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Making an Underpainting Work For You!

I don't often use under paintings as I am an alla prima painter (all at once) and tend to move quickly through the composition. This is from years of painting en plein air where you need to be quick to catch the light. When I use an under painting, it's because I am building up layers.

In pastel, you need an underpainting when you are creating something multileveled or textured, for example, a garden. In this scene, which is a painting I will demonstrate live to my "Pastels in the Garden" online class that starts Weds. May 4th, you can see that there are several layers of leaves and greens. The lighting is overcast so it diffuses the greens and eliminates cast shadows.

I shot this photo in Blowing Rock NC at a plein air event. note the layers of greens.

I decided to simplify this reference by eliminating the garbage can, and focusing more on the delicious negative space shapes in the bush on the left. Its an excellent study in textures and Impressionism. I made a value sketch focusing on the important darks, and made some notes in the margin to remind myself of what really speaks to me about the composition.

While this may look like a mess to me, it looks like a map. It shows me where I need to start. My darkest darks and lightest lights. I also had a moment to really study the photo and figure out the composition. Now I have a plan!

Next, I use really large blocks of color to lay in the under painting-keeping it very abstract and basing it on the value sketch.

This is just rough block in and you can see the tooth of the board through the pastel. I need to dissolve the pastel down into the tooth to really get a solid foundation on color for the first layer. I use a large brush and 70% rubbing alcohol (the higher the alcohol content the quicker it dries!)

Now the color is laid in deep, and the tooth of the board is open to receiving more pastel layers. This is key-if you've ever worked on a paper that fills up quickly, you know how frustrating it can be to try to add more color. Blending or dissolving the color pushes it down and clears the tooth.

While my surface is drying (alcohol takes about 10 mins) that gives me enough time to do a quick color study to lay out my palette. I see that the primary colors will be reds and greens. On that basis, I lay out true red, warmer & cooler versions for the flowers and the pavement, and true green, with warmer & cooler versions for the leaves and sunlit yard. I also choose a few harder pastels for the wrought iron gate. This little color sketch took about 10 mins. and helped me pre-select all the colors I'll be using for the painting. This saves a great deal of painting time usually wasted looking for that perfect color!

Now I start laying in the greens with the light lawn colors first, along with the darks in the hibiscus on the right. Mark-making is important here. Lots of small makes in the general direction of the leaves. I lay in color on top of color using the Daubing application method.

Once I've built up the darks, I add the cool light greens on top of the darks. Now I've filled in the tooth again and covered the entire surface with little strokes of broken color.

Now I need to lift up some of the color where the flowers will be. The flowers are very light and pinkish. If I painted right on top of the greens, then the pink would mix with the green instead of being in sharp contrast. I use a stiff brush to "erase" the shape of the flower out of the background.

I also use the harder pastels to add the wrought iron gate. I'm careful here, measuring and using a straight edge to get the lines strong. Then I reinforce the lines with cooler/warmer color to show the light on the gate.

Now I add the flowers, keeping the shape of each flower in mind. Since the hibiscus are in the front of this gate, I keep them in sharp contrast to the background greens. I use a little of the red color in the center of the hibiscus in the stems as well to create color harmony.

Here's a finished study. I often make a study before I demonstrate a painting in class. This helps me organize my thoughts and process, and present the best techniques for the job.

If you would like to join me for this class, you can register on this website under "online classes" above


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