Art Encyclopedia - Underpainting
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Underpainting refers to any painting on the ground or support which is of significance in the build-up of the painting. The underpainting may be superseded by subsequent, additional layers, while other parts of the underpainting may be left to show through and affect the subsequent layer.
Underpainting can also describe the first painting on the surface of a picture, done in monochrome, and which lays out the general composition.
Until the late 19th century, when alla prima painting became general, most paintings were built up in a series of such layers. Usually underpainting was monochromatic. In tempera, it was traditionally done in terre verte (green earth colour), and a greenish caste can often be seen in 14th-century paintings, especially in the shadows of the flesh. In oil painting, various neutral colours were used for the monochrome underpainting, which might be painted over a coloured imprimatura. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was common to use tempera for the underpainting of works in oil. By the 19th century the main design of the painting was usually put in a colour scheme similar to that planned for the finished work, though each colour might be more subdued and extreme darks and lights were avoided.