Painting the Imprimatura


Ok, so I’ve just completed the burnt umber imprimatura. This is the second part of the figure painting I’m working on, called ‘Transformation’.

You can view the first video here where I do the underdrawing.


What is the imprimatura in oil painting?

Imprimatura means ‘First Painting Layer’ in Italian.

Having a charcoal drawing underneath helps to get the design and basic values down. Then the artist can go over the lines of the drawing with ink. You can also ‘seal’ the drawing with a transparent wash of sienna or umber. This also serves to tone the canvas.

I did this drawing fairly detailed to start off with. Then I sprayed it with fixative before laying down the umber imprimatura.

Of course back in the day, artists didn’t have spray fixative. But this just helps to protect the drawing.

Traditionally artists would go over the drawing with sepia or nut ink.

In some areas, I didn’t spray properly, so the charcoal lifted off.
But that’s no big deal.

You just need to go a little carefully and I like the dark carbon mix that you get from the charcoal mixing with the burnt umber.

Sometimes I forego the charcoal stage and just draw directly on the canvas with my lean oil paint if I’m feeling confident.

Fat over lean rule (again)

If you’re unsure what the fat over lean rule means, basically, fat means more oily.
More oil than solvent.

Lean means obviously less oil and more solvent in the mixture.

It’s important to build up the painting with more fat or oily layers on top of lean layers.

This is because the oiler layers are more flexible, so if you have a lean and brittle paint film on top of a more flexible oil film, you’ll get cracking and other problems.

I simply imagine it as having dried mud on your face. When you smile, the mud cracks and peels because the skin underneath is more flexible and moves.

When painting the underpainting, some recipes for mediums call for up to 5 parts of gum turpentine to 1 part of linseed oil. That’s a very lean medium.

But I think as long as you keep your paint film very thin and allow it plenty of time to dry between the layers. And that you don’t go backwards and start increasing the ratio of solvent to oil on top of an already oily layer, you’ll be OK.

As you may have noticed, I painted pretty thinly so that the burnt umber is transparent enough for the underdrawing to show through.
I used a rag to lift off especially in the lighter values. And I also use my hands and fingers to blend.

So I wasn’t too worried about the paint film being too oily.

Burnt umber dries very quickly and has pretty brittle paint film properties.

So again, I wasn’t too worried about my medium not being lean enough.

If your medium is too lean, there’ll be not enough binder for the pigment and you could have delamination.

I make my canvases myself and prime them with an oil based primer, so they are fairly absorbant.

Even so, I’m going to give this stage a week or two to dry properly so that the linseed oil can cure.


Painting the Imprimatura with burnt umber
The Imprimatura in burnt umber.


And then I’ll start the next step, which is the verdaccio when I’ll make her look like a zombie.


Check out my figure paintings here.



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