Underpainting Tips from Artist Eric Bossik

Artist Eric Bossik
Artist Eric Bossik

Need to know the facts about underpainting? Just ask pro Eric Bossik.He is the author the new instructional oil painting e-book, How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-By-Step Guide. Here he shares some of his underpainting tips in this interview for Art Questions Answered:

Alina Bradford (Q): What is the number one underpainting tip you think every beginning artist should know?

Eric Bossik (EB): Well, there aren’t any single tips or magic tricks that will get you where you need to be. Underpainting is a process that involves developing many different skills. The main focus of underpainting is value (dark and light), but a beginner needs to first develop his or her drawing skills. There are no special painting techniques that will help you to create a masterpiece if you can’t draw. Drawing is a big part of the underpainting process and you must first create a well developed drawing.

Q: Say there’s an artist out there that’s not convinced that underpaintings are an important part of the finished painting. How would you convince him otherwise?

EB: Underpainting is an important part of the painting process if the artist wants to emulate the paintings of the great old masters. Nowadays people want instant gratification and they aren’t willing to take the time to develop their paintings. Many artists today practice an alla prima method of painting, which enables them to complete a picture in one sitting. They believe they’re being more spontaneous, but they really want to see an instant result. Fortunately there are still some gifted artists that continue the techniques of the old masters. 

Underpainting is a process of layering a painting to create more luminosity. You see, the underpainting never completely disappears when the painting is complete. It isn’t visible to the eye. But light travels through the layers of paint, reaching the underpainting, then reflects that light through all the overpainting layers. This is what gives a painting the luminosity so admired in old masterworks. Paintings without an underpainting never achieve the same degree of luminosity because they lack the depth of paint layering.

Q: Some artists use ultramarine as their basic underpainting color while others like tones of purple. What color is your underpainting go-to?

EB: I don’t know any old master artists that used ultramarine or other colors with any high degree of chroma (brightness of color). The problem with using bright colors in an underpainting is that they will leach through the overpainting layers and affect your final colors. There are a lot of people teaching who probably shouldn’t be. I’ve had students come into my class on the first day with a bright yellow toned canvas. They tell me that one of their instructors thought this was a good idea. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most underpaintings have very muted color or they are painted with greys (grisaille). 

There are old masters who completed underpaintings with the colors they were using for the overpainting (direct layers). They would grey down and thin out their colors so that they could execute a thin color sketch over the drawing. When the underpainting was dry they would apply direct layers of paint with a heavier consistency and brighter color.

I personally practice an imprimatura type of underpainting method. This method of underpainting uses a transparent layer of earth colors such as raw umber or burnt umber. The first stain of color or toning of the canvas can be considered imprimatura. A more advanced type of imprimatura is the wash-in method of underpainting, which is the focus of the lesson demonstrated in my e-book, How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-By-Step Guide.
Q: What is your favorite brush(es) for laying down an underpainting?

EB: I like to use a lot of different brushes. I use mostly flat bristle of various sizes, and some sable flats and cat’s tongue (a type of filbert brush). I also use paper towels, paper blending stumps and rags as tools to wipe out the light values and develop the forms of my subject matter. It’s kind of like sculpting with light as you’re looking to create three dimensional form on a two dimensional surface. 

Q: What should artists do if they decide that their underpaintngs are done wrong?

EB: The beauty of the underpainting is that you can just wipe it out if it’s not working out for you. Imprimatura underpainting is a wet-in-wet method of painting, which can be finished in one sitting. You can just wipe the entire canvas back down to the white surface with some paper towels and turpentine.

You can visit Eric’s website to get a FREE Excerpt of his instructional oil painting e-book.

More about Eric Bossik: He received his formal training at the School of Visual Arts, where he earned a BFA. He further advanced his knowledge by studying with John Frederick Murray, a fine artist whose instructional lineage can be traced back to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and old master artist Jacques Louis David. Eric paints commissioned portraits of adults, children, and pets, as well as still lifes, murals and trompe l’oeil.

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