Friday, May 11, 2012

Underpainting Demo for "One Spring Morning"

One Spring Morning, pastel, 14 x 11
If you follow my blog, you've seen a variation of this image three times now. Sorry for the repetition. When I find a particular subject that I like, sometimes I find it beneficial (and fun!) to explore it a bit and see what else I can do with it.

I first posted an oil version of this scene that I did on location recently. I was able to capture lighting conditions that I found worked nicely with the composition. As I was preparing to teach a particular underpainting technique in my Wed. and Thurs. pastel classes, I thought this scene would be a great subject matter for what I had in mind. I wanted to switch gears from my usual monochromatic underpainting method and use a more colorful underpainting technique, which is a great way to liven up subject matter that has lots drab color, or in this case, lots of of green foliage, or to capture a nice glow behind the local colors used in the painting.

When I use a liquid underpainting, I mount my sanded surface paper (in this case, Uart, which has been my favorite lately) to acid-free foam board, which prevents buckling and also makes it easier to frame, since I prefer to frame my pastel work without a mat. There are of course many methods, using a variety of media, that can be used for underpaintings. My demo here uses a base layer of pastel with an alcohol wash.

One of my students was nice enough to share her photos of my demo so I could post them here...

 I chose six bright color Nupastels of varying values, although at this stage I'm not quite as concerned with matching the exact value, but more so with getting a colorful background on which to create the painting. I find that the harder pastels work best when diluted for an underpainting, but the softer ones can work fine, too, as long as you don't pile on too much pigment, which causes the underpainting to cake up and get paste-like (or "gunky" as I tend to call it in class).  At this stage I block in just the largest/most important shapes and simplify those shapes as much as possible. Just a little bit of pigment goes a long way, so a light touch and few strokes is key.

Since there was strong directional light, I used primarily warms in the sunlit areas and cools in the shadow areas at this stage. This helped to give a sunlit "glow" showing through in the finished version.

For class demos when a quick dry time is important, I use plain old rubbing alcohol, which I think works just fine. But when I have more time, I also like using mineral spirits such as Turpenoid or Gamsol, which spreads the pigment around a bit more smoothly. I use an old bristle old I can't even read what size it is, but I'm guessing about a 6. (For a larger painting, I also may use a 1 1/2" watercolor brush to more quickly spread large areas.) I use the side of the brush to keep most of my edges soft and to gently move one color into the next, being careful not to "scrub" the colors together, which will muddy things up and dull your color.

I wet down the light colors first so they stay clean, then move progressively to the darker colors. You can't control detail at this point, so no need to even try. Although I like some of the accidental drips, I keep a cotton rag handy to remove any drips in an area I want to keep clean with a light value or bright color. I knew I wanted the area at the end of the dirt road (my focal point), and a couple of other areas around the foreground trees, to have a crisp edge with contrast. So, while keeping most other edges soft, I set up those edges from the start here in the underpainting. 

I make sure to step back as I finish up this stage to make sure I'm happy with the large shapes and overall composition.

As I continued with the dry pastel on top of the underpainting, I still worked as much as possible with large masses of color, now focusing more on values and gradually shaping each area. As I added the negative spaces in the trees on the right, I was careful to leave the warm pink of the underpainting showing through, which gave me my glowing sunlit effect I was after.

I gradually added more of the local color and made sure to keep small areas of the underpainting untouched. A light touch is always best with pastel, but especially when working on top of a colorful underpainting, you want to keep a lot of that initial color showing through. Don't cover it all up!

A big thank you to Charlene Stamper for providing me with the demo photos!


  1. karen, i so wish i lived closer to your classes. thank you for this and your constant blogs and posts of your work. i learn so much and it pushes me to keep struggling and not give up. bravo

  2. Thanks so much for this demo, Barbara, and all the great information you share in your blog. Your work is so beautiful! Do you mount your sanded paper yourself and if so, how?

    1. Thanks for the nice comment, Donna. Yes, I do mount my sanded paper. I've had it dry mounted in the past at a nearby framer, which works great, but it's an added expense and a little inconvenient. Lately I've been mounting them myself with archival photo mount spray adhesive onto acid free foam board. I then place a sheet of glassine over it and press it down real good with a brayer. - Barbara