The Underpainting Process for a Portrait

I’m off to a pretty good start on my memorial pet portrait of Coppelia. I begin most of my portraits by painting loosely with acrylic paint thinned way down with water–it’s almost like working in watercolor. My goal is to lay in the darkest base colors first–because later on, I’ll paint the hair or fur in lighter shades on top. I also try to get the lighting feeling right so there’s some dimension right at the beginning.

Some paintings I start by laying down an overall color on the panel first–then working on top of it. The background color unifies the entire painting. But not this one–there’s going to be a big jump from the dog’s coloring to the lush green background–and I’d like to keep that contrast vivid. I’m pretty sure it will work (nothings guaranteed of course).

There are several different ways to start paintings–just paint the local colors first (like this one) called direct painting or alla prima, lay down a single background color and paint over it (called imprimatura), paint a very refined black and white (or brown/white, green/white) underpainting and tint the colors over it–this is called a grisaille. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages and I move between them depending on my subject and the effect I want.