Friday, November 6, 2015

Technique Time! Underpainting (or Grisaille)

**This will be a long post as I am explaining and illustrating a technique **

Technique time! I have learned a few techniques while painting and crafting that I hoped might benefit others. I am hoping to make these kinds of posts a regular thing. I am mostly self-taught as my school offered no watercolor instruction. If I am doing something in a non-standard way, or even maybe the "wrong" way, let me know what you know in the comments!

Today I am going to talk about a technique that not only saves me an incredible amount of time but produces (in my opinion) better art for me. Underpainting. Yes, underpainting saves me time and sanity. On the surface of things, it seems like it would take more time to underpaint, I find the opposite is true.

There are a few reasons that it works for me, and maybe will for you? These reasons are-

1. I don't have to do much in terms of color correcting or glazes at the end

2. I can draw directly on the paper very lightly and not lose those guides when I underpaint thinner layers

3. I can see if a painting is going to be "worth it" FAR sooner than if I don't underpaint. It saves me from continuing to work on a lost cause piece OR going in another direction to salvage it sooner

Underpainting or (Grisaille if you're fancy) is the process of laying down an initial layer of paint that can be either grey (hence Grisaille) or in the tones of your painting. It is a classic oil painting process to paint up a base layer before adding color. This helps to increase realism and color balance in paintings of things like sculptures. It can also help with making realistic neutrals and ease the transitions between hard and soft edges.

 I tend to underpaint in the opposite color tones from the piece I am working on. So if my piece will be warm-toned, I will use slightly cool-toned paints in my underpainting and vice versa. Remember, you are doing very thin layers of underpainting and painting to get the best effect.

**IMPORTANT NOTE** DO NOT underpaint your piece with a thick layer or with a large amount of the opposite color tones of your intended piece. The paint from the previous layer can lift when more water is added and create a muddy mess. If you mix both the cool and warm tones of several colors together you will ultimately end up with muddy and unappealing colors.


I had a couple rules for my experiment. I had to count both working and drying time, I had to use the same colors in the same places and I had only 4 "tries" to finish the piece meaning I had better be doing final touches the 4th time I went back to add or subtract on the piece.

To show my work (ha!), I created two small "quick" paintings of the same thing with the same colors. I underpainted one of them and did not under paint the other.

I apologize in advance for the photos, I had to photograph by lamplight.

 These are the two pieces side by side, they are pears, one is slightly different in shape than that other

 This is the piece with out underpainting I am going to call it non-U/P from here on out. You can see the first layer is of average wash to lay down color. It took quite a while to dry before I could start working again.

 This is the second attempt at the non-U/P piece, adding a few elements and started working darker. I used an average thickness wash the first time, I found that the paper was a little too receptive to color. It absorbed a lot more color even after the first drying

This is crack 3 at the non-U/P, you can see the colors area is a bit brighter and the transitions are kind of smeary. The paper doesn't want to take more paint at this point. To finish this up I am going to have to thinly glaze the piece at the end to get the color tones where I want them. 

 This is the underpainted pear, I will call it U/P from here out. That first thin layer of paint dried fairly quickly. I chose  cooler toned undercolors to start, unfortunately that is hard to see here.

This is layer two on the U/P pear. You can see there is a great deal more dimension even though I haven't added the darkest colors yet. This was after two thin layers.

This is the third addition on the U/P pear, you can see there is even more dimension and is done except for the darkest accents

Here are the finished pieces. The underpainted pear is on the left and the non-underpainted pear is on the right. The piece on the left has more depth to it, the layers aren't as obvious and the colors blend together in a more realistic way. 

However, the non-underpainted pear on the right is much more vibrant it doesn't have nearly the depth to it. It was harder to lift out the light areas if I needed to, and very difficult to get the color I wanted. In the end, I had to finish the one on the right with a very thin lemon-colored glaze.

** This style is what someone might be going for, which is GREAT! It's a looser piece that is very vibrant. It wasn't what I was aiming for this time.

Final count for both working time and drying time (dry enough to touch or add another layer) - Underpainted side took 23:22 and Not-Underpainted came in at 28:18. That is an increase of over 20%. If you are painting a lot of work, or even painting large pieces that can be a major time savings. I find that I save more time than that when working on several small pieces at the same time.

Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? I am happy to answer any questions you might have for clarification or discussions. Maybe you have a technique you want me to cover? Comment below!


  1. This probably doesn't help...but I like both! Personally, when I do paintings, drawings...or what ever...When I think it's finished, I leave it in front of me. A lot of the times...I will add more to it a day or two later. I suppose my first rendition could be considered an under additions are the conclusions. :)

  2. It's helpful! I just find I get a lot more control and depth when I underpaint my work. But that's really if I am going for that style.

    If I am going for a more flowing watercolor work I would do it the way I did the non underpainted work. I just find that, for me, that a high level of control (like painting portraits or intricate things) the underpainting helps me not to flood and muddy up an area. :)