Underpainting Watercolors? Do it or Skip it

  • Hi,
    I am working in traditional watercolors and I am wondering who all uses the underpainting technique?

    I have used both and I get inconsistant results with both. I want to land on one and say "use this and get better at it" but I can never be sure which one I need to focus on.

    I'd love to hear any watercolorists thoughts on this.


  • Pro SVS OG

    I paint in watercolor, what do you mean by underpainting? Am I missing out on something???? Thanks

  • @bradyblack I suppose you could underpaint in watercolor but it's not a technique I am familiar with. I would just build up with multiple layers and use a wash if I needed to tone down something. I feel like a greyscale value underneath everything would muddy up a watercolor, but I have not tried it other than painting an inkwash I wanted to color. It turned out very muddy and not vibrant at all.

  • @bradyblack Nope - I don't do an underpainting for my watercolors. In my experience, that always comes out muddy and dulls the overlapping colors.

  • When I do lay down a background wash I avoid the area of the main subject to avoid losing my purest white. You can always use gouache to restore white space (highlights etc.) but a lot of traditional watercolorists say that your white space should come from the paper itself. (I'm not a professional though, just a few things I've picked up.)

  • @bradyblack

    I like to use an underpainting, that is, tint the entire sheet of paper. I find it gives a cohesive look to the color added on top of it. Best to use a staining or semi-staining color so that it is unlikely to lift and mix with painting colors. This only works if you are mask out the whites before adding the tinting wash OR you don't care about holding out pure whites. Because that tinting wash is going to be your lightest light (unless you use white gouache). The tint can be graded, too, from a tint to white on the page, or from one color tint blended into a second color.

  • I’ve never heard of underpainting with watercolors, because they are transparent. I guess the only time i’d do it if it was a night time scene, and I wanted to add that underlying blue tone to all my colors. Or a similar scenario. But you run the risk of muddling colors up. I would just paint normal, and not do underpainting.

  • @lmrush meaning setting up a tonal value under the painting usually with a cool color or something.

  • @MirkaH Great. Thank you for your help

  • Thank you all for your help. This helps answer some questions for me.

    Much appreciated.

  • Quentin Greban always always use this technique. I totally love his illustrations.

    When I paint in watercolor (of course I am way worse than Quentin Greban 😃 ), I sometimes use this technique, it totally depends on the paper I am using. Sometimes the paper are not that good for multiple-layers of watercolor, but can handle watercolor and colored pencil at the same time.
    While for paper that are good for underpainting, such as Arches cold press, adding a layer of colored pencil would be too difficult.

  • SVS OG

    I have tried this technique and have liked it in certain paintings and not so much in others so I’m not sure I’m much help. I only use it with a limited palette and transparent colors, and it works best for me if it’s a heavily organic scene — a woodland setting for example.

    (For those who don’t know what this is, some people will lay a light wash of one color over the entire painting before painting on top of it to unify the painting. It requires a good understanding of glazing because the layers will blend with those below and maybe that’s why mine have only been sometimes successful.)

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    You guys should check out Vesper's SVS class. It's all about under painting in watercolor and it can really add a lot of depth and glow to your colors.


  • @Lee-White that class was very informative about how watercolors actually work with each other and the paper. It also educates on why under painting and building up layers works sometimes and not others.

  • @Lee-White Just rewatched Versper's class, and yes, big thumbs up on building up the colors and tones through glazes. What I've learned from this thread is that "underpainting" seems mean very different things to every artist, and that confusion has been reflected in the answers.

  • @Lee-White I'll have to check that out. Sounds like a great class!

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