• Danica Thurber

Beneath a good painting is a colorful underpainting

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

Today’s painting session demonstrates only the start of a piece (more will come). The start of a painting is the most important because it sets the painting up for success.


We will use only the three primary colors. I begin each lifelike painting with a very un-lifelike use of yellow, red, and blue. This “underpainting” serves as a foundation for the mid tones, browns, and grey, that I’ll add on top. I always leave a bit of the underpainting showing. After all; the highlights always have a tinge of yellow from the sun, skin always shows a bit of red blood pulsing underneath it, and shadows are always tinted with blues. So why not start a painting this way?

What you’ll need to get started:

  • idea for your painting

  • high definition reference photo (+ a practice sketch of it if it’s helpful to you)

  • red, yellow, and blue acrylic paints

  • canvas

  • water, paper towel

  • brush: medium 8 (flat)

(For more helpful hints about which art supplies are best to start painting, check out my post here.)


1.) Look at your reference photo and try to decide ahead of time what qualifies as highlights, shadows, and midtones. Don’t “see” all the in-between variances, or small details right now; think in big shapes and color patches.

2.) Use the medium size 8 brush to begin sketching in all the most prominent shapes and lines with yellow paint.


A note on this: I use yellow paint to sketch instead of a pencil, because the pencil lead can easily show through the paint, or muddy the color. Yellow is easily covered up. Painting instead of sketching out the lines and shapes frees my eyes to focus on big shapes and their relationships to each other on the canvas, rather than getting caught up in the minutia of sketching eyelids, eyebrows, and the like.



3.) Now that you’ve sketched your drawing, translate any highlights you see in your reference photo, to yellow paint on your canvas. (I combined this step with #2 above.)


4.) Wash your brush, then use the same medium sized brush to paint in areas of red. These red patches will be the mid tones you see in your reference photo. As you paint with red, you might notice more areas of highlights you missed - so go ahead and fill in these places with yellow as needed.



5.) Wash your brush, then use the same medium sized brush to paint in areas of blue. These blue patches will be the shadows, the darkest tones you see in your reference photo. You can see in my example that I also added water to my blue shadow as it thinned out behind the figure. As you paint with blue, you might notice more areas of mid tones you missed - so go ahead and fill in these places with red as needed.


6.) Stand back and look at your painting, comparing it to your reference photo. Are the main lines and shapes of the piece correct? Are the light parts in the right places? Are the shadows in the right places? If not, go back and adjust as needed.


Once you’re satisfied, let the canvas dry and check back here for the next part in our series … moving on to earthy mid tones! Be the first to know when the next installment comes - join our mailing list here.


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