How to Make Underpainting for Oil Painting: Tips and Techniques

What is underpainting? It’s a technique that can help you get better control over the final appearance of your artwork, especially if it has many areas with different values or color schemes. In this article, we are going to talk about how to make underpainting for oil painting, give some tips and techniques on how to use it effectively, and provide a full tutorial so you can try it out yourself!

If you’re looking for more specific answers about what type of paints to use and how much time should be spent on this step in the process then we’ve got those tips covered too!

What is Underpainting?

Underpainting is the first layer of paint applied to a painting surface. It sets the tone for future layers by establishing initial color and value contrast. Underpainting can be used to establish mood, composition, light sources, or surface textures before other application techniques are employed.

An underpainting technique allows artists to quickly apply an opaque base coat onto their canvas with minimal preparation time so they have more time later on in which to perfect their art piece.

This process also ensures that preliminary errors such as brushstrokes will not show through when additional oil-based coats are added later on during the final stages of production (for example layering).

The History of Underpainting

The term “underpainting” goes back centuries ago but was used mostly by tempera painters before oil arrived.

When oil became a popular medium around the 14th century, many tried to find their way how to apply this new invention to create similar effects that they were used from tempera paints or other media like charcoal or chalk/pastel pencils that required absorbent ground layer underneath them for better results (mixed with gesso).

After many experiments, they found that oil-based paints did not need a ground layer underneath them to create similar effects (when used with glazing technique).

Benefits of Underpainting

There are multiple benefits of the underpainting technique that can help you develop an art piece faster or create the better groundwork for your final project.


Underpainting helps establish the overall light, medium and dark values of your painting. It also establishes where all these different value shades are located in space on your canvas. This is very helpful for planning out future passages that you will paint over it to create more contrast or depth into your piece.


Underpainting helps establish the overall color scheme of your painting. For example, you can use a warm yellowish-brown tone to depict a nighttime sky in contrast with a cool green for grass and foliage underneath it. This is very helpful when planning out how different colors will harmonize or clash together before you paint them over each other on top in future layers.


In some cases, artists also use this step as their last chance to add texture onto their canvas before applying oil-based coats over it (except glazing). You can do this using a variety of tools such as palette knives, rags/sponges, or brushes depending on the desired effect you are trying to create for your art piece.

How to Choose Underpainting Color?

The answer to this question really depends on what you are trying to achieve with your underpainting technique. In most cases, artists choose colors that will not be a part of the final outcome but rather serve as a groundwork for other steps in the process.

In general, the most popular ones are from the brown family (yellow, orange, and red-brown) because they mix well together to form different shades of grey when mixed with white paint on your palette or canvas.

If you use black in this step then it will turn out as an even darker shade of gray once painted over which makes it unsuitable for creating additional light passages later on during the painting process.

It is best to stick with opaque colors that cover the entire surface of your painting without too much effort or multiple layers needed.

You also need to make sure that these are not vibrant hues because they may show through in your final coats and make them look different from how you intended when starting out on this step (in some cases, even ruin finished artwork).

How Do You Prepare Your Canvas Before Making an Underpainting?

The surface of your painting should already be primed and ready before starting this step. Underpainting works better if your paint sticks well onto the support material used such as canvas boards, panels, wood boards, etc., instead of just creating brushstrokes into bare/raw canvas fibers beneath it. For optimal results always use gesso primer first.

Underpainting Technique Oil

The Imprimatura Method

One of the most popular and common types of underpainting is known as the imprimatura method. This technique was developed by Italian painters during the 14th century AD who used it to create their masterpieces with tempera paints.

Imprimatura is a Latin word that means “first paint” or “base coat”. The reason behind the name was that this step involved applying thin layers of pure color pigment on top of your primed support material before continuing with other steps in the process.

In modern art, imprimatura is still used in oil painting to establish the overall tonal value of your artwork.

It can be created using a variety of opaque colors such as white and yellow but most artists prefer browns because they mix well together to create different shades of grey when mixed with other pigments on your palette or canvas.

Things You’ll Need

  • Palette knife or flat brush
  • Your choice of color pigments (try to stick with opaque colors that cover the entire surface)
  • Canvas board/panel, primed with gesso primer
  • Linseed oil
  • Paper towel or rags

Step #01

First, apply some of your chosen pigment onto your primed support material. Put a few small spots evenly spaced all over the surface. You can use either a palette knife or flat brush depending on how large an area you are covering and personal preference.

Step #02

Add some linseed oil. If you do not have linseed oil then other carrier oils such as safflower, walnut, poppy seed, etc., can be used alternatively for this step. You just want something with enough flow-ability to allow an even coat over the entire surface without any brushstrokes remaining visible on top (which will ruin final outcome).

NOTE: Other mediums like turpentine or mineral spirits may also work but keep in mind that these are flammable liquids so use them only with proper ventilation. Linseed is considered safe if handled properly so most artists prefer using it for this step.

Step #03

Use a paper towel to rub the medium over the entire surface until you get an even tone. Do not worry about making mistakes during this part because you can even out finished underpainting later once dry with sandpaper if needed, but make sure that each layer is applied evenly across the support material used. This will ensure proper adhesion between multiple coats needed in later stages.

Keep in mind that multiple thin coats take less time to dry than a single thick coat so plan accordingly and continue layering until you achieve desired tone/value before moving on to the next step.

Step #04

Let your imprimatura layers completely dry out for about 24 hours or more depending upon environmental conditions. This is an important step because once pigment starts drying it will darken with exposure to air thus creating a crucial underpainting foundation needed later on when starting with oil paints.

The Grisaille Method

Grisaille is a French word that means “grey scale” or “sketch”.

In this case, artists started with drawing outlines onto raw canvas using monochromatic colors such as black or white (or shades of grey). They would then proceed to cover the whole surface slowly with thin layers until rendering the finished artwork. Since there were no color pigments added initially it allowed them to easily make changes/corrections later on before applying oil paints.

Grisaille can be considered an intermediate step between charcoal sketching and painting done entirely in oils.

This leaves room for corrections later on if needed (similar to drawing in charcoal) but you still have most of the detail intact since there is no color added yet, thus allowing artists to focus more on shapes and forms instead of rendering a finished look.

Things You’ll Need

  • Painting brushes of your choice. Use a brush that you are comfortable with for underpainting, though one that is slightly stiffer will work better because it can apply thicker paint more smoothly without worrying about leaks between strokes.
  • Oil paints. Similar to the imprimatura technique, it is best to use an opaque paint mixture for this step as well. The main difference here however is that you will be underpainting white oil paint and raw umber because tones of gray can still produce light passages if mixed together correctly.

Step #01

Once you have your brush ready, load it up with some raw umber and gently apply it using smooth strokes following along the direction or edge of forms to create soft edges or blurry transitions between different values (lights and darks).

Since underpainting (grisaille) starts out dark then slowly becomes lighter after each additional layer applied during later stages, try not to make any mistakes by applying too much paint at once otherwise your painting will end up looking muddy and dirty which nobody wants in an artwork especially oil paintings.

This layer should only be a base for what’s next because it won’t appear visible at all once painted over top by other coats during later stages.

Step #02

For the next step, add white using your brush and gently apply it following along contours or shapes carefully. Only paint areas that are meant to look lighter instead of going for full coverage everywhere because this will ruin an underpainting effect later on if it’s completed too heavily with no light shining through where desired.

The idea here is not to cover all areas but rather focus on creating lighter passages that shine through in certain parts of your painting allowing them to look more realistic instead than flat.

Step #03

Use another clean brush to apply some dark color into areas where shadows are meant to appear instead of white. This will darken everything that was painted previously so paint carefully following along contours but don’t overdo it since you want light shining through in certain parts too.

Step #04

Continue adding more paint until desired tones are achieved.

Step #05

Once finished, let your underpainting dry overnight before adding additional oil-based layers onto the piece.

It’s important not to rush these steps because it might ruin your entire paint job when trying to fix mistakes during the latter stages which can be frustrating at times. So take your time even though underpainting may seem like just a boring step that takes too much time away from the actual painting part. That way you will save yourself lots of headaches down the road after investing a few hours into this process!

Handy Underpainting Tips

  • Use white or light-colored ground. Underpainting should be made on top of this layer to prevent colors from bleeding through and affecting the finished painting.
  • Use only oil paints to apply underpainting colors instead of other types such as acrylics or alkyd; these tend not to blend smoothly together as pure oils do, which is an important aspect for achieving a smooth, finished look that doesn’t show brushstrokes.
  • Always prepare your palette before beginning work by mixing up small batches (small cups) each containing one color at a time: white/ivory, black/burnt umber/raw sienna (or another dark brown), yellow ochre, red ochre (or alizarin or cadmium), ultramarine blue and rose madder.
  • Use a medium such as linseed oil to apply your underpainting colors in thin layers that dry quickly without leaving brushstrokes when applied thinly enough with the right kind of stiff-bristled brush.
  • Make sure the underpainting is completely dry before you start applying paint. If it isn’t, then your layers of paint may crack or peel off when they are still wet and fresh on top of a layer that has not dried yet.

Thanks for Reading!

We hope you found this article helpful and that it gave some insight into underpainting for oil painting. Be sure to check out the rest of our blog for more great articles about art, artists, inspiration, and creativity!

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