Underpainting in Art to Create Mood

Applying a colored ground onto a painting is a good way of bringing out the overlying color’s characteristics. The most common practice is to use an earth color, but any color can be used for the underpainting – otherwise known as an imprimatura, whether it is oils, acrylics or alkyds.

Art Practice to Bring out Tones of Colors

Apply any color, regardless of how pale onto a white background and the color will appear darker than it actually is. Some colors will appear bright because the surrounding art surface is lacking in color. Painting onto a white primed canvas can be off-putting as the first mark appears to have great significance. The artist will also find it difficult to judge a given color’s tonal value or to set the mood of the painting. For this reason, an imprimatura, or underglaze will come in useful. An imprimatura is a layer of underpaint or underglaze onto which the painting may be applied.

Traditional Underpainting in Art

A good way of killing the whiteness of the art surface is to apply a thin glaze of acrylic, oil or alkyd. Oil paint can be applied onto any of these art mediums so long as this glaze is dry (but acrylic can only be applied onto acrylic). The most traditional color for the underpaint is an earth color or grey. This might comprise burnt sienna, burnt umber or a mixture of an earth color and blue, such as ultramarine. It does not matter if the underpaint forms an even, flawless layer, as it will be painted over.

Under glaze for Oils and Acrylics

A preliminary drawing may be applied on top of the underglaze in chalk pastel, or as a thicker layer of paint via a fine sable. Either will show beneath (or above) the underpaint. Some artists prefer to work onto the underglaze without any drawing. Applying paint onto a neutral-colored art surface has many advantages as the true tonal value of colors are revealed; pale yellow appears pale, dark blue appears dark and white can be discerned against the background.

Creating Mood in Painting

Any color can be used for the underglaze. Apply a thin layer of cadmium red and burnt umber for a warm, smoldering imprimatura, ideal for snow scenes, greenery or any subject matter than features predominantly blue colors. The cool colors will appear to shimmer against the warm color, as can be seen in the painting in progress of an apple tree.


Sizzling Colors in Art
Similarly, a blue-colored underglaze will create interesting contrasts against the overlying colors that are predominantly warm, such as a sunset. A yellow underglaze will off-set violet hues, such as those found at the base of thunderstorms. Regardless of the color-temperature of the underglaze, this undercurrent will affect the appearance of the overlying colors in the painting, no matter how subtle. A snow scene will have a warmth about it; a sunset will appear to shimmer against the cool colors that poke through the brush marks.

Types of Underpainting in Art

Paint can also be applied upon an underglaze that is similar in hue to the overlying paint in order to create harmony in the painting. Warm colors can be applied onto a maroon underglaze, or a sky sketch applied onto a violet underglaze. Setting the mood can often be determined by the color used for the underglaze and the height of contrasts within.

How to Apply an Underglaze

An underglaze is easy to apply. If using acrylic paints, simply mix the required color with a little pigment diluted in water. Ensure there is ample amount of the glaze mixture to cover the art surface. Lay the surface flat and apply in large, sweeping strokes via a wide household brush. An oil glaze can be applied by thinning the paint with a little linseed oil and artist spirit of equal measure. Allow the glaze to dry before embarking the painting.

Making the Painting Glow

A thin paint layer will permit the underlying white to show through, which will make the glaze appear to glow. A more opaque glaze will cover up this whiteness, and so will kill the effect. If wanting to retain this glow, avoid using titanium white within the underglaze color mix; add extra thinning agent to any opaque pigment such as cadmium red, cobalt blue or burnt umber. Pigments that are translucent or semi-translucent in nature include: burnt sienna, ultramarine, pthalo blue, permanent rose and viridian. I personally like my underglazes to glow, adding vibrancy to the overlying paint.
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