The importance of underpainting

old master underpainting

Above top: Paul Baldassini “Pansy Party”, 2023 underpainting; bottom left: Peter Paul Rubens “The Lion Hunt”, 1621; right Leonardo DaVinci detail from “Virgin of the Rocks”. 1483-1486.

There are a variety of ways to approach creating a realistic oil painting, none of which is better or more correct than any other. Whatever approach you take will, to some extent, be influenced by your painting style and personality.

Since I like painting in a structured, organized manner, it was necessary for to me spend time studying the techniques of the Old Masters, rather than say, the techniques of 20th century modern masters, who I also admire. Over the years I experimented with all four of the historical approaches to realistic oil painting. But it was in the techniques of the 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch master painters that I found comfort, relief and possibilities. After many years of study I realized that the main difference between 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch and modern painting techniques is directly related to the magic mediums they used, whatever they were, AND how they broke down their working procedure into a series of distinct passages executed in a predefined order.

The most important of those passages is what is commonly and broadly referred to as the underpainting. Simply put, an underpainting is a monochrome version of the final painting intended to establish the composition, give volume and substance to the forms, and distribute darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination. Since I am a realist painter concerned with light effects, the underpainting technique greatly facilitates both the realization of a compelling composition and accurate depictions of light and chromatic subtleties — the design and composition are completed up front.

My technique is very similar to that of the old masters, yet incorporates a modern feel with a contemporary style. This style developed over many years of trial and error, mostly informed by an assiduous study of Italian and Dutch master painters. This included books and numerous visits to Europe to see the actual artworks as I was determined to understand how they created such luminous paintings. My “aha” moment came when I saw a showing of the works of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese in 1990 at the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris, France and three years later at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium in 1993 where examples of lesser known works by Peter Paul Rubens and contemporaries were on display. These included some monumental paintings on stretched and braced linen canvas and small panel studies. I’ve always been fascinated by the overwhelming design and craftsmanship of Rubens’ art, whose compositions contain a great deal of energy, rhythm and bravura brushwork that surpassed even the most influential artists of his time. Rubens’ works were painted mostly on panels or immense linen canvases toned with a mid-toned yellowish color (Raw Sienna?), applied unevenly in diagonal strokes with a coarse bristle brush allowing some of the white ground to show through. Examples of Rubens’ underpainting style is illustrated in Figures 1 and 2. On top there was no drawing that I could notice, and the compositions were sketched and blocked in with thin fluid paint, an umber or warm brown, almost like a watercolor. The painting proceeded from there with soft milky semi-transparent mid-tones, some chromatic body color and then lights built up thickly to cover the ground using smooth, long brush strokes and thin layering affects.The shadows were scumbled thinly over the brownish underpainting which was very visible in much of the completed work. Since I was painting only in watercolor at that time I thought his approach to oil painting was really interesting and very appealing — I just had to figure it all out, and adapt it into oil painting technique.

I thought, “What a great way to craft a painting!” I mean, painting is hard enough and there a lot of problems to solve so why make it harder on yourself by trying to solve every problem all at once. Just think of the problems you have to solve — design and composition, drawing, tonal values, color and color mixing, light effects, and many others. I think its easier to get the composition, value and tonal considerations out of the way first and then focus almost exclusively on color mixing, temperature, edges and light. Combine that with direct painting, a little glaze and scumble, and voilà! — luminous breathtaking work in a relatively short amount of time. I’m simplifying of course but you get the idea. Underpainting/overpainting was also a great recipe for atelier style production where various aspects of the painting could be handed off to master-trained assistants.

As I studied more art at museums throughout Europe and the United States I discovered that nearly all, if not most, of the master Italian and Dutch painters were using some form of warm brown umber or gray underpainting completing their compositions with color overpainting treatments of various techniques. Paolo Veronese, for example, made fully realized tonal underpaintings, modeled the forms using white lead and raw or burnt umber, then glazed on color using paint and medium. Vermeer did the same style underpainting, but then laid in masses of translucent body color, blending with soft brushes, adding thick white lead highlights and darkening shadows as necessary. Anthony Van Dyck, a contemporary of Ruben’s, renown for his extraordinary detailed and glowing portraits, and sweeping landscapes, and fabrics featuring loose and fluid brush strokes were painted much in the same broad-handed manner as his master, but used a mid-tone gray ground instead of yellow. Like all of the painters working in this manner, the range of materials was not large, and the subtleties of color and color design relied on pigment mixtures with a magic medium and a systematic, multi-layered application of paint. This working method was standard in Antwerp and in the surrounding areas of the 17th century Low Countries of Europe and can also be seen in the works of Italian master painters as far back as the late 16th Century. The master painters have been utilizing the same basic underpainting technique, variations on magic mediums, and creating overpaintings to suit their own palettes and painting styles for centuries: Breugel, Leonardo, Pontormo, Fiorentino, Parmigianino, Bronzino, Manfredi, Titian, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Janssens, Spranger, Hals, Snijders, Zurburan. The list includes many more. Thus began a 25 year investigation of the materials and methods used by these old master painters that has not quite yet ended.

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