Since the last century, artists have begun their paintings directly on white canvases with full colour. The practice of underpainting is rarely used today and the logic behind it is not always understood.  Why should we bother to create an underpainting only to paint over it later in full colour?

Underpainting is a monochrome or low-key version of the final painting. You can think of it as a blueprint of the final version. It serves several purposes:

  1. It fixes the main compositional elements.
  2. It serves as a tonal guide to the subsequent application of colour.
  3. It allows one to paint with thin paint, particularly in the shadows.

There are several ways to create an underpainting but the three most popular are Verdaccio, Grisaille, and Bistre.

Verdaccio uses a greenish grey underpainting. This method was favored by the early Italian, egg-tempera,  fresco painters.  It is very well suited for portrait and figurative work as the pink skin tones that were thinly glazed on top would be balanced by the green (their compliment).  A greenish grey can be made using Terra Verte or a mixture of Chromium Oxide Green and Mars Black.

Wessel then glazes pink onto the Verdaccio to create flesh tones.

Grisaille–  A french method favored by artists like Ingres and Sargent. This opaque underpainting method is a monochromatic layer using a neutral grey mixture (usually 1 part raw umber, 1 part ivory black) but unlike the Verdaccio, they put white in their shadows. They then built up their paintings using thin glazes of colour.

This is an unfinished repetition of the celebrated Grande Odalisque of 1814 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). You can see that Ingres began to glaze over one of the curtain panels on the right side.

Another version by Ingres showing the glazing in colour.

Another version by Ingres showing the glazing in colour.

Bistre (the wipe-out method) – An underpainting using warm browns (usually raw umber or burnt umber) A thin wash of Raw umber is painted over the white canvas and then ‘wiped out’ to create a tonal underpainting. The shadows are built up using thin colour allowing the warmth of the brown to show through while the lights and mid-tones  are applied as opaque colour. You can also use burnt umber for an even warmer, darker underpainting.

The Bistre method lends itself very well to chiaroscuro (high contrast between light and dark). The French symbolist painter Eugène Carrière  used this bistre underpainting as his final stage with he exception of some opaque lights.

See this link on how to create a wipe-out underpainting in raw umber:


Glazing: A thin layer of transparent colour placed over a lighter opaque colour.

3 thoughts on “Underpainting

  1. Hello, I found your essay on Underpainting useful. I had read previously of the green Underpainting before but I wasn’t sure which green to use. Trial and error and experimenting
    Is the way I learn. I was wondering though why you did not mention the Indian red and raw umber type of Underpainting ? I have read that this was the preferred method of some of the great portrait painters. I have been using it in my portraits. What do you think?

    • Hi Michael,
      The Indian Red or Raw umber underpainting falls into the bistre method- using a warm drying earth tone. I think this was the preferred choice for portrait painters because of the fast drying qualities of earth tones. I personally always use a raw umber underpainting or sometimes a burnt umber if I need it to go darker or warmer.


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