Painting the Imprimatura

by Damian Osborne


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

If you missed the first part, go back and view the first video where I do the underdrawing. It shows how I begin the painting by toning the canvas and drawing the figure with charcoal.


What is the imprimatura in oil painting?

Imprimatura means ‘First Painting Layer’ in Italian.

Having a charcoal drawing on the canvas 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.

Technically, the imprimatura is the first layer of paint. Sometimes artists will do a charcoal drawing on a white canvas. Then tone the canvas with a transparent layer of paint — either a warm or cool muted tone of colour.

The colour of the imprimatura wash will subtly affect the layers of paint to come. 

You can also tone your ground with a more opaque colour or tint, allow to dry for a few weeks, then draw in charcoal on top of that. 

In my case, I would consider the brown shades of my brunaille as my imprimatura of sorts, as my canvas ground is already toned, and I’m going over the charcoal drawing with burnt umber.


How do you fix charcoal on canvas?

If you use compressed charcoal, it may withstand a wash of oil colour without needing to be fixed. I’ve been able to draw on oil-primed panels with hard charcoal pencils and the drawing still shows through well enough to not need fixative or inking.

If you use soft powdery vine charcoal, you may find that it wipes off very easily, and you can easily lose your drawing by accidentally wiping it with your sleeve. 

The benefit of using vine charcoal is that it’s easy to make corrections to your drawing on canvas.

As a side note, don’t use graphite pencils for your underpainting. It creates a graphite sheen and is difficult to hide when painting in thin layers. 

In the Old Master method, artists would go over the drawing with sepia or nut ink.

These days, artists may seal the drawing however they like.

There are the risky ways of sealing a charcoal drawing (hairspray, varnish etc), and the proper way to seal a drawing. (Mainly by inking the drawing, or simply painting over it very carefully with lean paint, maintaining the details.)

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. 

Some artists recommend fixative, so say don’t.

In hindsight, I would say it’s probably fine. But I still prefer the old methods from now on. You want to maintain some degree of absorbency on the canvas, and too much fixative can cause a slippery surface.

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.


How do you apply the fat over lean rule for the underpainting? 

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

‘Lean’ means 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 oilier 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.

I wrote more about underpainting and mediums in another blog: 13 Weird Questions Beginner Oil Painters Ask. I hope you’ll find a lot more interesting (and perhaps random) questions answered there. 

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, Damian Osborne
The Imprimatura or brunaille in burnt umber.


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

 If you would like to see a similar video to the one above, check out another four part Painting the Figure Series, where I start another painting with a charcoal drawing from life and then take a different route.


Thanks for reading, and please send me any questions if this article don’t answer them.


Check out my figure paintings here.


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