible to do just using black and white.

This would be the beginning of your painting…the underpainting – step 1.

You would continue the painting process which would include going over the underpainting again and making things more definite…adding the coloring layers with glazes and veilings and some direct painting. The adding of details would come later on.

But this covers an overview of a definite step by step procedure to use from scratch. It gives you a way to start from your blank canvas that you can use over and over again to produce any painting.

Further Study

If you liked this introduction, I have an “Action Plan” course  called “How to begin?” that you can check out here

Click Here to check out the “How To Begin” action plan

Keep on learning.

Ethan Semmel


3 mistakes beginning painters make

3 Mistakes Oil Painting Students make

Here is a quick list of 3 of the top mistakes I’ve seen over and over again from students wanting to learn to oil paint.

1 – Not using enough paint.

A painting is made with paint. You scoop paint off your palette and place it on the canvas. That little sentence is a fundamental principle that escapes most people learning to paint. Go back and re-read that a couple of times to really understand it’s importance.

Half the battle is in that very tip.

You have to constantly go back to your palette and get more paint to put on your canvas. Many students are scared to use a lot of paint.

Have you ever looked at a Van Gogh up close? Or A Rembrandt? Especially his later paintings. The paint stands up off the canvas and is applied incredibly thick. Also, time has a way of leveling off a painting and kind of smoothing it out. So Rembrandt’s 350-400 year old paintings were even thicker when he completed them.

Now, you don’t have to paint as thickly as they did, that’s not what I’m getting at. But, it helps to look at their paintings to change your mindset about the necessity to use more paint.

An exercise I tell students to do to change their pre-conceived ideas about how much paint to use is to paint an object as Van Gogh would so they get used to using more paint. Also, I tell them to make a painting by focusing on making no more than 3 strokes with your brush without going back to your palette to get more paint.

Yes, some of the old masters did use thin paint in certain areas of their paintings, such as Rubens, but they used thin paint with mediums that still gave it “body”. This way their thin paint wouldn’t either “drown” or look weak – a sure sign of a beginner or amateur.

2 – Having No Procedure

Paintings used to be created according to a procedure. All painters learned the procedure and then made their own adjustments to suit their own styles. Too many times nowadays, the students has no goal, no plan in mind when they begin a new painting.

They set a canvas up on the easel and “hope for the best”

Think about this. The great painters of the past who were fulfilling commissions for royalty and churches were businessmen who had a product to deliver. Commissions kept coming in and they needed a procedure so their assistants could help them in the production of a painting.

It was more like a house builder of today. Or a contractor.

When a new housing development goes up, every house is built according to the same procedure. Many people work on the house at once and they all know the procedure or are told what step in the procedure comes next. The layout and look of each house may be different. One house may have bricks on the outside, another may have stone on the outside, but both houses are still built by following the same procedure. When it comes time to construct the outside, the stone or brick is then put on. Every house has the frame of it’s walls up before the frame of the roof is put on.

Every single one.

If a student would develop the mindset of a house builder they would have a lot less frustration when it comes to making their oil painting.

3 – Using the wrong materials

A simple example is canvas. There are many students who have never prepared their own canvas. They just buy a pre-stretched canvas from the store, rip open the packaging and start painting. Then they wonder why their work doesn’t look like the paintings of the painters in the museums whom they admire so much.

Next time you’re in the museum, go close up to a painting you admire and take a look at the canvas. Then go back home and take a close look at the canvas at one of your own finished paintings. Notice the difference? I’ll bet yours looks more like it is a painting in a sponge. And take notice that I used the word “in” instead of “on”. This goes back to point #1 in this list.

I just used canvas as an example for the more general problem of using the wrong materials, but this goes for brushes, mediums, and colors as well.

There are more mistakes of course but these 3 are among the most common.

What’s Next?

If you want to stop making these mistakes…

A great place to start is to learn about your supplies. Oil paintings are made with a bunch of supplies that you need to learn how to use. Such as the paints themselves, brushes, canvas, mediums, etc.  It’s all quite confusing and it can be overwhelming. I have an instruction manual devoted to making that confusion of oil painting supplies, easy to understand. A reference manual you can refer to over and over again.

You can check out my instruction manual on oil painting supplies here.

Or, if you are having problems with techniques and procedures, I have an instructional manual that will end your confusion about oil painting techniques.

You can check out my instruction on oil painting techniques here

renoir painting with soft edges

Oil Painting Soft Edges – Getting Rid Of That Cut Out Look

Many paintings of art students look like colored in drawings instead of a painting. One of the main causes of this is when they first draw the outlines of the painting using pencil and then simply try to fill it all in in one layer.

It’s a very common problem that usually leads to disappointment because you will have a very rigid looking painting with hard outlines.

Also, did you know you can actually help to solve this problem by learning to draw better. Remember, drawing is not just making an outline around an object.
In the short video that I made for you, I use the painting of a master to explain the concept. The painting is of a little girl with a frilly dance costume. Certainly a piece of material that does not call for a hard outline.

Recommended Instruction:

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