How to Start an oil Painting – and Create an Underpainting

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Rembrandt underpainting

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Starting a painting can be intimidating. What can be even more intimidating is to start painting for the first time ever. Whether the former or latter is your situation, this post will help you.

Blank Canvas

It is a bit difficult to start on a blank canvas for a couple of reasons. One being simply the fact that it is a blank and stark white canvas can make it mentally difficult to make a start. Putting a light wash of color over it gets rid of that crisp clean whiteness and makes it so you can make it ‘messy’ with your paints.

The second reason is a little bit more practical. When starting on a bright white canvas it is hard to determine what the values of your colors are. Anything next to something that is bright white will look much darker than it is in actuality. Thus, it can be easy to ‘accidentally’ paint everything too light when starting on a bright white canvas. Therefore, again, putting a light wash on your canvas is extremely helpful.

What it means to put a light wash on your canvas…

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a canvas with an underpainting

Imprimatura is Italian for first paint layer and looks like a color stain on the painting ground. All of the old masters used this technique to start their paintings with. Typically, colors used are earth tones as these are the most neutral. Neutral colors help to avoid any potential color bias. For example, if a bright red is used for an imprimatura, every color would not look warm enough next to the bright red. Therefore, it is quite important what color you use as it will influence your painting.

So, that leaves us with the question….

Which color(s) to start your imprimatura with?

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an underpainting by Peter Paul Rubens

The most universal color for an imprimatura is a neutral light grey. With a grey, it is neither too cool or warm as it is conveniently in the middle between the two.

Raw Umber + Ultramarine Blue

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Raw Umber and Ultramarine Blue

I like to mix raw umber and ultramarine blue together for a more grey ground. This combination makes for an excellent imprimatura color! Simply mix equal parts of each as shown in the photo. You will not need to mix a lot (though depending on the size of your canvas) as you will need to use turpentine to spread it across your surface quickly.

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Raw Sienna

A second option besides using raw umber and ultramarine blue is to use raw sienna for a ground. With this, one you will not need to mix it with anything else (unless you want to). Rather, just use the color out of the tube, mix in some turpentine and cover your surface.

How to create the imprimatura on your own canvas

  1. You will need to grab yourself a rag, as well as some turpenoid and paint (either burnt umber and ultramarine or raw sienna).
  2. Put some turpenoid on your rag then dip it into your paint.
  3. Quickly and vigorously rub the color onto your canvas.
  4. Allow to dry before staring to paint
How to Start an Oil Painting. Learn what to do before starting your painting. Which color you should use for your imprimatura. Learn what an imprimatura is! Learn how to paint. Painting for beginners. Oil painting tips. How to start a painting. Oil painting tutorial. #oilpainting #oilpaintingforbeginners #paintingforbeginners #imprimatura #paintingtutorial #paintingdemo #paintinglesson #learnhowtopaint

Now, you are ready to start painting on your beautifully colored ground!

Paint colors talked about in this post

How to Start an Oil Painting. Learn what to do before starting your painting. Which color you should use for your imprimatura. Learn what an imprimatura is! Learn how to paint. Painting for beginners. Oil painting tips. How to start a painting. Oil painting tutorial. #oilpainting #oilpaintingforbeginners #paintingforbeginners #imprimatura #paintingtutorial #paintingdemo #paintinglesson #learnhowtopaint
Raw Sienna
How to Start an Oil Painting. Learn what to do before starting your painting. Which color you should use for your imprimatura. Learn what an imprimatura is! Learn how to paint. Painting for beginners. Oil painting tips. How to start a painting. Oil painting tutorial. #oilpainting #oilpaintingforbeginners #paintingforbeginners #imprimatura #paintingtutorial #paintingdemo #paintinglesson #learnhowtopaint
Ultramarine Blue
How to Start an Oil Painting. Learn what to do before starting your painting. Which color you should use for your imprimatura. Learn what an imprimatura is! Learn how to paint. Painting for beginners. Oil painting tips. How to start a painting. Oil painting tutorial. #oilpainting #oilpaintingforbeginners #paintingforbeginners #imprimatura #paintingtutorial #paintingdemo #paintinglesson #learnhowtopaint
Raw Umber
How to Start an Oil Painting. Learn what to do before starting your painting. Which color you should use for your imprimatura. Learn what an imprimatura is! Learn how to paint. Painting for beginners. Oil painting tips. How to start a painting. Oil painting tutorial. #oilpainting #oilpaintingforbeginners #paintingforbeginners #imprimatura #paintingtutorial #paintingdemo #paintinglesson #learnhowtopaint

Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

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