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Do Your paintings have a backstory? Underpainting in acrylics

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

For a long time I have realized that I like to make my art have a story, a sense of history if you will. In the past I have relied on textures and color to give it that depth, but it still didn't have the layers and colors sneaking through that I wanted to show. So I began to research how the renaissance oil painting masters painted. Noting that several artists painted an undercoat in black and white and then glazed colors over it I was intrigued.

I don't paint with oils but I truly felt it could be done in acrylics in a little different manner. This is my way- and I do things upside down and backwards but it seems to work for me. In practice I have learned that if a color is painted over its complementary color it has a definite richness- so why not use them in the underpainting. It just takes a little thinking through. These are the mostly finished works of a new series I call Sunlight Through the Clouds. Watch for them on in the near future.

To explain complementary colors - this is a basic color wheel. In a true wheel you can fit in a slot every color in the universe (except black and white). Complementary colors are the colors opposite on the color wheel such as red and green, orange and blue, and yellow and purple.

I have a new series of paintings I am working on and I'll show my logic behind them. I want to start by saying all my paintings have a mother color. That's a color that is added into all the colors of paint that are used to create harmony and create a painting that feels like it goes together. This group of paintings is part of my Sunlight Through the Clouds series that I am working on presently.

Oh Horror of Horrors! This is the way my paintings started out. The colors in these paintings will be mostly blue, green and yellow so I started the underpaintings in shades of orange and magenta- the complementary colors. The mother color, a beautiful subdued orange is Quinacridone/Nickel Azo Gold.

Just so you will have faith in my process I'd like to introduce my newest painting 'A Dirt Road in West Texas'. This is the same color palette and also started out the very same way. I developed the colors of the landscape and sky by painting on top of the underpainting. Little hints of what is underneath peek out and really make a nice contrast to final colors.

As I move forward with my series I will layer colors working on all three paintings at once. I will begin first with a glaze of Quin Nickel/ Azo Gold and let that dry. Next it is important to start lightening up the areas for clouds and sunlight.

There is still quite a lot of pink which will be mostly eliminated when I add my blues and greens. the light areas are beginning to look like clouds and now I need to be sure of my focal points and structure. By blending and using different brushstrokes I have added lots of movement. It's beginning to tell a story even without the expected colors.

You will notice that I have reference photos handy in case they are needed but I seldom go back to them once I'm this far into the painting. I find if I do, some of my spontaneity and looseness is lost in the abstract. In each layer that is painted I am adding texture and shapes that will be noticed when you view closely even though I know a lot of it will be painted over in future layers.

When my blues and greens are added It tones down the painting even more. I mostly painted layers of white over the yellow gold undercoat and blue over the magenta letting the complementary colors show through to add depth and contrast. I blocked in areas that were to be water and also gave the land masses their foliage.

The yellow helped define the areas of the clouds and gave the feeling of the sun shining through them. Remember in each color there were several layers and combinations of color but they all contained the mother color . This work was painted with a limited palette of 1 red (magenta), 1 blue, 1 yellow, the mother color , and white and black.

As I edited this painting I began to develop my focal point and make sure the painting was balanced. The water didn't have enough excitement and I knew it was because the clouds weren't reflected. I even painted over all the water at one point adding more lights and darks. I think this painting is finished but as it sits and looks at me more -edits may be in store.

Remember that underpainting is a great tool and painting it in complementary colors really ups the appeal.

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Mary, This is fascinating! It helps me understand the depth of color and “glow” you achieve. Bravo!!

Mary Rylant
Mary Rylant
Oct 06, 2022
Replying to

Thank you Ann!

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