Sunday, March 9, 2008

Warm Underpainting

Here’s a brief but important post for Color Sunday. If you prime your panels with a tint of venetian red or burnt sienna, you can get a good base for many kinds of paintings.


A warm underpainting is especially helpful for paintings of skies or foliage, or any painting with a blue or green tonality. The little bits of color that inevitably remain between your strokes will make blues or greens sparkle by complementary contrast.

An insistent warm underpainting also can act to force you to cover the background with opaques. This 6 by 4 inch painting of an elephant from the zoo is just partially finished. Normally I would cover the entire red-orange surface with opaque paint.

For plein air painting I use Gamblin oil priming, which I buy in a quart tin, and tint it using using a palette knife on a scrap of palette paper. A drop or two of cobalt drier will get the priming to set up overnight if you’re prepping for a painting trip.

For studio work I will more often prime with gesso tinted with acrylic, as this surface allows for a pencil preliminary drawing.

9 comments:

Victor said...

Do you know of any representational artists that used primary color grounds prior to 1900? I'm more used to seeing grays and earth tones, but I guess brighter colors can work, as you've shown.

Also, do oil-primed supports not work with pencil drawings?

jeff f said...

Wonderful cloud study James!

If you look at Rubens oil sketches you can see the earth tone he would put down first.

Whistler used earth red's, browns and blue tones for his landscapes.

I have used a violet/blue tone on landscapes it's very nice.

I prefer the earth red or raw umbra for landscape.

James Gurney said...

Victor, yes, lots of people have worked on a grey-brown toned board, but as Jeff said, the more reddish earth tones were not unusual among 19th century painters, especially American impressionists like William Merritt Chase.

And yes, the kind of oil priming I use for plein air studies is too shiny to take pencil, so I draw with the brush in the early stages of the painting.

OYO ! said...

ah, concisely put, helped me understand the use of an underpainting. (I was confused about how you could be so rigid with the underpainting colour when temperature relationships can vary so wildly).

Thanks :)

Charles Alexander said...

Don't oil colors become more transparent over time, eventually rendering a blue sky painted over a red-orange background neutral and dead? An atelier instructor mentioned that to me once when I was starting a landscape painting on a burnt sienna imprimatura. She advised that I instead do a wash-in of the subject's local colors in oils (a la Tony Ryder), then build the image section by section ("window-shade" painting, she called it). It seemed good advice.

Here's more about Ryder's method:

http://www.tonyryder.com/demo/index.htm

jeff f said...

Charles,
If you look at Whistler's or Chase' work you don't find any of the toned grounds bleeding through, unless they wanted it to.

I was at the MFA in Boston recently and they have a small oil sketch by Rubens and it looks like he painted it a week ago.

All the old masters used toned grounds because they painted transparent shadows to opaque lights. In some cases it seems to me that the value was close to a middle tone. In Ruben's you can see that he used a transparent wash to tone the support, so you get some of the white of the ground coming through. That is a very interesting way of toning a support instead of a complete opaque toned ground that you would find in a lot of 19 century paintings.

Today it seems that a fair amount use the white canvas or gessoed boards, I personally don't like this as you can't see what happens with white in relation to the other colors, it fights the harmonics of the picture.

If you look at any of the early self portraits of Rembrandt you can clearly see the transparent shadow moving into the thicker impasto of the lights.

You see this a lot in painting up to the late 17th century and into the 18th century. In the 19th century this changed and the shadows became less transparent.

gator said...

james,

you must have hundreds of these studies, and they are awsome. any chance we will see any of these for sale? i would love to own a james gurney orginal art work. and if you have so many simple studies maybe you could put a few up for sale and give us your fans a chance to win/buy/bid

come on dude...dont be greedy! haha!

gator said...

james,

you must have hundreds of these studies, and they are awsome. any chance we will see any of these for sale? i would love to own a james gurney orginal art work. and if you have so many simple studies maybe you could put a few up for sale and give us your fans a chance to win/buy/bid

come on dude...dont be greedy! haha!

Scott said...

One simple tip I was taught long ago is to use an opposing temperature for your ground. So, a cool ground for a warm painting and a warm ground for a cool one like a sky(as James pointed out in the first image). I've found it works very well.

I also suggest trying to vary your grounds. Give grey, blue, ochre, burnt sienna or even a more intense colors like French Ultramarine or cad red a shot.