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:
- It fixes the main compositional elements.
- It serves as a tonal guide to the subsequent application of colour.
- 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.
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.
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.