red paint used for underpainting in art on a canvas

Underpainting in Art & Writing, 2023

Fact: Underpainting Adds Depth

Is underpainting part of your art process? While many contemporary artists use this technique, underpainting was the ‘standard’ among the masters. Underpainting is defined as the first coat of paint, especially the initial painting on a canvas. The major areas, tones, colors, and forms are indicated in mass.

Underpainting found its way in front of my eyeballs in late 2016 after “art found me” in 2015 during a difficult life event. As I explored tools and techniques, I learned about underpainting while watching YouTube. A few months later during a workshop, I heard Donna Downey use the word as she added a layer of red paint to her blank canvas. She explained as she worked. We watched the plain canvas take on a new personality. We heard the word value a LOT that day. I still laugh thinking about it and hear Donna’s voice every time I paint that first layer on a canvas.

Underpainting’s Two Methods

The Imprimatura Method eliminates the bright white canvas as a thin layer is applied. Bits of white may peek through, but the color ‘grounds’ the foundation, adding the lightest layer of depth.

The Grisaille Method happens in layers. Depth, hues, and values are more deeply addressed in the first layers.

Fact: Underpants is Funny to Say

Always playing with words {here’s the fun part}, I prefer to call it underpants.


It makes me laugh every time I say it! And… where does the paint exist? Underneath… just like underpants! 😉

And on an updated note in 2023, underpainting is like the first draft of words when it’s time to write. The writing process includes those first words as the writer’s foundation. They are the ‘underpainting’ that adds value and depth to the final written piece. Hues, values, and tones are more subtle when layers of words are applied.

This blog post was originally written in February 2017.