Underdrawing, why bother?

October 27, 2020

Many years ago, when I lived in California and spent my time roving the landscape, I loved creating en plein air paintings, out there in the field, hugely ignorant about the role the underdrawing could play – but always curious. Out I would go, usually with a little thalo blue tempered with an egg yolk, to sketch in the forms I hoped to capture onto my chalk gessoed panel (never painted on canvas, as panels had irretrievably won me over early on). Thus even that starting sketch would take some time to dry, but worked well enough, since I lived in close proximity to my subject matter and California summers were hot and dry.

Fast forward some forty years and I still find myself refining the role the underdrawing plays. All this research has been self-taught, supplemented of course by the masters (the museums and the manuals). And since I no longer live in California, I no longer have the luxury of painting en plain air. Here in Northern Europe the summers can be divine – but fleeting. So I quickly reverted to drawing value studies on site that could later be used to create paintings on in the studio. This value study then, as potential underdrawing, became foundational for the future painting. During this phase I used silverpoint for the most part, sometimes enhanced with india ink. Here is a recent example of this approach.

A Piece of Me #08, encaustic on panel, notice how the underdrawing comes through, especially in the fine filigree architectural detail.

A Piece of Me #08, encaustic on panel, notice how the underdrawing comes through, especially in the fine filigree architectural detail.

The india ink underdrawing for A Piece of Me #08, rendered in pen and wash.

The india ink underdrawing for A Piece of Me #08, rendered in pen and wash.

All this brings me to my current project of creating 64 paintings (in different media) based on cut up sections of one original photograph. For lack of a better term, I call it “deconstructed realism”. Each section of this photograph then possesses an arbitrary layout, which when rendered in black and white, serves for my underdrawing.

But wait.

Do I use this black and white design in a mechanical way – to transfer the image – so it can then be rendered later in color? That is, do I transpose only the linear elements? Or do I render the value changes, too? Do I use silverpoint or india ink or a diluted black oil paint? Do I use a pen nib (to create strong harsh lines) or a brush (for subtler washes)? And, depending on the intended medium for painting, how do I want to make use of this underdrawing? Do I want it to completely disappear? Or do I want it to tantalisingly play through the levels of paint to come?

As the project has progressed I find myself continually opting for the latter. Thus at first the egg tempera and mixed technique underdrawings were subtle studies in fifty shades of grey (brushwork washes rendered in india ink), while the later encaustic, acrylic and oil panels became stronger underdrawing statements (rendered for the most part with india ink and a pen nib). Illustrated here is an example from one encaustic panel. The main point, always for myself as a painter, do I want to be identified with rendering, in this case, some (completely arbitrary) subject matter? Or do I want to create a painting? The answer of course is obvious.