“What on earth is that?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s something I’ve only ever tried once, but I’m going to start using again. It’s all about laying a base coat on a canvas, often over the original drawing marks. Many artists use brown, others use orange. I suppose it’s about using a colour which is different from the majority of the colour you will be using in the top layers.
It was used by Leonardo da Vinci, as can be seen in the example above. It comes from the Italian word, meaning “what goes first”, and was used throughout art history. And the reason I’ve decided that i need to start using it is simple. I use my paints more like watercolours than anything else, even though acrylics can be laid down in really quite thick layers. The white of the canvas always shows through. Why is that a problem? Well, it’s not really a problem, but it means there is always a thin quality to my colour. If I were to paint on a brown base, I would be forced to use a much thicker layer of colour in order for it to cover up the base layer properly. The luminous paint effects that I see and love in so many artists work will be easier to achieve. I know that might seem counter-intuitive, for surely letting the white of the canvas shine through is going to give exactly that sense of luminosity? Yes and no. Because the paint layers are so much thinner, brush-strokes are harder to cover up, especially in areas of flat colour such as the sky.
Look at this piece by Joseph Farquharson, “When the West with Evening Glows”.
That luminosity is achieved because of the thicker layers of paint, not because the canvas is showing through. It gives a very natural feel to the light, rather than the often quite delineated paint effects I am able to achieve:
Now the Pre-Raphaelites used an opposite technique when painting: they painted on a wet white base coat. This was to emulate the frescoes from the early Renaissance which they so loved. I tried it once – far too much trouble to keep the base coat wet as I worked over the top! So I’ve never used it since, but like them, I use thin layers of paint. It’s fine to build up layers of paint, but sometimes it’s dicc-icult to see whether I’ve actually covered the whole canvas, particularly when the top layer is the same white as the canvas!
So imprimatura is my next area of learning as an artist. I’ll keep you posted on how I get on!