Imprimatura Basics

For starters, think of a brown paper bag...

Imprimatura is a term used in painting. It is an initial stain of color painted on a ground (like my gessoed canvas shown below).

It provides a painter with a transparent toned ground. I prefer to use the approximate color and value of a brown paper bag.

The term is Italian and literally means ¨first paint layer" and it helps the classical painter begin with a middle tone and then establish value relations from dark to light.

I cannot think of anything more impossible to paint on than a stark white canvas!

An imprimatura is usually made with an earth color - for a portrait I like to use Raw Umber mixed with Winsor-Newton's Liquin Medium.

Some people use turpentine + color but I prefer to seal the canvas with Liquin.

Note the cheap "hardware store" white britstle brush above...I "use 'em and then I lose 'em.".

The first layers of a painting establish value and composition, color comes much much later.

Here are some examples from the works of Rubens:

In his oil sketches, you can see the imprimatura underneath it all.

It is easy to see - especially in these works.

I once saw a show of his oil sketches at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and that is when I first understood the importance of the imprimatura.

The imprimatura is the "mother color" that makes it all hang together. The painting above appears to have a darker imprimature - and thus is a darker painting.

This painting bleow - I have not see the original - but it is a mini-lesson in how to (sometimes) underpaint paint dark areas and shadows.

All of the darks and shadow areas appear to have been painted in red - a clever way to make those areas luminous, warm and lively when overpainted.

Note that in a landscape, I'll often use an "earthy red" (or sometimes cadmium orange) as my imprimatura and allow that color to peek through the final layers of the painting.

Even in the Old Master's drawing, a toned paper is used....and it is just the color of a brown paper bag!

Many of my paintings at begin with an imprimatura.


vanessa morris said...

Hi Karin,

My raw umber looks very cool and dark compared to your demo or a brown paper bag.

I use Old Holland. Is Windsor Newton warmer?


My Painting Studio said...

Paint colors certainly do vary by brand. Winsor-Newton's Raw Umber mixed with Liquin is warm as in the picture.

I don't own a tube of Old Holland Raw Umber so I have no way to compare it.

But if your color looks too dark - thin it down, i.e., use more medium or turpentine for the imprimatura....until it is about the value, if not the color, of a brown paper bag.

Good luck.

vanessa morris said...

Hi Karin,
Still working on imprimatura.

I found the brush strokes hard to smooth with liquon for an even underpainting - even with the softest brush. So, I used a shop cloth saturated with raw umber and liquin. Now the underpainting is smooth - like a brown paper bag.

Is imrimatura ususally smooth?

Best wishes Vanesssa

My Painting Studio said...

Imprimatura can be smooth - or not. I prefer smooth.

Rubens' oil sketches have the imprimatura showing and you can often see the large diagonal brushstrokes. He uses that to "tie it all together."

Shama said...

Thank you for the amazing method, i never knew about this.

Do I need to wait until my imprimatura is dry or i can start painting?

My Painting Studio said...

Let the imprimatura dry first.

Shama said...

Thank you :)