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Underpainting and background color

Hello all, this question is an oil paint question (not sure if it works for acrylics. I am new to painting and wanted to get some advice or any direction in learning more about what makes the best underpainting color based on the main color of the objects you are observing/going to paint (i.e. should it be a compliment color, analogous color, etc)? As far as the main top background color, I am guilty in not thinking about this before I even start to paint. Doesn’t the main background color depend on what your underpainting color is? If so what are some ways I can use the color wheel to learn this concept. Thank you again for any advice on this! - Tim

Best advice overall is to experiment.

I’ve gone primarily to what you might call “glowing” canvas toning and sketching colors. Simplest is magenta, but anything on the warm side of the wheel pleases me most, including yellow, orange, rose violet and so on. Indian yellow makes for an extremely glow-able background.

Note that my primary use is in landscapes, and they feature a panoply of greens… so the “glowing” background is also usually the complement in hue.

Any holidays (missed bits, especially along edges where hues or warm/cold contrasts abut) contribute to interest in given passages as the background flashes through. But that doesn’t work if it’s overwhelmingly patchy. At its best, It’s a kind of built-in broken color effect.

Edit: on reflection, the Indian yellow is effective because it more or less suggests flashes of sunshine…


You will find some more comments on the subject: Do you use a toned surface?


I usually use something like Raw Umber. It helps with shadows and it is a neutral temperature. You can also mix Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine to create that same color, and perhaps skew either way to create a warmer or cooler background if you want that effect. I use plenty of liquin while doing the underpainting to make it easy to move things around.

I also sometimes go with a more “purple” mix because it often just seems to have a nice look when it is peeking through the colors on top.

I think it is important to make the underpainting from transparent pigments rather than opaques (cadmiums, etc). If I were to follow a “rule”, that would probably be it.

It depends on what you want to acheive and what you are painting. Either something neutral like a wash of burnt sienna is common or the other received wisdom is to use a complimentary colour. However if you want to keep your colours really ‘clean’ you don’t have to use any underpainting at all. I took some months of workshops with Karen O’Neil who likes to keep all her paint colours very pure - she just paints directly onto white gessoed canvas.

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