Using dark brown pigments in lower layers of oil paintingApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
Question asked 2017-07-06 03:10:50 ...
Most recent comment 2017-07-06 18:28:16
I've recently read on another forum (NP) a great article that said oil paintings when possible should be made by using the most opaque colors in the lower layers and layered up toward more transparent pigments. However, it seems many paintings from the past used brown grounds or thinned brown (umber or sienna?) as a drawing color in the lower paint layer. (Another recommendation that was surprising to read was to paint from light to dark, and thus moving from light and opaque lower to dark and transparent upper layers.)
Which pigments do you recommend "blocking in" a drawing in the underpainting, and is the opaque to transparent layering order generally accepted?
Is my read of many historical painting practice off, or do we just understand the chemistry better and have new best practices?
Thank You for this amazing resource!
Answers and Comments
The “rules” for painting are only guidelines. Almost all
works of the works of the past contain some deviation from rigid best
practices. The key is to keep the deviations small. Dark grounds (like the dark
red or brown grounds found Spanish and Italian paintings from the 16th
c on) are less flexible than white lead and can create major contrast shifts
when the superimposed oil paint becomes more transparent over time. This does
not mean that all works created on these types of grounds have been disasters.
They have all probably altered in contrast in some manner, though. Even the use
of a very heavy application of white for highlights means that it will be the
mid-tones that darken the most with increased transparency. So it best to use a
stable white ground, but fully realize that there are many, many examples where
great masters of paining did not.
Umber and black have a very low pigment-volume-concentration
(PVC) when mixed into a usable oil paint and are physically not the best options
when used below stiffer and leaner upper layers. However, people have used
umberfor underpainting both for its color but also because of its rapid drying
due to its manganese component. This is less likely to cause major issues if
used in conjunction with large amounts of a paint containing lead white. It is
also not likely to cause problems if used as an outline to sketch in the
composition. So while it is best practice to underpaint in more opaque high PVC
colors, Rembrandt often did the complete opposite. We should realize that his
works have altered some over time and, due to their universal esteem and value,
are stored/housed in optimal conditions where they are monitored by
conservators and other experts.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, I do think that the guidelines
in this article are a good place to start (although #6 is confusing, I believe
that they mean light in lower layers and darker in the upper).
Again, these should be thought of as general principles that
you may need to deviate from in some manner but only in small ways and for specific
It's important to remember that some "rules" of ordering and layering may be based on the assumption that the artist will be using white passages in the first layers to pictorially communicate direct lighting. Not every artist will have that approach, even if it makes good sense in structural terms.
Many of the rules, including Rule #6, is based on the book Simple Rules for Oil Painting by A. P. Laurie. I was a little confused by it too, but I beleive it refers to building the entire painting in one direction, either dark to light or light to dark, but not in both directions in the layers.
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