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The Importance of Under Painting

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

With all my years of teaching and painting experience, there still remains a fascination for the use of under painting. By under painting I mean the initial ‘wash’ of oil paint ( paint thinned to a watery consistency with pure turpentine) over the whole surface of the canvas. Regardless of the style of painting, whether it be realism, impressionism or abstraction under painting still has an effect on the end result of the painting.

Finding the under painting. To explore the use of under painting we need to examine close up a completed original painting. See if you can work out which of the layers are the under painting and which strokes are secondary and tertiary strokes.

Most likely you will discover there is a fine distinction between the layers of strokes and that each stroke sits partially over the top of the previous stroke leaving some of the under painting exposed.. but more importantly the under painting has a transparent quality. Sometimes the under painting is one colour giving a sense of unity to the painting and at other times various colours break up the painting but generally it is transparent and the texture of the canvas can be seen.

How does under painting effect the the finished painting?

Basically it creates depth in a very subtle and fascinating way. When the finished painting displays a considerable amount of under painting, the brush strokes on top of it seem to be floating giving a magical quality and depth to the work. It is not particularly necessary to build thick impasto paint with the secondary and tertiary brush strokes to create this as long as some of the under painting is showing.

Even when the second layer of paint is applied using another “wash’ or glaze(small amount of paint mixed with oil medium) and leaving some under painting there is still considerable dimension to the work.

Comparing different amounts of under painting for different effects.

To appreciate the use of under painting I have selected three paintings that show different use of under painting. Georges Seurat’s painting sketch, Study for a Bathing Place at Asnieres, makes use of under painting to depict the water contrasting with the more solid and less use of the under painting for the land mass.

Study for a Bathing Place at Asnieres, 1883 – Georges Seurat

Odilon Redon, Closed Eyes Demonstrates the subtle use of the canvas and under painting to express a dreamlike floating image.

Les Yeux Clos (Closed Eyes) -1890 Odilon Redon

Claude Monet’s Port Gaulphar, on first impressions seems to do away with the under painting but looking closer we can see very subtle use of under painting creating a sculptural robust quality to the work.

Coming into Port Goulphar, Belle-Ile,1886 – Monet

Hope you enjoy these small insights which can give you big results and empower you with choices in your painting practice. Play with this one and see where it takes you.

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