Underdrawing for oils

October 24, 2020

I hesitate to say something about a topic that may (or should) already be well covered in artist manuals and/or the blog-o-sphere but since I have had a steep learning curve myself these past few weeks, I thought it might be helpful to document these lessons for others. I’m thinking that the main reason there is less information out there is because most painters these days prefer to paint on an acrylic gesso ground. It’s cheaper, easier, faster and less toxic. I also think that most painters are interested in using an alla prima approach to painting, it’s the fashion and one which generally does not make use of an underdrawing. ‘Nuff said.

To set the stage for my problem: I had a series of 3mm HDF panels (note, not canvases) which were sized with rabbit skin glue and then primed with a lead white primer. I had used Old Holland Lead White, in a 120 ml can: lead carbonate ground with cold-pressed linseed oil which was diluted with five parts turpentine (to one part stand oil, my mistake, NEVER do that again. The stand oil introduces an unnecessary element of fat into a ground that should always be as lean as possible). These panels were primed over one year ago. They were fully cured.

I now wanted to transfer my designs onto these panels – and from that design, create an indelible underdrawing which could serve as a foundation upon which to build an image. The problem/challenge was to find a medium that would be absorbed by this lean oil ground and yet (after an adequate amount of drying time) would not dissolve into the successive layers of fatter oil paint on top. (This business of painting is always a two way street.)

I set about transferring my first set of designs by printing a black and white version of the image to size onto a piece of paper, covering the back side of the paper with vine charcoal, and then tracing the design by pressing the tip of a dull stylus into the main lines. The resulting charcoal design on the panel could be erased or modified, but now I had something upon which to base a more permanent underdrawing.

Acrylic Ink?

Due to my recent experience in developing underdrawings for acrylic, I already knew that black acrylic ink (which is perfect for drawing on an acrylic gesso ground and then painting in acrylics over that) would not be appropriate for drawing on an oil ground. The practical and simple logic is such: oil can be superimposed upon acrylic but not vice versa.

India ink?

I set about drawing in my designs with a pen nib using permanent india ink. They appeared to bead up. The ground was not receptive to india ink. No amount of drying time would change that. It was an oil and water thing. My ground was too fat for the india ink, so I cleaned it off and started over.

Underdrawing in light black oil wash over collaged panel primed with lead oil ground.

Underdrawing in light black oil wash over collaged panel primed with lead oil ground.

Mars black oil paint heavily diluted with turpentine and painted in with thin washes?

What did painters, painting on oil based grounds for centuries, do? Well, first, surely they did not add stand oil to their ground(!) (my bad.) But still, since the oil ground is oil, they must have used a medium to which it was receptive. My first series of underdrawings then were done with mars black oil paint heavily diluted with turpentine. They looked great and appeared to be well received by the oil ground. Hooray #1. See image above, left. However after three or four days of drying time, they began to lift off the ground when lightly touched with a kneaded eraser to lift off that original charcoal tracing design. Not good. I began to think I would have to start over by priming a whole new set of panels without the addition of that nasty stand oil.

Underdrawing created with a mars black oi paint diluted 50:50 or so with turpentine, drawn on an oil based ground using a pen stylus.

Underdrawing created with a mars black oi paint diluted 25:75 or so with turpentine, drawn on an oil based ground using a pen stylus.

Mars black oil paint less heavily diluted and drawn in with a pen nib?

Then I also realised that I could try creating a black oil drawing medium which was less diluted (that is, contained more oil). So I mixed up a small jar with a blob of oil paint and an amount of turpentine, roughly 25:75. Test strokes. Trial and error. I wanted to create something fluid and siccative, which would work with a pen nib but which was thicker than my previous dilutions. I reasoned that this new batch would fare better with firm, linear lines rather than the fugitive, heavily diluted brush strokes. The paint/ink could be thicker than before and also this form of thick strokes could take up less “space” on the ground. I completed a few yesterday and will let them fully dry but I think and hope I have solved my problem. Time will tell. I hope to update this page as the project progresses.