Painting the Traditional Way
– Part 2 –
After sizing, priming and toning the canvas, it’s time to begin the underdrawing! If you missed the first part, just go back and check it out quickly. In the previous chapter, I show how I prepare the canvas for the underdrawing stage.
I was commissioned to create an oil painting of a woman bathing in a tropical mountain pool. A waterfall and lush green foliage add to the peaceful ambience.
The painting was destined for Australia, to a natural health clinic. So I wanted to depict something beautiful, peaceful, magical, and the idea of being close to nature — a beautiful woman in a refreshing mountain pool.
What is an underdrawing?
An underdrawing is basically a charcoal or chalk drawing done on the canvas in preparation for oil painting. Charcoal is easy to wipe off, which makes it suitable for working out mistakes in the drawing before progressing to the painting stage.
The canvas may be white, or toned (coloured ground) in preparation for the underdrawing.
An underdrawing may begin as a separate drawing on paper, usually to scale, whereby the artist can work out the compostion, or work out any complicated elements beforehand.
The preliminary drawing may be as detailed as necessary. Or it may just be a rough thumbnail sketch.
Once pleased with the preparatory drawing, the artist may transfer the drawing to canvas using a grid pattern, or copying by eye. See also: Oil painting – materials & techniques: underdrawing by the V&A museum.
Why should you start an oil painting with a charcoal sketch?
When starting an oil painting, it is helpful to compose and plan the painting by doing preliminary sketches in charcoal, or any drawing medium of your choice.
Paper is much cheaper than canvas, and you may wish to do several drawings before finding a composition or gesture that works.
It’s also important to draw from life.
You may want to draw as accurately as you wish, figuring out all the elements in detail. Or you might not worry too much about accuracy. It may be more important to get the ‘feeling’ down on paper as quickly as possible.
By drawing from life, the artist is able to capture the initial energy or emotion that sparked his/her inspiration in the first place.
I started off with a preliminary drawing on a large sheet of paper, using my girlfriend’s back as a quick reference. She doesn’t enjoy posing very long, so I had to hurry and do a quick vine charcoal gesture drawing from life.
It isn’t really the most accurate drawing I could have done, but it was just to give me a basic idea of the pose. I’m planning on using photographs as little as possible in this painting.
I asked her to imagine herself wading hip-deep into cool mountain water, thereby gaining a natural pose, instead of something too superficial or unnecessarily dramatic.
How to transfer a charcoal drawing to canvas
Once the preparatory drawing on paper is complete, the artist can then transfer it to canvas and create the underdrawing.
If your preliminary drawing is accurate, detailed and to scale, you may want to trace the drawing with tracing paper.
You can then copy the drawing on the reverse side of the paper by going over the lines with charcoal or chalk. Then lay the paper on the canvas, and go over the lines of the drawing a second time. Thus ‘pressing’ the drawing onto the canvas.
Alternatively, you can also create hundreds of tiny pinholes along the lines of the entire drawing with a pin. Lay the paper drawing over the canvas. Then use a pounce bag filled with charcoal powder, and tap the bag lightly along the lines of pinprick holes.
This causes the charcoal dust to go through the holes and transfer your drawing to the canvas. You can also rub charcoal powder over the pinholes with your finger.
The little dots of charcoal left on the canvas can then be joined up as lines and the drawing is thus recreated on the canvas.
Another method of transferring the drawing, is by created a grid pattern. This method involves simply drawing a grid of equally spaced vertical and horizontal lines over the drawing. And the same for the canvas.
The grid pattern on the canvas could be of the same scale as the grid on the paper drawing. Or, if your drawing is smaller than the canvas, the transfer can be mathematically scaled up to the correct size.
The artist could then copy the paper drawing to the canvas using the grid pattern for finding reference points.
My favourite way of transferring a drawing however, is to simply put the paper drawing somewhere at eye level near one’s easel. Then stand back, and using a charcoal drawing extender stick, copy the original drawing onto the canvas by eye.
This takes a much more organic approach to transferring the drawing. And allows for a less stiff drawing.
Changes and improvements to the original drawing always naturally occur when doing the drawing a second time.
Practice makes perfect.
And any artist worth their salt would easily be able to not only copy their preliminary sketch to the canvas by eye, but also draw it better the second time.
Where tracing, or ‘pouncing’ becomes useful, is when transferring really large drawings onto a massive canvas or mural.
And the scale of size makes it difficult to avoid proportional and perspective errors when working so close to the artwork as a multi-elemental whole.
Many artists talk about using a projector as a quick and easy way to transfer a drawing. Although there is much literature on artists using a camera obscura, I still do not recommend using any projection.
The lens used in projection can cause distortion errors that the artist may not even notice. See also: Inventing or drawing by essentialvermeer.com
Now that I had a basic idea of the proportions, and a concept for how I want to compose the painting and how to place the parts, I copied the underdrawing freehand onto the canvas with vine charcoal and black chalk.
This is where I was glad the pink ground was strong enough to withstand the constant rubbing out and reworking of the charcoal drawing on the canvas. It took a while before I was happy with it.
Charcoal drawing of parrots
I added a pair of Red Lory Parakeets as I want to enhance the composition with these beautiful bright red birds. They also add to the tropical ‘feel’ of the painting.
I drew them from my imagination, although I used several reference photos to understand their basic build, shape and length of the tail, their colours etc.
Red Lories are native to the rain forests of Australia, and so I found a bird species that is geographically correct — seeing that the painting is heading for Australia.
The room that the painting will be hanging in has lilac-coloured walls. That is another reason why I chose a pink ground.
The bright red of the birds were also chosen as part of my colour-scheme so that the painting looks really good in its new home. Planning your colours beforehand is important, but I’ll talk about it as I go through the steps.
How to make a homemade drawing extender for charcoal or pencil
To make a drawing extension stick for charcoal, chalk or a pencil, simply take an old long-handled paint brush with a round metal ferrule and remove the bristles. Then cut a slit along the side of the ferrule, or pry it open.
Insert your piece of charcoal or the end of your pencil into the ferrule. Then wrap the ferrule around the charcoal and clamp it gently closed with pliers. Be careful not to break the bottom end of the charcoal or pencil.
I made this charcoal drawing stick to help me to get a better view while standing back as I was drawing. It’s basically an old paint brush with the hairs pulled out and the metal ferrule wrapped around the piece of chalk or charcoal.
Standing back, especially when painting or drawing on a fairly large canvas, is very important. It’s easy to get ‘tunnel vision’ when drawing too close up.
Another way to check your anatomy and composition is to check your artwork every 20 minutes in the mirror.
This will show up any glaring proportion issues that you may miss. Your brain compensates and adjusts the way you see things when you’ve been working on a drawing for too long.
It’s important to have a fresh eye when drawing, so stand back as often as possible, and take frequent breaks by looking at anything else besides your drawing for a few minutes.
Brushing off the excess charcoal
Once I was happy with the charcoal sketch on the canvas, I took a dry rag and wiped it over the drawing to remove the excess chalk and charcoal.
I then dipped the corner of the rag in a little bit of gum turpentine to wipe away the mistakes and clean up the lines. I had to be careful not to rub too hard with the turps-soaked rag as I didn’t want to damage the pink ground layer with solvent.
This creates a ghost-like image for the imprimatura or brunaille to come.
Imprimatura vs brunaille
Imprimatura means the ‘first paint layer’ in Italian. It’s actually supposed to be spelled imprimitura.
Technically it is a transparent layer or wash of oil paint over a white-primed ground which ‘seals’ the underdrawing. Warm and transparent earth pigments are commonly used for painting the imprimatura, such as siennas or ochres.
A brunaille is the term used for an underpainting done in shades of brown. This allows the artist to build up the tonal values in a monochromatic underpainting which aids the ‘layered-approach’ painting process.
Common pigments for painting a brunaille are earth pigments such as umbers, siennas, or more particularly, Vandyke brown.
In my case, I had already toned the ground with an opaque pink tint. And then drawn my charcoal drawing on top of this coloured ground.
So whether I call this next step the imprimatura or brunaille, doesn’t really matter.
Basically I went over the lines of the charcoal drawing with thinned-down paint to ‘seal’ the drawing.
I mixed a bit of burnt sienna, and a touch of a lean medium of linseed oil and white spirit on my palette. Then I painted over all the charcoal lines, refining the drawing with the oil paint.
The black of the charcoal mixes a bit with the burnt sienna. I quite like this effect and the smoky brown/orange colour.
Traditionally, some artists would go over their charcoal drawing with a fine brush and ink. But I go straight for it with a thin line of oil paint and a round hog’s hair or sable brush, depending on how detailed the drawing is.
Keeping the paint thin allows you to build up values (light and dark) to create shading. The light travels through these thin layers reflecting the paint as a transparent glossiness — like a kind of glazing technique.
The sienna dries fast, especially mixed with a little medium and solvent. I blend the colour into the canvas with a natural hog’s hair filbert brush, and the effect is a transparent orangey shading. The thin underpainting dries quickly.
I can start with the next layer in a day or two. You can use any fast drying pigment like burnt or raw umber, siennas, ivory black, ochres, or red earth. The idea is to have a fast drying, lean, underpainting layer.
If you would like to see a similar painting series where I go over the charcoal figure with raw umber, check out Painting the Figure – Part 1. This is a four-part painting series (with videos) where I paint the figure in a slightly different way.
Using solvents in the underpainting
Not many people know, that you actually don’t need solvents when painting with oil paints.
By following careful practices and using the best artist quality paints and handmade linseed oil, you can mitigate many of the problems associated with painting with solvents.
And I’m not talking about spike of lavender, citrus oils, or Venetian turps either.
Be careful with being too liberal using solvents on a painting. I usually prefer to use the paints as they come from the tube as much as possible, or mixing my own mediums as needed, according to the purpose.
Besides solvents being highly toxic and having a strong smell (odour-less mineral spirits might not smell, but you’re still breathing in toxic fumes), too much solvent can dilute the binder in the pigment.
This weakens the surface bond to the point that it causes the paint to flake or powder off.
If you do use solvents, a little bit of solvent in the beginning stage should be fine, because solvents dry by evaporation. (Oils like linseed, walnut, etc, dry by oxidation).
You also want to keep the first layer fairly lean. Mixing a little solvent helps with the underpainting as it gives the paint has a nice flow over the drawing and helps it to dry quickly.
I would advise not mixing so much solvent that the paint begins to drip and run off the canvas.
It’s important to remember the ‘Fat over Lean’ Rule here, namely because having an oily layer drying through oxidation in the bottom layers of your painting may cause cracking issues later on, as those oils start drying beneath thinner, more brittle layers above them.
Fat over lean may be better understood as ‘flexible over less flexible’.
This is why I generally keep my painting layers fairly thin naturally. Neither over-thinning with solvents, nor making them too fatty with oils. (Near the last stages of my painting I usually start adding a more fatty medium for final glazes etc).
For more information about painting with mediums in the underpainting stages, check out 13 Weird Questions Beginner Oil Painters Ask. Here, I explain more about underpainting layers, as well as using acrylic, alkyd mediums and homemade linseed oil.
In the next post, I’ll start refining the anatomy and show how I add the so-called ‘Dead Layer’. So stay tuned!
Thanks for reading, and please send me any comments or questions below. If any of these techniques or painting methods confuse you, or if you need more information, please let me know.
You can see some more of my figure paintings here.