22 May 2009

Underpainting with Burnt Umber

In my introductory oil painting classes this term all of the subjects are portraits, both from photos and from life. The first stage of a portrait is often a burnt umber pick-out or underpainting, which provides a value map of the full-color portrait to come. It's a good learning device and transition between drawing and painting, since it's value-based and monochromatic, but is applied with oil and brush to a canvas. It also allows for design work-up without the complexity of color, and improves the accuracy of the final painting.

Navajo Boy 2009, oil on masonite, 12 x 9

The image above was from a photo I found in Native American Portraits by Nancy Hathaway. I thought I did a fairly good paint job, until the instructor, Lucas Graciano, added some darks, a bit of background, and some lost edges which made the image really pop. Never underestimate the value of a good instructor.

Vicky 2009, oil on canvas board, 13 x 10

The second underpainting is more my natural style, at least for now. Painted from life for the Reilly Method class, which I'll describe in a later post. The portrait will be completed over 3 sessions, so the underpainting has time to dry before color is added.

Technique: We use Winton burnt umber which has a warmer hue compared to other brands. We tone the canvas with thinned burnt umber, then immediately paint the image. Light areas are created by removing paint with a clean brush, paper towel, Q-tips, or kneaded eraser. Burnt umber dries fast, so you can only lighten for about a day. I used Robert Simmons Signet bristle brushes for initial block-in, Langnickel Royal Sable for blending, and Robert Simmons White Sable for detail.

Final note: I'm in New York City next week, visiting some galleries and museums, so answers to comments will be delayed. Back the week after.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, very illustrative. Thanks again!

  2. hi candance , i see you have the portrait fever as well.you are a very good paiter.i loved those heads winter 2009 , it is exelent.
    well thank you .

  3. Hi Candace,
    I followed you hear from Karin's blog. Your work is stunning! Hope you don't mind if I add you to my links.

    I love these two portraits, particularly the gorgeous Navajo. Well...off to explore the rest of your wonderful work.

  4. Thanks, Carolina. Glad you found this post useful. Thanks for visiting.

  5. Caio Fernandes, Hard to imagine a more compelling or satisfying subject than the human face. Really enjoyed your blog, lots of creativity there. Happy Belated birthday.

  6. Love portrait study! Have a great time in NY...I'm also leaving the country on Thursday!

  7. Gwen, Thanks for finding and following my blog. Just back from visiting yours. Lots of wonderful art, and in complete agreement with your 7May post. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. Looking forward to your future works. Regards.