Underpainting

When I paint, my favorite medium is gouache (rhymes with squash).  It’s opaque watercolor and versatile: I can water the colors down to transparency or paint them on thick and opaque.  If I need to make a change after the paint’s dry, I can soak off most of the paint with a damp paper towel and start over.

Since my style is so cartoony—which was not a selling point with children’s art directors when I started out—I learned to paint in a classic sort of way.  My goal is to make objects in my pictures look three-dimensional by modeling them, by rendering the light and shadow.

Figuring out light and shadow while worrying about color is not easy!  I found it’s simplest to separate the two activities.  I paint light and shadow first, then add color on top later.

The first step is called underpainting.  I like to use a warm brown, Burnt Sienna, for that step.

Here’s a page from Where’s My Mummy? another collaboration with my pal Carolyn Crimi. This story is about Baby Mummy’s one last game of hide-and-go-shriek before bedtime.  All the monsters in the graveyard are getting ready for bed.

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I should mention that as usual, I was behind schedule with this project and got lots of painting help from the talented Rhonda Libbey, who blocked in big areas of color.

Okay, first the sketch:

mummy.revise.08

You can already see many of the shadows in the sketch.  The scene’s a graveyard, so shadows are important for mood.  Here are the shadows painted in Burnt Sienna:

mum.ip.08

You should be able to tell from which direction the light’s coming.  I try to avoid detail in the underpainting and concentrate on the masses of light and dark.  It’s really an abstract design.  I didn’t paint the vines growing on the tombstones, for instance.  Now here’s the color painted on top of the warm brown underpainting:

mum.ip.08a

I was trying to evoke those old black and white monster movies, so I used a very restrained palette, or range of colors.  There are few bright colors in this book.

One of the nice things about the warm Burnt Sienna underpainting is that it peeks through the cold neutral overpainting here and there.  I think that the underpainting also helps to unify the illustration by giving all the colors something in common.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet painted the Baby Mummy.  First I paint my backgounds, then  I paint the characters.  That helps me keep all those elements consistent throughout the 32-page book.

Here’s another image—in progress—from the same book.  I haven’t painted the characters yet, just the background.

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And here’s the finished painting.  Dracula gets a bright red bathrobe.

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0 replies
  1. mike lopez
    mike lopez says:

    thanks so much for posting your technique, I am currently working on my first painting and have been doing exactly what you’ve done here. i think i did do something wrong though, a friend of mine said to do a light wash over the entire piece ,but I think it just confused me. Anyhow , why do you not put more detail in the underpainting, are you modeling further with you glazes?

    Reply

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