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 :)

Vlado Lukacko said...

Hello Karin

I am a very beginner in oil painting. I am standing now in front of imprimatura doors and I am getting confused. I see you are using only Raw Umber mixed with the medium for the portraits. I read some articles about the artists using White and Ivory Black for their imprimatura, too. What is the difference ? Only in color preference or is there anything behind ?

Thanks a lot for your blog, I finally hit a proper article with examples. Well done !!

Regards, Vlado

My Painting Studio said...

You can use any color for your imprimatura. I use raw umber because the Old Masters used it. I like the warmth of it.

You can use titanium white + Ivory black and that would make your imprimatura very cool. And if you are using an "earth palette" it would fool the eye into thinking black and white equals blue.

A more neutral color would be raw umber + titanium white.

I know landscape painters who really work hard to find a way to put red into a painting... so they use a cadmium red imprimatura under their landscapes and let a bit of the color show through.

There is no one way to paint a picture. Rule of thumb - make your imprimatura is a medium value so you can paint both light and dark on top values on top of it (and thus allow the imprimatura to become your middle value).

Vlado Lukacko said...

Hi Karin

First of all, thanks for rhe answer. Really helpfull. So, I think I made my imprimatura too dark. Now it is completely dry and I don't know what to do. I tried to wash it little bit with turpentine cloth but that didn't work out. Before applying the imprimatura I think I did not bring enough of medium into the was too thick ( unfortunately I realized too late ). My drawing under it can still be seen, so I am only worrying about that medium value. Is there any way how to get out of such a problem ? Maybe some kind of special washing technique ? :)

Thanks a lot, Vlado

My Painting Studio said...

You can fix it. Do you understand what I mean by "value?" Value is the lightness or darkness of an object.

You can mix that brown paper bag color with titanium white + raw umber + raw sienna.

Mix a pile of white + raw umber with a palette knife on your palette first. (Never mix a pile of paint with your brush).

Try a dab of the paint on the brown paper bag. If it is too dark - add white. It it is too light, add raw umber.

Once you get the correct value, then add raw sienna until it is warm (like the brown paper bag color).

Then use that pile of paint to cover your canvas.

My Painting Studio said...

One other tip - start with a pile of raw umber paint and lighten it with white until it is the value you want.

If you begin with white - you'll never get it dark enough without mixing way more than you'll ever need - you'd be wasteing a bucket of paint...

If you don't believe me - try it. :)

Vlado Lukacko said...

Dear Karin

I have tried your tips and they worked really good !! Thanks for all your help, I appreciate. Only problem I faced was that my dark imprimatura started to crack little bit under the lighter one I applied according to your tips. I wiped the canvas with a cotton cloth all over and cracking stopped. So lucky !! I guess the cracking started because the dark imprimatura wasn't dry enough.

About the values, I understand it to be in medium range so I paint over the medium imprimatura the shadow areas and the lighter areas. Sorry, maybe a bit stupid notes but I am just beginning with oil and I want to follow the exact procedure, until I reach the final paint I have already imagined in my head.

Thanks again, Vlado

My Painting Studio said...

One layer must be completely dry before applying the next. that is why I use Liquin as my medium... I don't like to wait more than overnight for a surface to dry.

If you are painting darks... you must do it in thin layers. Thick dark paint will always crack.

For example, if you are painting black... don't use ivory black or mars black. If you do use them it will look "dead."

It is better to mix Prussian Blue + Burnt Umber until the mix isn't blue - and isn't red. Paint it thinly - maybe one or two layers and you will get the look of "black" without any cracking.

Only paint thickly when your paint mixture contains titanium white, yellow ochre, yellow ochre pale and indian red. In the earth palette, these are the ONLY opaque colors - and the ONLY colors I apply thickly.

Transparent and translucent colors must be kept thin.

Speed2011 said...

I have been experimenting with this method for some time now. I would agree that it is an excellent approach for any student seeking to give his work that old master look. I would like to offer an alternative for those who are anxious to get started on a painting but don't want to wait for the oil imprimatura to dry. I have been using acrylic raw umber which dries fast in the sun. It doesn't quite have that warm quality that oil paint does, but it works well enough when you find yourself feeling too impatient to wait and just want to get started on the picture.

Vlado Lukacko said...

Hi Karin

The painting is done now. But, I still have a question about thinning the imprimatura paint mixture down. I know the fat over lean rule. If I get it right, the imprimatura mixture must be pretty fat if I want to make it good. Doesn't that fatness make the problems after applying the first umber underpaint ? That first underpaint should not be so fat, right ?
How that works ? Thanks for your help, Vlado

My Painting Studio said...

To Speed2011: Good idea!

Yes, I am impatient sometimes too. I have used acrylic raw umber for the imprimatur, BUT:

1. The canvas must be primed with acrylics first as acrylic paint will NOT stick to oil primed canvas and your painting will not be archival.

2. If the acrylic raw umber is not warm enough, I add a little raw sienna to the paint to warm it up and match the color of oil raw umber.

3. I keep the primatura thin when using acrylic paint... meaning I add water to make it like a stain, not acrylic medium.

4. Only after all is dry will I begin with the oils.

My Painting Studio said...

To Vlado Lucacko:

Yes, fat over lean matters... but not if you're using Winsor-Newton's Liquin as your medium (thank heavens for modern-day chemistry). The first layer of paint (imprimatura) is to stain your canvas, make it a darker value by "killing" the white.

"Fat" paint is paint generally thought of as coming straight from the tube. It becomes leaner as you add medium. And the imprimatura needs a lot of medium to thin it down to be translucent. (In other words, it becomes lean).

Use raw umber as a "mother color" to connect (or tie in) all the colors in my palette. I use the same raw umber, mixed with raw sienna to create my shadows.

As oil paint is generally thought of as opaque... it isn't. It is translucent and that first layer of imprimatura color must relate throughout all the layers that go on top of it.