In painting, an underpainting is a first layer of paint applied to a canvas or board and it functions as a base for other layers of paint. It acts as a foundation for the painting and is a great way to start the painting off with some built in contrast and tonal values. It’s a technique that was widely used by the old masters as a way to develop a plan for future colour placement and to establish certain values and tones within a painting’s colour palette. An underpainting, if used correctly, is a great way to unite colour values in the overall painting and add a subjective colour key to the painting that will create a tonal dominance of the painting.
Underpainting is simple, but can have major effects on the rest of the painting. It can invigorate areas of the painting that are mundane or uniform like a sky or rolling field. And, it can even act as an outline how the painting feels. For example:
- A blue toned underpainting can make a painting feel cold, even if something is red-like a barn in wintertime against a white, snowy backdrop.
- A yellow toned underpainting is great for a swamp or desert scene, because the painting will seem like it takes place in a hot climate.
- Some purples are great for warm layers later on, or for making shadows.
|De Geograaf (1669)|
Vermeer and underpainting
It now seems certain that underpainting was a fundamental step in Vermeer’s relatively methodical creative process. Laboratory analysis demonstrates that in the underpainting stage, the artist made many major and minor alterations in the type, placement, and dimensions of objects found in his compositions. Chairs, maps, framed paintings, musical instruments, baskets, a standing cavalier and even a dog can no longer be seen where they were originally represented. Vermeer probably painted them out in the underpainting stage having seen that they did not create the desired effect or that they were distracting to the painting’s central theme.
He changed the positions of arms and fingers to create precisely the gesture he desired, edges of maps were moved to the left or right to add stability to the composition and the contours of the young women’s garments were altered to make them more elegant and fluid, and shadows too were lightened or darkened, all depending of the immediate visible effect that the underpainting produced.
It has been noticed that in the Geographer there is more than one passage which seems to have been left uncompleted or which over have become exposed. Perhaps, much of the deep shaded area of the carpet reveals Vermeer’s method of underpainting. If this is so, his method would appear similar to those of his contemporaries.