How to Underpaint with Acrylics

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To underpaint or not? You might not have even heard about underpainting or colour washes and what effect they have on your painting. So what exactly is it and should you do it?

What is underpainting?
The gist of it is in the name really. Underpainting can be a very rough or very detailed greyscale/single toned painting that sets the composition, tone and overall foundation of your painting.

Have you ever looked at a 16 century painting in a museum and wondered how they get their still-life’s and portraits looking so life-like? Yup that’s underpainting. And most likely the Flemish 7-Step technique. You read that right, 7 steps! The first four layers are in browns and greyscale… but that’s a whole other post.

What are washes?
A wash is a single layer of colour covering the whole canvas.

Both washes and underpaintings are used to remove the canvas’ vast expanse of white and set the tone of the painting. It can be quite frustrating later on to try and cover every single inch of white on the canvas, however having a layer of paint already down makes it SO much easier. Also, with acrylics especially, washes or underpaints will enable greater levels of opacity and less patchy colours in the later layer of colours you paint.

How should I begin a painting?
Whether you are painting with oils or acrylics, at the very least you should start with a colour wash. The only exception to this is when you are trying to finish a painting within two hours (i.e. our Art In Bloom Wine and Paint Parties! ).

What color should the wash be?
You can use the most dominant colour in the picture. So in a landscape this might be a blue or peach, and in a portrait, a flesh tint. Or you could use a contrasting colour such as raw sienna or orange. See what works for you. It should be a colour you wouldn’t mind peeping through in areas.

Do I do a wash AND an underpainting?
It’s usually one or the other.

Impressionist artist, Van Gogh, did not use underpainting. You can see bits of the canvas showing through along the top of the painting.

The 7- Step Flemish Method, using several layers of underpainting.

Whether you do an underpainting or not depends on several factors:
1) Personal preference – you might try it and not like it. Whatever works for you.
2) If you are doing an oil painting – the impressionist, for example, style doesn’t tend to need underpaintings (but a wash would definitely help). However with acrylics, an underpainting helps add depth to painting
3) The complexity of a painting – portraits, still life’s and floral blooms benefit greatly from underpaintings. If you’re using oil’s I’d recommend doing the underpainting in acrylics so you only have to wait 10 minutes (vs over a week) to start your colour layer).

So, what’s your call? Do you use underpaintings or washes? Leave a comment below.

8 Comments on “How to Underpaint with Acrylics”

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. If there’s any questions you have about painting feel free to ask 🙂

  1. Pingback: Oil Painting Materials List - Art In Bloom Academy

  2. I can’t really understand some things about underpainting. Could you explain something to me, please?

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