Underneath an Oil Painting – Different Underpainting Techniques

Posted by on Oct 9, 2015 in Opinion, Tutorials | 7 comments

Hey guys! I wanted to create a fun blog post going over a few of the different underpainting techniques I have tried over the years – their results and which I like the best! There are quite a few different routes you can take when you want to tackle an underpainting, even if it means not painting one at all.

Creating an underpaintings is useful for determining values, creating a solid base, and also helping to create luminosity if applied correctly. As a self taught artist myself – I soak up a lot of the information around me and experiment with it. I am not saying I am an expert or a master but for those who are new or intrigued to the practice of using an underpainting read on!


1) Tonal/Grisaille Underpainting


grisaille, underpainting, adding color, oil, artwork

I am goingΒ  to use a few example from work I created during my solo show πŸ™‚ I actually used several different techniques over the 8 months I worked on that collection of paintings. The first was a brownish underpainting, one layer in acrylic then in oils and then! Color on top. Needless to say this route takes a really long time. I want to make a special note that I think it is much easier using a Raw Umber-like color mixed into the black and white underpainting.

I have also done pure grisaille underpaintings which were just black and white and nothing else and I felt like the greyness of the underpainting dulled the colors on top. Now this is most certainly due to some mistake of mine, so it is just a cautionary for yourself.

Adding Raw Umber, English Rose, Burnt Sienna or another warm brownish color to the mix really does help keep the colors bright in my opinion. It is what I did in the picture above!

I created this underpainting with lots of detail, it was like a near complete painting which sat underneath the color on top. You could create it much looser and use more opaque painting on top to create defined shapes.

Pros: Makes painting color on top much simpler as 90% of the details are in place. Gives a good map of the values you want in the painting.

Cons: Takes a long time to create/dry.


2. Pigment & Turpentine


turpentine underpainting oil paints christina ridgeway plantiebee


The next underpainting technique which I have tried is using another reddish brown color and black paint watered down with turpentine to create a very loose sketch. I learned this technique from Scott Waddell, who is an amazzziiinng realistic painter. I bought one of his instructional videos and he uses this technique (though admittedly when he does it it looks a lot prettier πŸ˜› ) for all his portraits. Now, it does work a lot differently on masonite board than it does canvas. Above I painted this on masonite board where it doesn’t soak in or latch on the same way and drips and is runny – but it works!

This created a really nice warm underpainting for many of my solo show pieces. Paint which went on top was not as opaque as it was with the full on acrylic & oils underpainting above but it dries super fast, within a few hours, so you can go ahead and add color on top of it in the same day.

Pros: Dries very fast. Can be as loose as you want, making it a fast process. Creates decent base.

Cons: Drippy, messy. Doesn’t cover the board as thickly so paint on top isn’t as opaque, more layers.

*Note* I have also tried this same combination but with white. Didn’t like it as much but it does create a more opaque underpainting.


3. No Underpainting At All!


no underpainting, straight oil paint, christina ridgeway, plantiebee


I also have just said screw it and just started painting straight on the board πŸ˜› Did it necessarily save me time? No, not in this particular case. Did it feel like I could just get to it a lot faster? Yeah of course. I was under a lot of time pressure when I made this piece and I didn’t want to go all gung ho on the underpainting and hey – I think it turned out very nicely anyway. A lot of the values and so forth which are usually determined in the underpainting just have to be built up otherwise. Your underpainting essentially becomes the first layer of color which you leave to dry and add layers on top.

Pros: Could potentially save time, at least initially.

Cons: Will require more paint. No values mapped out. Just winging it πŸ˜‰


Conclusion – I think no matter what kind of underpainting you choose you can still create a cohesive body of work. There are pros and cons to each and I would recommend you experiment yourself and see what works best for you and your art!

I personally like the watered down pigments the best as I am often working on a deadline and want to get things mapped out asap. For others, especially hyper realistic painters, the full on grisaille is definitely their weapon of choice! Pay attention to how your favorite artists begin their paintings and don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is how we all learn, grow and expand!

What is your favorite underpainting technique? Do you have another which you think works really well?

Thanks for reading guys, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!




  1. Christina, thank you for this great post! I for one have been away from painting since 1996 which seems like eons ago, and this past year I have been trying to remember what I used to know lol. I love all these methods you talk about but my personal favorite is the grisaille. I had forgotten the exact steps, only to use the black and white as a start, and man is it hard to find out what to do after that on the internet. I saw a video just the other day that brought it all together for me to once you have the grisaille underpainting, do a glaze of color, then the opaque layer starting with the darkest colors working into the light.
    But thank you for your tip to mix in some raw umber into the underpainting mix. That’s a great tip that I would like to try out.
    You are right that this method take a lot of time and patience. That is definitely one of my faults, I have zero patience! I am really trying to take my time and not rush, that was a major fail of mine this past year…
    Sorry for the babble, thank you again! Your work is amazing and I really admire your talent! Your work is inspiring!

    • Hi Regina! I understand how you feel, when I started making art again in 2011 it had been several years since I really made any art. It is like retraining a muscle! Yes, it is incredibly difficult to find information online about adding color onto a grisaille painting. I made a blog post about the initial steps I take (glazing on the first color layers) but the opaque paint and all that… I finally figured that out through youtube videos as well back in 2013 lol.
      Yeah, I should try and have a little more patience too! It is such a great technique when done with care. Let me know how you like painting with a bit of raw umber thrown into the mix! Thank you for all of your kind words and have a great time getting back into art :D!

      • Thank you so much for your reply πŸ™‚ It’s good to hear that I’m not the only one who returns to art after a long hiatus! I will definitely let you know how I do with the raw umber added. And thank you for pointing me towards your other blog about glazing. It clicked in my brain when I saw your tip about using an old t-shirt (flashbacks of my oil painting teacher giving us scraps of shirt). That is a great tip, so happy that you shared that too. The streaks the brush cause have been driving me crazy when glazing! Thanks again πŸ™‚ All the best to you!! πŸ™‚

  2. I like doing a tonal underpainting. I usually loosly sketch everything in chalk and begin with a burnt umber underpainting. I then add layers and build up. I am self taught as well, and I hardly ever do a preliminary sketch. Not sure if that would help me achieve better balance. Do you spend a lot of time on setting up the painting? I usually just see it in my head.

    • Hi ChaosandOrder! I do and I don’t πŸ˜‰ It really depends. For the solo show pieces however I had a concept sketch, a model sketch, a digital composition (so I could move background elements around, size them etc…) and then I transferred the final mash up onto the board. But everyone has their own style and their own method. A lot of people swear by a solid pre-painting sketch. Others I know do what you do – loose sketch on the board and go!
      When you do the burnt umber underpainting is that just pure burnt umber or do you add other colors into it? πŸ™‚

      • Usually don’t add other colors. I do dilute it with a medium like linseed oil or liquin. Sometimes I do use a different color all together. I’ve used raw sienna, terre verte, and burnt sienna for different effects. Usually in dogs because of undercoat colors. I didn’t think about it, but I do make digital compositions sometimes for background elements and such. I remember reading somewhere, where Leonardo Da Vinci spoke about trying to find the perfect faces and elements for some of his works. He would walk around for weeks hoping to come across that thing that would just fit for his painting. Oh how he would have loved the days of Google. I can spend so much time “researching” the perfect elements. I love when it all just coalesces so nicely.

        • Yes, exactly ^_^ I don’t know what I would do without Google half the time for sure. Vital part of the process πŸ˜‰

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