Demo of Model in Red Robes- Using brown underpainting

Philip Howe Fine Art
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In this piece I wanted to show how effective a brown underpainting is to help achieve more depth and realism fairly easily. Once the brown values are rendered, much easier to do than using a full color palette, then the color can be laid on from translucent to opaque with the warm brown tone helping in the final color. This is a classic approach used frequently in figure work and more developed compositions where the artist is after a fully realized painting that takes several stages. It is not for spontaneous or alla prima work.


The beauty of this approach is that the color can be put on transparently over the brown (or other color, sometimes gray or blue) so that the initial values are all set up with that monochromatic underpainting. Its much easier to do a full range of values in one or a few colors than to paint a full range of colors at the start. This methods leaves less room for error and I think it excells in mural work or where the artist wants to develop the entire piece before really worrying too much about color. Its kind of like painting or tinting a sepia photo, but my own method uses more opaque paint so I never get that refined in the early stages.

Another variation of this technique is what a lot of illustrators were using in the 1960's on, that is to put down a fairly developed pencil (or charcoal, but that requires a heavier fixative and harder to work out on canvas) on to board or gessoed canvas, then fixing this well and staining from there. It is remarkably easy to get a photographic looking image if the drawing is well drawn out and most of the half-tones and shading is there. The color ends up being more of the light and color areas and usually quite transparent. I used to do this technique and could knock out a full blown cover in a night that looked like it took a couple of weeks. When I demo-ed this technique and other tricks to my students they suddenly switched from not enjoying doing illustration to a real interest in realism. I've moved on from the pencil work, but doing a nice brown underpainting like this is still appealing and fun and can give your realistic work a real kick toward understanding and using edges and focus for more effect.

Above, you can see where the initial quick blocking of semi-transparent paint is put on over my lightly fixed drawing. Sometimes I use a drawing, often I don't, but will apply the brown as a middletone where I can pull out the form by drawing from it (subtractive painting) or adding to that middle tone with darker values, usually just black, or pthalo blue.

What you don't want to do at this point is add white- try to keep the paint translucent, either by thinning it with mineral spirits, or turps if you can stand the fumes, or with a medium. I'm using Liquin again here with some Walnut oil, just enough for a syrupy solution mixed with burnt umber. Van Dyke brown is a good choice for daker work, but I prefer Burnt Umber because it thins to a reddish brown that nice for skin tones and the undervalue of the red costume to come.

The 2nd image has been buffed a bit just so the underdrawing shows through better. With oils, you can be pretty sloppy with the paint, and refine it later, since it takes longer to dry. Kind of like painting your walls with a big roller then defining the areas with a smaller brush.


Once the quick middle-tone wash has set up just a bit- it sets up quicker with the Liquin added by the way, then I can more easily add white or more opaque color. This varies from the classic approach of keeping the paint thin and transparent and building up slowley, but I like working fast and the opaque paint fits my overpainting well since its not all translucent. In other words, if I wanted to do a very refined, very photo-realistic detailed approach I would have done a more developed drawing, then finetuned the transparent brown underpainting, then let that throughly dry and then slowly painted layer on layer with translucent tints of color. But I like opaque paint and have enough confidence in my drawing ability that I can freely block in with more solid strokes, using white with the brown to get a nice solid, monochromatic form. This technique works with nearly everything, except skys of more blue filled subjects.

Below, the finished full figure brown underpainting, about 40" tall.
I usually try and paint most heads 3-4" or larger. Any smaller and I can't get as much paint on the brush and I don't like working with little paint on small brushes if I can help it.
So far I am only a few hours into the piece. I let this throughly dry for a few days to a week. Unlike most of my work where I make up most of it, this one is easy since I have good reference from my model shots and there's not much intent to do creative color here as I want that more old school quality in the browns to come through.


In the white circles you can clearly see how translucent the red paint is I put on at this stage. The Liquin medium really helps here as it thins any color to a managable degree that simply tints or stains the underlying area. This is about as close to a glaze as I ever do, yet its not really a patina so I will call it a thick glaze. A true glaze is over pure white and never this thick or it would loose its reflective quality.
You can start to see how that base brown, even the reddish brown from the burnt umber, begins to work as a warm gray with just a little red added in the skin tone areas. All colors are relative to whats next to them, so the red of the costume works to offset the skin tone and, in effect, tone it cooler by comparison. Painting strictly opaquely, as I usually do, I would need to introduce those cooler tones, but here, the brown works for me to give a similar, and much easier to paint, effect. The only real drawback is in the paints thinness, which doesn't have the textural quality I like. In skintones that can get garish, especially under harder lights. My preference is somewhere inbetween this seim-opaque surface and one with a more heavily textured finish. That way I can patina that final surface and enhance the effect as I like it. This idea works really well for naturally textured surfaces like walls, rocks (I love to paint rocks) wood,tree trunks, and landscapes, and other forms where a harder side or raking light enhances the surface textures.


Above- you can see where I went back into the original brown areas around the head and reiforced the density there. The Liquin medium is more viscous than most mediums you can buy and its great for applying clearly first over dried areas, like the browns, which always dry quickly. This lets me match and work into a wet area much more effectively than using a spray retouch varnish or other matching method which leaves a frail film than will crack and cause a fragile foundation for the paint applied over this. I know Liquin is safe, even had a couple of conservators look into it and they thought it was a very good medium to use for the intermediate stages, so long as the paint beneath has throughly dried.
Another way to get the brown underpainting to setup much more quickly is to use Alkyd. I don't like mixing paints but have found the Alkyds to be perfectly sound. I haven't seen any problems in any of the earlier commercial work I did when Alkyds first came out and feel they are very safe to underpaint with or even mix with oils to a small degree. I sometimes will use Alkyd titanium white only as a substitute white, for commercial work or if I want to put on impasto highlights and not have to wait a few weeks for it to dry. Again, the Liquin makes an excellent medium for both, although Liquin with straight Alkyd, especially the fast drying earth colors, can set up so fast its like a different way of painting. I have ruined many brushes trying to fight the paint getting too tacky and pulling one area into another. Its a nice technique and very good for detailed work. I know a lot of the fantasy and book illustrators use it in part, but I like the wet-into-wet approach for most of my work and you can more easily get that with oils.


Most of this quick painting was done with a 1" flat synthetic watercolor, short handled brush. I like the synthetic brushes because they are just a bit stiffer than most soft sables and I can draw with the paint more effectively. A soft bristle would also have worked, I suppose, but I've had this one flat on my palette for a couple of years now that I really like and just keep it wet with a fresh coat of Walnut oil. I don't think its ever been washed.
For more detailed areas, I tilt the corner of the brush and just use the sharp edges. I'll finally toss a brush out or use it for scumbling (thats dragging dryer paint roughly over a surface similar to drybrushing but where you scratch it around more) when it can't give me a true sharp edge anymore.
Below is the near finished face with a bit more color. You can just see some of the brown more in the shadow areas, but most of it in the lighter areas is opaque or semi-opaque paint. I can easily tint this or patina it now with a nice warm tone without it looking too textural and Whistler like. Had I used heavier paint that choice would be more limited, although thats a nice effect, especially in landscapes, more like Rembrant, and leaves a real oil painted look, especially under warm (tungstent) gallery or home lights.

Woman in red robes final 24x36"

Below and above you can see how just a little green sets off the red costume. I really had to tone that green back, adding lots of reddish brown to kill its intensity so that it didn't jump out but set close to equal tone with the reds and browns. That neutral quality is what I have to fight to get sometimes, as illustration tends to run hotter and in more demand for a lot of the work I have done. So I try to remind myself to tone down the entire palette and work with more sophisticated color that is in harmony not chaos. I had a friend tell me, years ago, that my color was too 'acidic', meaning hot and commercial looking, or thats how I took the resonse. She was right, hot color can look great in small amounts, but for the most part looks a bit too chaotic and uncontrolled.

Final head detail approx 6inches

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