What is Underpainting in Oil Painting?

Underpainting with Oils: Why You Need to Do It

Sometimes when starting a new oil painting, nothing can be more intimidating than a big white blank canvas staring you down. Each paint squeezed out on your palette looking more vibrant, vivid and intimidating. If you’re the type of person who see’s that blank canvas and it terrifies you, then maybe underpainting might be just what you need!

Underpainting refers to the initial layer of paint applied to a canvas or surface before adding subsequent layers. It serves as a foundation for the final painting, establishing the overall composition, tonal values, and color scheme

Underpainting: Why You Need to Do It
Underpainting: Why You Need to Do It Underpainting and Finished Worked, Evening Flight by Jan Blencowe 

What Is Underpainting?

First layer of paint applied to a stretched canvas or board, and it functions as a base for other layers of paint. It acts as a foundation for your painting and is a great way to start your painting off with some built-in contrast and tonal values. It’s a technique that was widely used by the old masters as a way to develop a plan for future color placement and to establish certain values and tones within a painting’s color palette. 

What Can Underpainting Achieve?

An underpainting in oils, if used correctly, is a great way to unite color values in the overall painting and add a subjective color key to the painting that will create a tonal dominance.

It helps establish the overall composition and values, providing a roadmap for subsequent layers. It also enhances the luminosity and vibrancy of colors by allowing them to interact with the underlying layers. Additionally, underpainting can help create a sense of unity and harmony throughout the painting by establishing a consistent color scheme.

Underpainting is simple, but can have major effects on the rest of the painting. It can invigorate areas of the painting that are mundane or uniform, like a sky or rolling field, and it can even act as a baseline of how the painting feels. For example:

  • A blue-toned underpainting can make a painting feel cold, even if something is red like a barn in wintertime against a white, snowy backdrop. 
  • A yellow-toned underpainting is great for a swamp or desert scene, because it makes painting seem like it takes place in a hot climate.
  • Some purples are great for warm layers that get painted later on, or for making shadows


1. Tonal Grounds Under-Painting

This type of underpainting covers the entire canvas in a single transparent color. The layer creates backlighting shadows that will tone the entire painting and provide contrast for complimentary colors.


Tonal Grounds Under-Painting

(Perfect for contrasting complementary colors.  It makes the painting to appear warmer)

2. A Tonal Under-Painting

In tonal under-painting, you still use just one color to cover your canvas.  However, for this method, you can leave certain areas unpainted to let some white canvas stick through. Map out where you want the darker and lighter areas. As you apply more colors when you start your “real” painting, the white canvas will shine through even greater more and appear much brighter. As a whole, this technique results in brighter top colors and a head start on developing subjects in your painting.


A Tonal Under-Painting

(In this underpainting, values are added and the designs for the painting are being mapped out)

Side Note: You can also color in your areas with different local colors instead of leaving the canvas blank. This type of color blocking can make the composition seem a bit edgier or dramatic even when you paint over it with complementary colors later on. It will also take away that blank white canvas space.

Underpainting Tips:

When attempting an underpainting, one of the best ways to start is by thinning your paint with a solvent which will thin the pigment.

Use a lean paint mixture: For the underpainting layer, it’s generally recommended to use a lean mixture of paint, which means mixing your oil paints with a solvent like odorless mineral spirits or turpentine. This lean mixture helps the paint dry more quickly, allowing you to proceed with subsequent layers sooner.

This will allow it to lift off a bit and blend in with later layers of paint as you continue with your  highlighting.

We suggest using StudioSolv™ Odorless Oil Thinning Medium with oil paints. Other thinning mediums can help as well, but need to be applied lightly or you risk the outer layers cracking and peeling as time goes on. 

StudioSolv™ Odorless Mineral Spirits
StudioSolv™ Odorless Oil Thinning Medium

Consider using a complementary color underpainting: Instead of using a monochrome underpainting, you can opt for a complementary color underpainting. This involves using colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, if your final painting will have predominantly warm colors, you can use a cool complementary color, like a blue or green, for the underpainting. This can create interesting color harmonies and add vibrancy to your final work.

Keep your brushwork loose: Similar to the general underpainting tips, it’s beneficial to keep your brushwork loose and gestural during the oil underpainting stage. Avoid getting too caught up in details and focus on establishing the overall shapes, forms, and values.

Allow for drying time: Oil paints take longer to dry compared to other mediums, so be patient and allow each layer to fully dry before adding subsequent layers. This will prevent the colors from blending or smudging unintentionally.

Underpainting is a great way to grow as a painter. It allows you to learn without having the overbearing presence of a stark white canvas in front of you making each first stroke of color seem more important and final than it really is.

Overall, underpainting is a versatile technique that allows artists to build their paintings layer by layer, gradually refining and adding detail to achieve their desired result. This simple technique can add a world of depth and value to your work that and change the way you see color and tonal values. 

For safer alternatives you can use water-mixable oil paints

Lukas Berlin Water-Mixable Oils for Underpainting

LUKAS Berlin Water Mixable Oil Paints

Water-soluble oil paints provide Solvent-free painting while still offering b– Buttery, full-bodied color. This type of paint can be mixed or thinned directly with water to produce the same effects as other oil paints would with more toxic solvents like turpentine or mineral spirits.

The paint you choose is also important in underpainting. Poor underpainting can make the overall painting appear muddy. A paint that mixes well and has a great high pigment load really makes a difference. LUKAS 1862 Oil Paints are perfect for mixing, and they also layer terrifically. However, if you’re new to painting and are just trying things out, SoHo Urban Artist Oil Colors might fit your budget a bit better and you will still get a great quality paint  that works well for mixing and layering.

More Resources and Articles

  1. The Best Oil Paints
  2. Synthetic vs. Natural Brushes for Oil Painting
  3. Creating a Lean Underpainting for Your Oil Painting
  4. Fat Over Lean For Oil Painting
  5. 5 Pro Tricks for the Beginning Oil Painter
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