Underpainting: Can I use more than one color?


Bluejacket, watercolor , 28″ x 20″  300 lb. cold press Lana

I often get asked about using more than one color in the initial under painting. Questions range from can I do it to how do I do it?

I think it helps if you think of under painting as a process of setting a stage for what is to come. If you take the time to study past and some modern masters you will find many examples of artists who chose all sorts of underlying color schemes to provide a platform for what was to come in the final  application of paint.  Granted, most early works are either egg tempera or oil paint applications.  I think that is one reason my first edition of Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor created such a buzz.  In fact, here we are at least 28 years later and the book, now revised, is still popular.

The arrangements of color can run the gamut.  

Are you aware that some early painters would often use silver hued paints for under painting some of their grand ladies? Others would develop color schemes that depended upon the use of complementary colors to effect striking contrast. In the watercolor entitled Bluejacket, a combination of colors were alternated. The next three shots will show the underlying structure of color.


Stage 1: The washes are faint.  Three colors were used.  You can see a combination of Thalo blue, Permanent Magenta and Violet
mingled in varying strengths of intensity. Some areas fade into nothingness while other critical points are fairly bold.  Some of the washes were applied directly while the softer areas reveal that a wet into wet approach was used.  These first washes help set the stage for what comes later.  Keep in mind you are in control, make sure you have a concept or a direction in mind BEFORE you begin. Have a plan, then set out to execute it.  The under painting session is the time to set the stage.  Make use of wet into wet, direct wash and charging of washes to accomplish your goal. What is charging ? Some may ask.  Relax, you don’t need your credit card! Charging consists of dropping a new color into a damp field of color that is already on the paper.  With a little practice you will determine the optimum timing for this application. I would caution you to avoid the attempt while the passage is still very wet unless you want your charged color to dilute a great deal. Waiting until the paper is too near dry will also create unwanted effects. Once again practice on scrap paper until you get the hang of it.


Stage 2:  If you recall basic color theory then you remember that violet and yellow are complements. Their combined use helps to increase or intensify the effect of one another. Perhaps it could be argued that Permanent Magenta is not violet but it is close and its presence doesn’t deter from the effect. I always try to teach students about the vital difference between pure color theory and the paints with which we work.  Pure theory is one thing.  Learning to work with the limitations imposed by our finite materials  such as paint, is another matter altogether. Take a moment to compare the first two steps. The yellow in this case is M.Graham Gamboge.


Stage 3: At  this point a little hint of what is to come reveals itself as you examine the shadow side of the face where a combination of M. Graham Gamboge and American Journey Copper Kettle are combined as a tentative wash to see how the color combination will work.   When I am painting faces I choose to develop distinct shapes that depict the architecture of the head I am attempting to capture. Don’t be afraid to use brush strokes in watercolor.  Too often watercolor is considered to be pale, pastel and understated. Consider the works of Sargent and Homer. Look at the power they conveyed while using watercolor.


See the watercolor glazing technique in action: A number of years ago I was fortunate to have a wonderful producer named Dan Brennan. He and his team produced a video of my painting technique complete with a final segment that contains a composition and  brush tutorial.  The original VHS sold thousands of copies. I am delighted to announce that the original master The Antique Shop was found in Dan’s archives and has been remastered in DVD format.

It is now available at http://www.createspace.com/350893

You can also obtain Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I, Revised Edition at


About masteringglazingtechniquesinwatercolor

Watercolor painter and author of several watercolor books on painting technique. Recent inductee/recipient of the Marquis Life Time Achievers Award.

Posted on October 4, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

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