What is Underpainting in Art?

In art, an underpainting is the first layer of paint suited to a ground, which works as a base for following paint layers. Underpaintings are often monochromatic and assist in determining color values for later composition. In other words, usually monochromatic, underpainting helps decrease the diluting effect of the white canvas and allows the work to reflect its actual colors.

The Procedure

The fast-drying base color is employed for underpainting. It is more beneficial to stick with monochrome if you are not skilled at presenting the true value and variation to the painting’s shades. Earlier, raw umber was blended with black to reap a base. 

The x-rays of traditional paintings prove the use of white lead as well. Charred or burnt sienna and raw umber are very quick drying ‘oil’ paints. Usually, the canvas or the paper is layered with water so that the shades can spread equally. The method, particularly its monochromatic form, has also been used as an education tool. Art students are asked to make their complete painting in monochrome to understand the technique of formulating a 3d impression on a 2d surface.

The Styles

  1. Verdaccio Underpainting
  2. Grisaille Underpainting 

Italian Renaissance painter Titian adapted this technique of multi-colored underpainting. Artists Giotto, Roger van der Weyden, and Jan Van Eyck evolved its monochromatic form. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1481), incomplete oil on woodwork, certainly shows the initial and other stages of work. The underpainting was a key step in Johan Vermeer’s methodological painting process, as seen in his ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring.’ Dutch painters Rembrandt and Peter Paul Ruben were also recognized for efficiently utilizing this method. It is considered that the artists would stock up numerous canvasses in their workshop, waiting for clients to commission them.


A rarely used method now, underpainting in the renaissance era, was the most critical step in pioneering work. In the modern era, professionals prefer using colors directly on the readymade white papers.

Was it worth reading? Let us know.