Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Secret to Choosing Underpainting Colors...From the Archives

'Sunflowers 2'            5x7            pastel  (complementary underpainting)           ©Karen Margulis

It's like choosing the right wine.  Some wines go better with a dish than others. How do you know? How do you decide?  You can take someone else's advice but then you are taking a chance. Wouldn't it be better if you just knew...if you had experience with the wine and the dish you would be able to make an informed decision. Knowing what something tastes like is the key.  And that is the secret to underpaintings.  Really!

The more underpaintings you do and the more color combinations and paper colors you try...the more intuitive your choices will be.  Are you ready to be an Underpainting Connoisseur?  


You have to be motivated and willing to put in some time at the easel. You have to be ready to try new techniques and try different colors.  One of the very best exercises I ever did to expand my understanding of the possibilities of underpaintings is Richard McKinley's Underpainting Exercise. You can find it in his book 'Pastel Pointers' or on his blog here. I highly recommend doing this exercise.

I just did it for the second time along with my class of hard working artists. We chose simple subjects and painted small (5x7) After four hours we had finished 8 paintings based on the exercise. We did 4 wet underpaintings and chose 4 different paper colors. We used the same color palette for all of the paintings. (see my results below)

At the end of the session we discussed which underpainting/color choice we liked best. The answer was surprising!  I will share the answer with you tomorrow. Which version do you like best? Answer in the comments or on my facebook page.

value sensitive underpainting with alcohol wash

oil stain underpainting


watercolor underpainting with warm and cool

black paper

white paper

cool tone paper

warm tone paper


2 comments:

Nathalie H.D. said...

How absolutely fascinating Karen, thank you so much for sharing these reflections and works with us! I have my own preferences there (water color underpainting in warm tones) - in fact my favorite work is the one you present first, which leads me to think that we made the same choice, but I'm looking forward to your next post with more on the topic.
Thanks again for sharing this most valuable exercise with us. Your students are lucky to have you, I'm sure you're doing wonders to help them make progress in their work.

Karen VR said...

Seeing this series is really interesting (and confirms my personal distaste for black paper) :-P My personal choices are that the meadow is most successful with the alcohol wash and the sky and trees are most successful with the watercolor underpainting but this can be as much a difference of style from painting to painting as it is influenced by the underpainting.

* The alcohol wash meadow seems to have a lovely amount of soft color variation and developed the most successful sense of distance to me.
* The oil stain has a displeasing color contrast to me, especially in the sky where the underpainting shows through and I feel the meadow wasn't as successful (application of the pastel feels heavy-handed).
* The watercolor sky is soft and pleasing and the distant tree is quite nicely suggested but the meadow feels too monotone (too much tone-on-tone green, not enough color contrast)
* The black paper feels too harsh where is shows through the pastel.
* The white paper painting feel very flat and monotoned as well.
* The cool-toned paper, as well, feels like it needs more variation/contrast in color.
* The warm-toned paper feel bright and active but a little too "Sesame Street" to me personally; I feel like a darker or less saturated warm paper would have been more complimentary but I also feel like the more you look at it the more it grows on you :-P

Overall my impression reinforces my personal self-critique of needing to introduce more complimentary colors into my paintings, something I notice that I do when I do plein air work much more so than when I'm home painting from photographs.

This was an interesting exercise to share, thanks :-) I'm curious about what the underpaintings themselves looked like in the first several examples, and to hear what everyone else likes and dislikes :-)