"Dead Coloring" or Underpainting

Andrea del Sarto
Portrait of a Woman in Yellow (detail of an unfinished portrait showing the underpainting in the shadowed side of the face)
Andrea del Sarto
c. 1529-30
Oil on poplar panel, 64.3 x 50.1 cm.
The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London

After the initial outline drawing was completed, Vermeer began the "dead coloring" (or underpainting as it is called today), one of the most important stages in his working procedure. Without a thorough knowledge and mastery of the underpainting technique, the extraordinary pictorial unity which characterizes Vermeer's most mature pictures may not have been easily achieved. The underpainting technique greatly facilitates the realization of finely balanced compositions, accurate depictions of light and chromatic subtleties.

Underpainting is rarely practiced today. For the last century, artists have simply begun painting directly on commercially pre-prepared white canvases with full color surpassing anything but a abbreviated drawing. Therefore, neither the function or the practice of underpainting are well understood.

In its simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version of the final painting intended to initially fix the composition, give volume and substance to the forms, and distribute darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination. The lack of color probably explains the word "dead" in the term "dead painting." Color was applied over the underpainting only when it was thoroughly dry. Underpaintings were usually executed in warm earth tones on neutral gray or warm brown grounds. Raw umber, at times mixed with black, were frequently used for this purpose. Cool gray underpaintings were also employed. An example of a sketchy, warm brown underpainting can be seen in the right-hand side of the face of an unfinished portrait by the Italian painter Andrea del Sarto (see detail image left). Few underpaintings have survived.

Andrea del Sarto
The Sacrifice of Isaac
Andrea del Sarto
c. 1527
208 x 171 cm.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

In this unfinished painting, the angle has been underpainted in monochrome browns while the color has begun to be roughed in the early stages of the working-up stage.

In Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (right), both the initial drawing and various stages of the underpainting can be clearly seen. Rubens used white to heighten the illuminated areas of the underpainting.

Thus, with a minimum of effort, an artist was able to envision quite accurately the totality of his pictorial idea. He could observe the defective parts of the painting and correct them with relative ease, for it is far easier to model with a few neutral tones than with more complex color mixtures. Even broad areas of the canvas which seemed too dark could be easily worked up and lighter ones darkened. The degree of finish and the exact tones used in the underpainting stage varied from school to school and even painter to painter. It cannot be ascertained if Vermeer defined his underpainting as accurately as those of Leonardo but laboratory evidence indicates that they were more sketchy. Vermeer generally used black and brown in his underpainting.

Rembrandt and Rubens, in particular, are know to have used underpainting very effectively. It is believed that artists once kept a number of underpaintings in their studio waiting for clients' interest before completing the painting with full color and detail.

Underpainting was not only a rapid and economical way to envision and elaborate compositions, it aided the painter in creating a number of optical effects that cannot be achieved by direct painting with color.

Vermeer's Underpainting

The Geographer, Johannes Vermeer
The Geographer (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1668-1669
Oil on canvas, 53 x 46.6 cm.
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

It now seems certain that underpainting was a fundamental step in Vermeer's relatively methodical creative process. Laboratory analysis demonstrates that in the underpainting stage, the artist made many major and minor alterations in the type, placement, and dimensions of objects found in his compositions.1 Chairs, maps, framed paintings, musical instruments, baskets, a standing cavalier and even a dog can no longer be seen where they were originally represented. Vermeer probably painted them out in the underpainting stage having seen that they did not create the desired effect or that they were distracting to the painting's central theme. He changed the positions of arms and fingers to create precisely the gesture he desired, edges of maps were moved to the left or right to add stability to the composition and the contours of the young women's garments were altered to make them more elegant and fluid, and shadows too were lightened or darkened, all depending of the immediate visible effect that the underpainting produced.

It has been noticed that in the Geographer there is more than one passage which seems to have been left uncompleted or which over have become exposed. Perhaps, much of the deep shaded area of the carpet reveals Vermeer's method of underpainting. If this is so, his method would appear similar to those of his contemporaries.

Did Vermeer Use the Camera Obscura to Define His Underpaintings?

Lawrence Gowing, a painter and one of the most penetrating of Vermeer scholars, believes that an x-ray photograph of the face of the Girl with a Pearl Earring constitutes evidence of the artist's painting method. X-rays images reveal the presence of lead, which is the primary component of lead-white, the principal white pigment used by painters until the mid-nineteenth century. Gowing assumes that the white areas of the image correspond the underpainting stage and was a direct transcription of the incidence of light on the screen of the camera obscura. Particularly suggestive of the camera obscura's effect is the perfectly spherical highlight of the pearl earring which has been altered in the final version, the same goes for the dim highlight of the eye to the right hand side of the painting. Gowing believes that "the artist, evidently proceeded, in finishing the picture, to mediate between objectivity and convention."1 Since the x-ray image only reveals the presence of the heavier lead white and the remaining areas are registered as black, it tends to produces an exaggerated effect of contrast.

Gowing's idea has been corroborated by Phillip Steadman's more recent hypothesis that Vermeer may have used the camera obscura not only to trace the projected camera obscura image on the canvas, but also to paint in strict correlation with camera obscura image always close at hand.

A Hypothesis of Vermeer's Underpainting Methods

The image below shows a reasonable hypothesis of Vermeer's underpainting methods, as conceived by the author of this site, Jonathan Janson.

Click here to access a large image of the underpainting.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Jonathan janson

  1. A relatively new technique called infrared reflectography is able to evidence black pigment which is under other layers of paint. Although it has been extremely valuable as a method for analyzing the nature of old masters underpainting, the picture it produces is not entirely accurate since shades of browns (umber usually) which are not revealed by the method, were very often mixed in varying proportions with black. Unfortunately, while laboratory analysis can identify the existence of Vermeer's underpainting, its exact nature cannot be determined in great detail since is as its name implies, it lies under other layers of paint and therefore is only partially visible with modern laboratory techniques. To complicate matters, Vermeer himself seemed to experimented with a number of different pictorial solutions throughout his career and mostly likely with different kinds of underpainting as well. However, a few excellent examples of unfinished works of art that reveal quite accurately standard underpainting procedures have survived and Vermeer's methods probably did not vary a great deal from them.
  2. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, London, 1952.
underpainting, leonardo da Vinci
Adoration of the Magi
Oil on panel, 246 x 243 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
radiograph of the Girl with a pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Pearl Earring (radiograph image of face)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665- 1667
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 40 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Lokking Over Vermeer's Shoulder, by Jonathan Janson
(second edition - expanded and illustrated)
by Jonathan Janson (painter and author of Essential Vermeer)

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder is the comprehensive, fully illustrated eBook about the materials and techniques of the 17th-c. Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, and those of the his most technically advanced fine painters.

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