The Magic of Underpainting: part one

• Portrait of William Wilberforce, Thomas Lawrence, 1828, National Portrait Gallery, London.

The topic of underpainting was explored by de Laszlo scholar Leonore Carron-Desrosiers in an evening lecture at the Studios. Here is part one of her blog, with two to follow.

Modern artists often overlook underpainting in their practice: they can be perceived as a thing of the past, academic and time-consuming. But there’s a reason they played such an important role in many old masters and famous artists’ techniques.

Underpaintings, also called “dead colouring”, can be defined as a monochrome or low chroma version of the final painting, which the artist will then paint over with a full colour palette. An underpainting functions as a “tonal map”: because of its monochrome nature, it allows the artist to focus on values at the preliminary stage and to only engage with chroma later in the painting process. Underpaintings also allow artists to finalise complex compositions early on and to avoid having to make significant changes when the painting is already at an advanced stage. German artist Joachim Sandrart (1608-1688) thus recommended to “examine” the underpainting and to ”correct errors still to be found”.

Underpaintings became a prevalent technique in European painting from the late 14th century until the Impressionist movement. In 17th century studios, for example, executing underpaintings was a formal part of an artist’s training: students would often prepare the paintings up to the underpainting stage and the master would then paint over and complete the work. Most underpaintings were traditionally executed using “earthy” pigments because they were both cheaper and did not chromatically overwhelm the eye. However, underpainting techniques varied greatly over time and countries, both in terms of drawing and chroma.

Chalk underdrawing

One type of underpainting was the chalk underdrawing. Certain artists, such as Thomas Lawrence, would complete a detailed drawing using charcoal, white chalk, and even some sanguine, before painting over the drawing in oil. Allan Cunningham, an early biographer of Thomas Lawrence, explained that: “his constant practice was to begin by making a drawing of the head full size on canvass; carefully tracing dimensions and expression. This took up one day”. Lawrence would therefore spend significant time on the underdrawing: a whole day when he would only take 8 to 9 sitting, on average, to complete a portrait commission.

William Sotheby, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, chalk on canvas, feigned oval, c. 1807

Lawrence would only begin to paint on the second sitting. Joseph Farrington who sat for Lawrence in 1794 recalled that: “he drew in my portrait with black chalk on the canvass, which employed him near 2 hours. He did not use colour today. This is his mode of beginning.” Lawrence’s pupil, Thomas Sully, described Lawrence’s process in more detail: “He often made careful drawings in black chalk, heightened the lights with white chalk, would sometimes add a few touches of red, and even tint the eyes and hair the proper colour – and over the preparation make his dead color!”

In a letter of advice to Lord Malden, in 1790, Lawrence makes a compelling case for underpaintings and explains that they fulfil a psychological purpose by allowing the artist to spend more time analysing the shapes of the composition and familiarising their mind with their subject before delving in with colour: “I should think it always better that the picture, whatever it is, be first accurately drawn on the canvas, because tho’ it may be afterwards effaced by the colours yet it seems to impress the object on the memory & the mind naturally follows the path it has trod in before”.

Portrait of William Wilberforce, Thomas Lawrence, 1828, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Brunaille – Raw Umber underpainting

Perhaps the most common type of underpainting was to execute a monochrome painting using raw umber. This was the most common pigment for underpaintings by virtue of being cheap, stable and transparent. It dries quickly and creates a matt finish which is easy to paint over.

Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata), Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500-1505, Oil, earth, and white leaf pigments on poplar, Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Parma

Artists sometimes deepened the raw umber with black to increase the contrast or neutralize the warmth of raw umber. Leonardo da Vinci’s La Scapigliata, dated around 1500-1505, gives a good example of a brunaille underpainting where the artist stopped before the colour stage and instead added white leaf pigments to create a more “finished” impression with highlights.

Vermeer is also believed to have used raw umber or a mixture of raw umber and black for his underpaintings, thereby focusing on light and shadows. Some of Vermeer’s underpaintings still shine through in the final works: take, for instance, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669. At the bottom right corner of the painting, we can distinguish a scroll of parchment in the background.  Behind and around the parchment, the shadows are a part of the raw umber underpainting that Vermeer left untouched.

Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669, Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Grisaille underpainting

An alternative underpainting technique is grisaille. Initially popular for the outside shutters of polyptychs in Northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, grisaille is now more often associated with 19th century French painters such as Ingres.

Grisaille works through tonal variations achieved by mixing white into the black (rather than by diluting or scrumbling). It creates an underlayer which imparts a luminous effect to the painting by glazing colours over the grisaille.

Verdaccio or Verdaille underpainting

Verdaccio is an underpainting technique which originates with the Italian fresco painters of the early Renaissance. The characteristic tint was traditionally created by mixing Mars Black and Yellow Ochre, thereby creating a soft greenish-grey for the shadows of the flesh tones. The underlying green hue works dynamically with the warm tones of the subsequent layers by “bringing down” some of the intensity of the oranges and reds, which might otherwise look too bright or chromatic on their own.

The Manchester Madonna, unfinished painting by Michelangelo, 1497, National Gallery, London

As early as 1390, Cennio Cennini in his treatise on painting Il libro dell’ Arte o Trattato della Pitture recorded how to use verdaccio: “Make a sharp brush of fine soft bristles (…) and with this brush indicate with proper expression the face you are going to paint (remembering that the face is divided in three parts, namely the forehead, the nose, and the chin, with the mouth), and with your brush nearly dry, put on this colour, little by little, which is called in Florence verdaccio, and in Sinea Bazzeo. When you have sketched out the form of the face, if the proportions or any other thing should displease you, with a large brush steeped in water, by rubbing over the intonaco, you can efface and repair what you have done.

Perhaps, over six centuries later, we should still listen to Cennini’s advice and slow down at the start of a painting to spend time on our underpainting, correcting the drawing and establishing the correct composition and tonal map.