Value and Tone in Underpainting

Underpainting is a technique used to facilitate the creation of a painting, and it has been around for hundreds of years.

Rembrandt, who often used it to develop paintings, is one artist who was particularly famous for being very skilled at underpainting.

Essentially, underpainting is an initial layer of paint that goes on the canvas and is used only as a way to develop form and color values in the painting.

It is intended to be completely covered up with different paint in the subsequent layers and shouldn’t be seen once the painting is completed. It’s a way to map out your painting before you truly start it. Underpainting is a valuable and extremely helpful technique, yet is not often used by today’s artists.

Underpainting helps the artist develop forms on the canvas, but more importantly, it helps develop tone. Tone, also known as value, is a tremendously important part of any painting. Simply put, tone is how light or dark a color is.

It’s taking one color and mixing it with only white and black to make new shades. Paintings are not just about different hues, or varieties of color, although that is of course a big component. They’re also about the balance between light and dark, something that gives a painting a greater sense of depth and can make or break the accurateness of your depiction.

A skilled painter may be able to use just one type of blue in different tones (only adding white and black to it) to make the most realistic picture of an ocean you’ve ever seen. It’s all about tone.

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When working with an unlimited amount of colors, it becomes much more difficult to finely balance your work. Underpainting bypasses this difficulty by allowing you to forget about color for a moment.

So when you seat yourself in front of a blank canvas, consider first making a rough draft of color value or tone with your underpainting. Take just one color (artists recommend fast-drying oils like burnt sienna or burnt umber) and think about tones.

Remember not to use an oily paint; the bottom layers of your painting should always be less oily than the top (the fat over lean rule), so that the bottom layers will dry before the top layers and stop the painting from cracking.

As in any case, if you make mistakes during oil painting, scrape off the paint or use some turpentine to thin it, and begin again. You should be more relaxed in the underpainting stage. Everything will be covered up eventually. And by using just one (or maybe two hues in this stage), you can focus on getting the right value or tone in the underpainting stage first, and worry about color later.

Don’t try to make a perfect monochrome version of the painting; just focus on the big picture, and work out any problems before they arise when you start using color.

In conclusion, cutting back the number of hues but still being able to use a variety of tones allows you to easily map out how you want your painting to be lit. Any painter who doesn’t currently begin a project with an underpainting stage should consider it.

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