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MITRA Forum Question Details

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  • 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
    Oil Paint


    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

  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    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 effects.

    Brian Baade
    2017-07-06 13:01:18
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    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.

    Matthew Kinsey, Utrecht Art Supplies
    2017-07-06 16:56:44
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​​Thank you for the thorough explanation, this is much more clear now. Yes this was the article I was referencing and also took #6 to mean light valued (opaque) lower layers, including lead white ground, darker (increasingly transparent) upper layers, which in some ways is the opposite of how I've always thought of oil painting progressing from darkest shadows toward white highlights, but I am starting to understand the science here.


    2017-07-06 17:46:20
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    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.

    George O'Hanlon
    2017-07-06 18:28:16

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