Most artists do an underpainting before finishing the painting with the last layer. Sometimes only for painting over 'mistakes' or try-outs, but some painters carefully plan their layers ahead, to achieve special effects for color or realism. In all cases, an underpainting enables you to complete your painting in steps (instead of doing it all at once). In classical times, it was used ot achieve very realistic effects. Layering also enables you to 'construct' a painting, in terms of light and darkness, and color depth. Click here for some underpainting examples.

Some explanation of terms:

  • Imprimature - a transparant, monochrome underlayer with no white in it.
  • Inderpainting, the scenery painted in light-and-dark in one color, mixed with white.
  • the 'dead layer', a black-and-white partial underpainting, designed to create realistic effects

Imprimature means, to apply one semitransparant layer, to function as a background. No white is used. For underpainting, you use a color, mixed with white, to explore effects of light and darkness. Another classical term: the "dead layer". This is an underpainting layer of black-and-white, that covers only the parts of your painting that should become very realistic. The 'dead layer' is applied over an imprimature. Click here for more on imprimature and underpainting colors

Maybe more important than the 'build-up' argument is: by underpainting you create a 'world' for the subject you want to paint. That makes it much easier to paint the subject at all. If you want to paint a figure, it will be easier when the room and the chair or the landscape are already there - then you can position them better.

Underpainting materials

For oil painting techniques, egg tempera can be a very good underpainting material. It dries very fast, in the right light (UV or daylight). It does need some specific handling, though: it dries fast but stays soft and 'cheesy' for days. When painting it over, you can only touch it once. But it adheres to oils very well. Egg tempera as underpainting can be applied both on panel and canvas.


Here you'll find an oil painting guide that includes recipes for lean and fat egg tempera and egg-caseine tempera paint. In making paint, it's important to have the amounts right. This e-book has 76 pages and contains all the info on oil painting materials that you need, to develop your own layering system. This e-book costs 14,90 dollars, and the recipe sheets are available as a free download.

Free recipe sheets for oil painting techniques

Free recipe sheets

I put together a list of recipes and products, focused on primers (and underpainting). You can download it for free when you subscribe to this website. It will get you started right away, and you can use the site for additional information. There's also an e-book (76 pages) - If you still want to know more, you can always buy the e-book later.

subscribe and download your free recipe-sheets

Handling home made egg tempera paint

Here are some tips for handling the home-made egg tempera paint, as described on this page. This is a very thin paint, but that's good. Egg tempera paint dries under the influence of UV-light, and only thin layers will dry well. Egg tempera is stell very tender after it just dried, it needs some more days to harden out. But you can paint over it immediately, as long as you use clear, thin strokes and don't try to wipe or fiddle on your canvas. Egg tempera painting is: put on just one stroke or layer - and let it dry. Then put on the next - and let it dry.

When your underpainting is done, you can seal it with thin dammar varnish. That will dry in 1 or 2 days. In this way you prevent it from being wiped out or messed with, when you start painting on it with oil paint.

Underpainting colors

In classical painting techniques, earth colors were used for underpainting because they were cheap, and provided a good basis. Click here for more information on underpainting colors. After using just one color for underpainting (like green earth, burnt umber or yellow ochre), you can make combinations of underpainting colors. For example: green earth and white over yellow ochre, gives a special effect with the green: because of the yellowness, the green-and-white will be going towards blue. When applied in the right lightness, it will look like an almost-blue. These kinds of effects can give your painting a very natural appearance. Painting like this, can make you feel as if you actually make things appear by themselves.

Caseine underpainting

If you like really thin layers of underpainting colors, try caseine instead of egg-tempera. Both egg and caseine are decayable, so it's best to make them fresh yourself (recipes are in the oil painting guide). Caseine is a very strong glue, so it shouldn't be put in thick layers, and not over anything else (it will chip off). But caseine does improve the adhering capacity of the oil paint. You can also use this capacity by adding caseine to your gesso primer. A recipe for this can also be found in the oil painting guide.

Underpainting with acrylics

In acrylic underpainting, you can use the same colors as in oil painting. When you buy acrylic burnt umber, you'll have the same pigment, only with a different binder. The acrylic binder does make the burnt umber look a little more like 'plastic' - but you can use acrylic mediums to help out on that.

However: it's better not to put oil paint over acrylic layers. In house paint, it's known to be a very undurable combination. If you want to do an underpainting for oils, use egg- or caseine-tempera. Egg and caseine can be mixed too, then you get egg-caseine tempera. Click here for more on the basics of durability in oil painting

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