This is a detailed guide on staining the canvas (or what is more formally known as underpainting). I remember when I first started using this technique. It had a profound effect on my work and my ability to judge colors.
- What it Means and Key Benefits
- Technique and Process
- What Color(s) to Use?
- Paint Wet on Wet or Wait for the Stained Surface to Dry?
- This Is an Optional Technique
- A Note on Other Mediums
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
What it Means and Key Benefits
Staining the canvas refers to an initial wash or coat of paint on the canvas or whatever surface you’re painting on. Some other terms used to describe this process are underpainting, imprimatura, veneda, verdaccio, morellone, and grisaille. These terms all roughly describe the same process and vary only in nuance.
There are several key benefits of staining the canvas:
It kills the white surface, making it easier to judge your colors. Colors can appear darker than they are when compared to white. Staining the canvas gives you a more balanced playing field to paint on and makes it easier to judge how light, dark, rich, or dull your colors are. It’s the same reason why many artists, including myself, use a gray-toned palette for color mixing. Painting is hard enough, so you should look for small wins like this wherever possible.
It establishes a better foundation for the darks. It’s easier to hit those deep darks when painting on a darker surface. This is particularly important if you are using transparent paints in the darks, like alizarin crimson.
It builds momentum and warms up your hands. This is a simple but important benefit. The most challenging point in the painting process is the start. Staining the canvas gives you an opportunity to get things moving and to warm up your hands.
It’s efficient. If the stain plays into your overall color theme, you can leave parts exposed in the finished painting.
Technique and Process
To stain the surface, I typically use a large brush to apply thin washes of color. I use odorless solvent to thin the oil paint (if you use other mediums, use water to thin your paint). I then wipe down the surface with paper towel to remove any excess paint and smooth the surface. I might also use the paper towel to map out some of the light shapes.
You could also apply the paint directly from the tube to the surface and then wipe it around using a paper towel plus solvent.
What Color(s) to Use?
The color(s) you use to stain the canvas will depend on the purpose of the stain and its role in your painting. There are typically two options:
(1) You’re staining the canvas to create a more balanced surface to paint on and to help with your judgment of colors; or
(2) You’re staining the canvas as part of your overall color theme or strategy for the painting.
If staining the canvas to create a more balanced surface to paint on (1) then you should stick to some kind of earth color. Raw umber, burnt sienna, or yellow ochre are my default choices. The idea behind using these colors is that they are low in saturation (they won’t overpower your painting) and are relatively dark.
I typically avoid vivid colors like any of the cadmiums as they cause all kinds of problems with your color judgment. Though I have seen some artists make good use of vivid color for the stain. Dan Schultz comes to mind. He starts many of his landscapes by staining the surface with a deep and saturated red. See below a painting from his Instagram. The results are stunning, but I would avoid doing this if you are just starting out.
If staining the canvas as part of your overall color theme or strategy for the painting (2) then the colors you use should align with the rest of the painting. If painting a forest with luscious greens and yellows, you could stain the canvas with a rich blue (this would play well with the greens and yellows). If painting a dry landscape, you could stain the canvas with warm earth colors. This would give you the option of leaving parts of the stained canvas exposed in the finished painting, suggesting rocks, soil, twigs, dried leaves, etc. If painting a stormy, overcast seascape, perhaps a stain of purple or blue would work well. If painting a fiery sunset, you could set the stage with deep reds and purples, as I did with my painting below.
I have also seen artists use complementary colors as the stain. For example, if the main color in your painting is green, they would use a dull or faded red for the stain. This can have a striking effect if you pull it off. Again, I would avoid doing this unless you are more advanced.
(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)
Paint Wet on Wet or Wait for the Stained Surface to Dry?
I typically wait for the stained surface to dry before I proceed with the rest of the painting. This ensures no unwanted color mixing. But there are times when I jump straight into it and work wet on wet. I do this when the color of the stain plays into the overall color theme and the colors mixing on the surface may produce favorable results.
My painting below is a good example, Brisbane City, Mist. I started by staining the surface with rich blue and green. I then proceeded to work wet on wet, painting the light grass area. The wet surface meant my bright green and yellow strokes mixed with the blue paint. This would usually be a problem, but here it created interesting color mixtures that play well in the overall theme (there’s a natural synergy between yellow, blue, and green). The wet surface also made it easier to create soft edges between light and shadow. The more I blended my strokes into the wet surface, the softer the edge. This is particularly evident in the second image with the sky.
This Is an Optional Technique
Staining the canvas is just one of many tools at your disposal. It’s not something you must do for every painting, but it’s ok if you do.
As I gained experience, I have found staining the canvas to be less necessary. My ability to accurately observe color has improved to the point that I have no issues with painting directly onto the white surface. When I do stain the canvas, I do so more because it aligns with my overall strategy for that painting or because I’m not sure how to start and want to build momentum.
We also should not ignore the benefits of painting directly onto the white surface. These are:
- There’s nothing like the feel of making those first strokes onto a fresh white canvas. My strokes don’t feel as crisp when painting onto a stained surface.
- You might want to utilize the white surface in the finished artwork. For example, you could leave parts of the white surface exposed as highlights (as you do in watercolor painting). Or you use exposed parts of the white surface to create a rustic, painterly finish. I did this in my painting Minnippi, Green, Contrast. See the painting below plus a closeup. Notice tiny gaps in the paint exposing the white canvas.
- There’s simplicity in working straight onto the white surface.
- The white surface might play well into your overall strategy and theme for the painting. For example, if you’re panting in a high key (light colors), painting directly on the white surface means you don’t need to work against the darker, stained surface.
A Note on Other Mediums
Staining the canvas is typically an oil painting technique, but you could use it with most other wet mediums. In the video below, James Gurney stains the canvas with yellow casein and paints over with gouache.
The main consideration is for watercolor painters. You typically need to preserve the white of the surface for your highlights, so staining should be used more sparingly. You also only have so much room to work with before your paper becomes unresponsive.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
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