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Friday, March 13, 2015

Which Underpainting Technique is Better...Wet or Dry?

'Be Kind to Bees I'               5x7               pastel                 ©Karen Margulis
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'Be Kind to Bees II'               5x7          pastel         purchase $65

Wet or Dry? This is the question of the day! I have been asked this question many times and realized I have never really answered it on the blog. I am talking about underpaintings for pastel. There are so many wonderful options for starting a pastel painting. Some of these involve wetting the pastel or using a wet medium such as watercolor. The other option is to do a dry underpainting or wash...simply apply an initial layer of pastel and rub it in with fingers or tools.

So which underpainting type is better? It really is a matter of personal preference but I do have some thoughts to share on the subject.

  • I do both wet and dry and truly like them equally! Each type will produce different results so my choice depends on the concept for my painting (or my mood!)
  • DRY WASH: I choose this underpainting when I don't want to wait for anything to dry. I also use it to set up a value map so it serves a purpose. It is great for my quicker studies and plein air paintings.It is my go-to technique and I use it for the majority of my paintings.
  • WET UNDERPAINTINGS: I choose wet when I want to be playful. When I want something interesting and fun to respond I turn to wet washes or wet media such as watercolor or oil stains. Certain subjects work well with wet underpaintings. I have discovered this through trial and error but all of my experiments give me a better understanding of the potential for each wet technique.



  • TIP: Try them all! Experiment with the many options for both wet and dry underpaintings so you can make more informed intuitive choices.


  • For today's paintings I took the same subject and tried both a dry wash and a watercolor underpainting. Each underpainting led to very different finishes even though I used a similar color palette. I covered up more of the watercolor than I wanted but I was in playful mode so I sprayed it with alcohol. Wet = Playful  Dry = Purposeful

    Dry Wash underpainting with pastel rubbed in with a piece of pipe foam
    which set up a value map. Rubbing it in let me decide where I wanted to make more clarity.

    Wet underpainting with watercolor on Multimedia Artboard

    Wet again with a sprite of alcohol then scratched with a stick to
    create more texture in the grasses. It was a playful and fun approach.

    reference photo

    6 comments:

    Hope Thompson said...

    Karen, Thank you so much for today's blog. As you know, I have struggles with this very issue. I am finally accepting the fact that it will take me time to decide what technique works best for me. So far, I like doing a hard pastel with an alcohol wash. I would say next watercolor. But, I want to try the gouache watercolors at some point. Thank you for your continued insights on this topic!

    Nana Jayz said...

    How do you determine how to paint your underpainting and what colors to use? I am new to pastels and learning on my own

    robertsloan2art said...

    Thanks for the comparison. I love using the method that works for the particular painting too. It's great to have that flexibility!

    Hope Thompson said...

    A question: has anyone used/tried Pan Pastels as an under painting?

    Karen said...

    Nana that's another great question. There is no right or wrong way to start or colors to choose. I have talked about this in other posts. I am out of town but will address it again next week!

    Tammy Kaufman said...

    Hope Thompson - I enjoy using PanPastels as underpainting and have found they work quite well in that regard.