Techniques and Tips

An Underpainting Can Perk Up Your Color

An Underpainting Can Perk Up Your Color

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A complementary underpainting lifts monotonous “real” color out of the doldrums.

By Michael Chesley Johnson

As an instructor specializing in painting with pastel en plein air, I’ve seen many students struggle with monotonous or dull color. All too often, beginners go into the landscape with the intention of painting a two-hour snapshot—a photographic rendering of what the eye sees, much as a camera might make in 1⁄125th of a second. Often, capturing detail is the goal, but color is also subject to this treatment.

Color conundrum

Trying to capture color precisely can be frustrating. My students frequently get lost in the greens of a deep-summer scene. I find them paralyzed over their pastels as they mutter, “I don’t have the right green. But what they don’t recognize is that such a scene can have too much green. The color will dominate and overwhelm a painting. A late fall scene can cause a similar problem–all brown and gray, dead with dull color. Too much of one color or not enough of any color makes for a boring painting.

To solve this problem, you need to alter reality. The best way to do this is with a complementary underpainting. This technique can be used in either the studio or the field. It does, however, require a color wheel. You can buy one—the Color Wheel Company offers a convenient pocket color wheel that you can tuck into your pack—or you can make your own. The wheel should show both primary and secondary colors, as well as tertiaries, which will allow you to get closer color matches.

Although I’ll be demonstrating this approach with pastel, complementary underpainting works well with all opaque media, such as acrylic, gouache and oil.

Step by step

1. This photo shows a typical Vermont summer scene. Not only is the green overwhelming, but the blue is, too. If I were to render this as it is, the result would be a very cool painting without much color interest.

2. I determine my large value shapes in the scene, using no more than three or four values. For this scene, I choose three. Next, I observe the average color of each shape and, using my color wheel, determine each color’s complement. For the greens of the trees, I pick red pastels. For the almost blue-green of the foreground grasses, I select red-violets. For the blues of the sky, I use oranges (see my palette below).

Matching values is very important: For dark colors, choose dark complements of the same value; for light colors, choose light complements. Don’t be fooled into using a dark orange for your light blue sky. If the sky is the lightest shape in your scene, make sure you use the lightest orange pastel you have. Also, pretend that there’s no white in the world. Anything that looks white should belong to a definite color family, such as yellow, the complement of which is violet. Again, make sure the complement matches the value.

3. For my surface I use a 9×12 sheet of white Wallis sanded pastel paper. Any background color other than white makes judging color relationships difficult. I draw a preliminary sketch with a stick of thin vine charcoal and outline my large masses.

4. Using broad strokes, I lay in the complementary colors. I make sure I don’t have other pastel sticks anywhere near my pile of complements; picking up the wrong pastel is too easy. When looking at a tree shape, the tendency is to think “green” and pick up a green pastel instead of a red one.

By the way, although I use soft pastels for this step, you may choose harder ones such as Faber-Castell Polychromos. Just make sure you cover the masses thoroughly with a dense application of pastel. This is more difficult with hard pastels.

5. To fix the pastel, I use a stiff bristle brush dampened with odorless mineral spirits (Turpenoid) to scrub in the pigment. The pastel becomes almost like paint. If I don’t fix the pastel, the complementary color will mix with the “real” colors that I apply next, muddying the color.

I start with the lightest values and work my way to the darkest values, taking care to rinse my brush thoroughly between values. Then I let the wash dry. The colors, which darken somewhat when wet, return to their original values once dry.

6. Using my color wheel, I find the complements to the pastel sticks I had pulled for my underpainting. These complements are, of course, the “real” colors. I again make sure I stay true to my values, testing my selections on scrap paper. Using only my softest pastels (the harder ones won’t give sufficient coverage), I begin lightly layering the “real” color.

7. I’m very careful not to overwork or completely cover the underpainting. Little flecks of red and orange show through all the green and give it life. Part of the glow and beauty of Quiet Bend (above) comes from the complementary color peeking through the “real color.”

Extra tips

You can use complementary underpainting selectively. If you require an area absolutely free of muddying, you can choose not to underpaint that area with its complement at all—just leave it untouched and white. For example, if you lay down an orange underpainting for a pure blue sky, a bit of the orange may stir up into the blue and dull the color, even though fixing the underpainting with mineral spirits is meant to prevent this. (I’ve seen it happen with my blue skies.) To avoid the possibility of muddying, I may choose not to underpaint my skies.

Complementary underpainting may also open your eyes to other possibilities for moving beyond the merely photographic. As the creator of the painting, you have not just the permission but the imperative to turn your subject into a very personal expression.

My palette

Complementary colors (used in underpainting)
PC 128 pink carmine, PC 134 magenta, PC 169 earth green yellowish, PC 186 Naples yellow, PC 192 Pompeian red

Real colors (used in later layers)
PC 112 leaf green, PC 113 cadmium orange, PC 119 pink madder lake, PC 138 purple violet, PC 146 light ultramarine, PC 152 phthalo blue, PC 154 cobalt turquoise, PC 166 juniper green, PC 169 earth green yellowish, PC 192 Pompeian red, MV 10 orange Naples yellow, MV 52 medium yellow green, MV 71 dark grass green, MV 72 dark grass green, MV 82 strong phthalo blue, MV 103 red with earthy orange, MV 143 bluish gray with green, MV 294 bright midrange yellow, MV 324 strong earthy red, MV 333 blue-violet, MV 390 dark green, MV 431 greenish blue, MV 512 dark blue-purple, MV 513 dark blue-purple, MV 522 cool purple-blue, MV 523 cool purple-blue, MV 580 strong dark brown

PC = Faber-Castell Polychromos
MV = Mount Vision

Michael Chesley Johnson is an artist and workshop instructor living in the Canadian Maritimes. To learn more, visit his website at or visit

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Watch the video: REAL TIME. 2 Paintings AT ONCE! The Difference an Underpainting Can Make (July 2022).


  1. Markus

    I'm sorry, but in my opinion, you are wrong. I'm sure. I am able to prove it.

  2. Moshura

    I read it a week ago, I wanted to comment, but I forgot, but here is such a discussion :)

  3. Dakotah

    I agree, a very useful message

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