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.
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.
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.