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Still Life Underpainting and Glazing Technique

Posted on 21 Nov. 2018


For the past two weeks in my intro acrylics class at Emily Carr Continuing Studies, we have been working on a still life using the underpainting and glazing method.  During the first class, we worked from life and then took photos to use as references once the still life had been dismantled.  Here is the photo from my point of view.

Our first task was to complete an underpainting, which is a monochrome study of a subject (still life, landscape, etc…).  This means that we paint an entire composition in one colour.  We chose burnt sienna as our colour because this lends a warm tone to the entire painting once we glaze over it with multiple colours.  What? You mean we do one painting in one colour and then paint over it?  Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.  The reasons why we do an underpainting are threefold:

1.  An underpainting works out value relationships (what is light and what is dark) before we have to work out the even more complex colour relationships.  This ensures that we have good contrasts between lights and darks and it also begins to model form (value shifts help us to create three dimensional illusion in our two dimensional paintings). 

2.   It helps us to troubleshoot.  If you are anything like me, you never get your drawing or painting right the first time, or the second, or perhaps the third.  An underpainting is like a rough draft that you can keep correcting without having to redo the whole thing.  Basically, it acts as a study of your subject. 

3.  It lends depth to your finished painting.  Have you ever seen a painting that seems to glow from within?  Well, it’s not divine light that creates that effect; it is many layers of translucent colour that an artist has patiently applied over many hours, days or weeks.  I’ll tell you more about glazing further along. 

I used burnt sienna paint, water and glazing liquid to achieve different values.  My darkest value was expressed using burnt sienna straight out of the tube, my lighter values were achieved by “watering the paint down” using glazing liquid and water.  Glazing liquid is a medium (something you mix with acrylic paint to make it more translucent and easier to blend with). 

Here is an image of my underpainting. 

The first area that I began to work on was the skull, using a blend of titanium white (opaque), zinc white (translucent and warmer) along with some darker values (a mix of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and yellow ochre) to glaze over the shadow areas of the skull.

When I am glazing, I use very small pigment to glazing liquid ratio, maybe 1 part paint to 20 parts glazing liquid.  I need my paint to be really translucent so that part of the underpainting still shows through, while I am also starting to build gentle layers of colour over top of it. 

It is also important to note that glazing is a very lush, wet painting technique.  So when you are painting, you should feel smooth strokes, not dry-brushing.  In addition, using smooth bristle brushes (natural soft hair or synthetic) works best.  And finally, use wide brushes like flats or filberts where possible as they blend better.  You will find you get nastly little streaks if you try to blend with round (pointy) brushes. 

Here is an image of my progress on the skull so far.

I spent some time blending wet in wet with the skull and then felt it was time to move on to another part of the painting for the time being.  One of my golden rules of painting is to work on the whole painting in a sitting rather than perfecting one spot.  Why?  Because it ensures that the entire painting is working together stylistically, colour-wise and in terms of value contrasts. 

I felt that the middle of the flower area was a confusing mess.  I knew it was a mess when I did it the first time, but because an underpainting is part study, I did not expect to get it right on my first attempt.  Rather, I knew the importance of pushing through, trying to work quickly and knowing that mistakes can always be corrected.  The areas that needed the most work were around the middle flowers, they needed some kind of dark outline so that they would advance (move forward) in the picture plane. 

I still don't like it, surprise!  That's normal though.  A painting is a long process of taking many passes and correcting things here and there.  One important note, is that when I have to correct things, it means I have to paint over of the underpainting with opaque paint at times.  That's okay, because I can always glaze over that with translucent layers afterwards.  But if my underpainting was correct in the first place, I can just keep on glazing to my heart's content.  Basically, painting in this method means that you will be doing a combination of glazing and working with opaque paint. 

This is my progress so far, and as you can see it is far from finished.