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  • Writer's pictureKevin Roeckl

Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 2

Putting in the underpainting of the background scene, on a rainy day.

The pine tree on the left was done first with colored pencils. Then I masked off the dogs’ heads and the standing dog on the left, where they stick up into the scene, using an adhesive masking film, cut out with a sharp x-acto knife. The rest of the artwork is covered with white paper to protect it from paint drips.

Now I’ve put in the blue-grey water for the lake, the bluish distant tree-covered slopes of the mountain, and the rocky peak of the mountain. (Photo below)

This underpainting

will save me trying to color in a lot of lighter color with pencils over the grey Canson paper. I made the underpainting by mixing white acrylic with blue-green to make a very pale blue for the lake, more blue-green to make a not-quite-so-pale color for the mountain slopes, and mixed white with purple to make an extremely pale lavender for the peak. In this pic you can see the lavender that was mixed in a little tin-foil “tray” to the right of the artwork.

All 3 colors were thinned with water

to make a very thin, transparent wash, so the grey of the paper will show through. Otherwise the colors would be too bright for the scene. The grey-ish-ness from the paper helps make the mountain scene muted and distant-looking. That’s an example of how I use the paper color in an artwork in my strategy for the whole painting.

After this dries for a day, I’ll mask off the mountain too.

Then I can do the whole sky with sweeping strokes of acrylic paint (not thinned with water) to completely cover the grey and make a luminescent sky-blue sky. That will take at least 2 coats. I had to do the underpainting of the mountain first, so I could then put the adhesive masking material over it to do the sky. Otherwise I’d have to paint very carefully up to the edge of each mountain peak and around the dog’s ears with each coat, trying not to overlap the edges. Being able to sweep a large brush smoothly across the sky will make a much smoother (more realistic) sky.

Doberman portrait in progress with masking and underpainting in Kevin's studio

The thing that makes this underpainting so tricky are the “values”.

For artists, “value” refers to how light or dark something is. I have to get the values of the mountain and the lake just right or it will look too dark in the finished painting (it won’t look far away). Having a very light value (it’s very pale) is what makes a mountain in a landscape look “far off”.

The tricky thing is that when it’s compared to the value of the grey paper, the mountain looks almost white, as you see below. But it must not be white…because the sky has to be even lighter than the mountain. So the values of the mountain - it’s forested slopes and it’s paler rock peak - have to be light enough to look far away, but dark enough that the mountain will stand out dark against a pale blue sky.

Until the pale sky is put in, the artist has to judge the values (the lightness/darkness) of the colors against something he can’t see yet.

Since I test it first on scraps of paper, I know I got the values of the distant mountain and lake right. But against the dark paper it looks much too light doesn’t it? — almost white. With a very pale sky behind it, those values of the mountain will fall into place.

Portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans in progress, showing underpainting with watercolor wash

Wow, what a difference the sky makes!

This is the exact same mountain as you saw in the previous pic. It looked too pale against the grey paper. Now it looks quite dark against the blue sky.

Once the sky was in, now the “values” of the mountain slopes and mountain peak are just right.

Being able to get values precisely right is what artists refer to as having “good value control”. It takes many years of practice.

Portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans in progress, showing underpainting with watercolor wash and acrylic sky

Remember, the dogs’ heads are masked off so I could make broad strokes with the sky-blue acrylic paint using a large brush. The sky is darker at the top, and being able to make those long sweeping strokes side to side allowed me to blend the sky smoothly, even though acrylic paint dries really fast. When the masking film is lifted off, the dogs’ ears will still be the grey of the paper. That grey is the perfect color (and value) to work on with colored pencils to make Dobermans.

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