Underpainting advice

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Many years ago, in an effort to improve the value structure of my paintings, I started blocking-in many of my paintings monochromatically. I used raw or burnt umber, without white, for the under-painting. By concentrating only on value – the light to dark patterns of the painting – I quickly discovered it was an excellent way to work. Eliminating color from the equation greatly simplified the painting process and ultimately, when done correctly, insured that a stronger painting would result.

Monochromatic under-painting using Raw Umber only, no white. Concentrating only on value makes it easier to create interesting and varied patterns. This is the stage where the mood of the painting is established.

“Brisk Evening” – Matching the values of the under-painting, color is applied.


Wanting to make sure that the color and process I was using were trustworthy, I wrote Gamblin, creator of artist’s paints, to seek their advice or confirmation. Here is their response which you’ll find very helpful.

Dear John,

Thank you for your questions.

Raw Umber is a great choice for under-painting. It is a very lean color and fits well into the Fat over Lean concept. Burnt Umber has a much higher oil (fat) content, and therefore may not be the best choice for the first layer of a painting. Below are some tips for creating permanent paintings as well as a list of our oil paint and their oil content.

Tips for Creating Permanent Paintings:

  • Paint on a rigid, rather than flexible supports. Once paint layers are dry, they do not want to move. Painting on rigid supports will make for a more secure painting structure and resist cracking.
  • Create a simple painting structure with as few paint layers as possible. Paint failures tend to occur between paint layers. The simpler the painting structure, the more permanent it will be.
  • Keep the “Fat Over Lean” principle in mind while building the painting structure. Manage the ratio of solvents and painting mediums that are included in paint layers so they increasingly become more flexible, and less likely to crack over time.
  • Prepare your painting support with a high quality ground. Painting grounds should have a balanced level of absorbency and an adequate amount of tooth to ensure proper adhesion of paint layers.
  • Use the “oiling out” technique, rather than retouch varnish within the painting structure. “Oiling out” effectively evens out the surface quality and saturates colors while bonding permanently to paint layers.
  • Use an easily removable final picture varnish. Varnishes that can be removed with mild solvents will pose less risk to damaging paint layers underneath.
  • Use only those oil colors labeled with ASTM Lightfastness ratings of I &II. This will ensure that your colors do not change over time.
  • Do not roll paintings done on flexible supports.
  • Extend oil colors with a mixture of solvent and binder, rather than solvent alone. Thinning with only solvent will make oil colors too “lean” which may prevent proper adhesion and permanence of paint layers.

Gamblin lists the oil content of the following colors:

High Oil Content: Alizarin Crimson, Alizarin Permanent, Asphaltum, Burnt Umber, Hansa Yellow Light/Medium/Deep, Indian Yellow, Ivory Black, Perylene Red, Transparent Earths: Yellow/Orange/Red, Transparent Orange, Viridian.

Moderate Oil Content: Burnt Sienna, Dioxazine Purple, Indanthrone Blue, Mono Orange, Napthol Red/Scarlet, Olive Green, Permanent Green Light, Phthalo Blue/Green/Emerald/Turquoise, Quinacridone Magenta/Red/Violet, Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue/Violet, Yellow Ochre.

Low Oil Content: Cadmium Green/Orange/Orange Deep/Yellow Light/Yellow Medium/Yellow Deep/Red Light/Red Medium/Red Deep, Caucasian Flesh Tone, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue/Green/Violet, Indian Red, Manganese Blue Hue/Violet, Mars Black, All Portland Greys, Prussian Blue, Raw Sienna, Venetian Red, All Gamblin Whites.

Another block-in or under-painting technique I learned from Joe Paquet is to use a mixture of Cobalt Blue and Ivory Black. Vary the value of the mixture by adding white and just paint the shadow patterns. As you notice above, Ivory Black has a high oil content while Cobalt Blue has low. The two mixed together put the mixture in the moderate group along with Raw Umber. This is a very effective way to block-in a painting.

…and the end result: “Creating Memories” – 16″ x 27″ – Oil


If we merely consider oil content when selecting an under-painting color, then, from the list above we have lots of options…not just the one’s I use.

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I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest teaching video and book. The video and accompanying book, shown here, along with my first video, “Limited Palette Landscape”, include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)

For those that have purchased the book, I invite you to join our new Facebook Group – “Limited Palette Unlimited Color”. If you qualify, I hope you’ll join us. Check us out on Facebook. HERE is the link.


John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master. To view his art and bio, please click HERE.


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