Using an Under Painting in Watercolor

"Jake" watercolor 5x7 in.

“Jake” watercolor 5×7 in.

Anyone who has ever taken a painting class with me in oils or acrylics knows I believe strongly in the practice of doing a monochromatic under painting first. However, many watercolor artists will tell you that it isn’t possible to do an under painting in watercolor–that simply isn’t the case! While I don’t always do an under painting when I work with watercolor, it can be an effective way of establishing your drawing and composition. Think of it as a replacement for starting out in pencil, you will get a more fluid look to your finished painting and can do more than just outline your subject. Here is the approach I used on the painting above:

– I started out with a wash drawing of the kitty using only yellow ochre, I used a #8 round brush. I didn’t just outline him, you can see the under painting in the final painting, it is visible when you use it with watercolor where as it is totally or almost totally covered when working oil or acrylic (I sometimes let bits of my under painting show through, especially if it is done in a color specifically meant to show through. The art police purists will tell you that isn’t allowed, I don’t care, it works effectively for the manner in which I paint.)

– Once the under painting was complete and dry, I went back on top of it with a mixture of Prussian blue and alizarin crimson to  create the stripes and darker grey areas of his fur, I let the white of the paper remain white in the areas where the fur is white, such as on his chin.

– Last of all, I hit the darkest darks one more time with a more concentrated (less water, more paint) application of the Prussian blue / alizarin mix.

That’s it, I did this in about 20 minutes, working quickly can help you to stay loose and keep your painting nice and fresh, not over worked. I find under paintings in watercolor to be an effective alternative to drawing in pencil. Give it a try, especially if you have trouble making your paintings unified, the under painting takes care of that from the start!


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