Before color? Yes! (Well, at least sometimes.)

Ok, you want to start a painting?

There are lots of ways to begin … almost as many as there are artists out there.  It helps to see some of the ways that artist have worked before.

One way that was used in the Renaissance involves the use of a “underpainting.” The underpainting method used most often back then was to create a full fledged rendering of the image in value.  This technique, known as grisailles … creating a black, white, and grey painted image, was used to establish the image over which layers of color would be applied. Some of the upper layers of color might be opaque … but for the most part the new layers were translucent or even transparent. When opaque layers were used, the value of new upper layer was matched as closely as possible to the value established by the lower underpainting.

a grisailles underpainting Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,, 1565

this is a grisailles underpainting       by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.        (Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565)

While this method of underpainting fell out of favor (many early 19th C Realists and the Impressionists would complain that it was like painting on brown gravy), it never went away in art schools that favored what they term “traditional” art.

As artists have sought out ways to use the western figurative tradition (either as “traditionalists” or as Post-Modernists) this technique has had a resurgence in popularity.  The example below is an “in-process” detail of a painting by the contemporary artist Joe Forkan. It is  in fact a modernized re-working of not only this technique … but also a visual re-interpretation of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus.

detail-dude-Supper copy

You can see the image on the left is mostly in grey and the image to the right has brighter, richer color added over the layer of underpainting. While a comeback for this method has been seen in recent years, many artists today, preferring a more direct and immediate technique, don’t use the full fledged grisailles underpainting technique. And unless we are lucky enough to see a demo of the process or happen upon one in a museum, art viewers seldom get to see what is under that imagery.

There are other interesting underpainting traditions … and also quite a few direct painting techniques that do not use any under-painting at all! While my usual working methods fall into that latter category, I do enjoy the results my students get when we use grisailles for a while. Sometime soon I will show you a some other underpainting techniques used by a few of my artist friends.
PS: To get a look at the whole painting by Mr. Forkan, connect to his blog:
More … later.

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One Response to “Before color? Yes! (Well, at least sometimes.)”

  1. jean sampson Says:

    Great post, John, you old art teacher, you! 🙂

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