Once I have a final to-scale drawing for the composition finished, the next step in my process is to transfer that drawing to the surface I will be painting on.
These days I paint on Aluminum Composite panels instead of linen canvas. If you’re curious why I decided to make the change, I wrote at length about that and about how I prepare the panels for oil paint here.
For this painting, I have a prepared 32 x 40 inch panel all ready to go, and I just need to get the drawing onto it. I use a method called an ‘oil transfer’ which is basically a scaled-up, oil paint-based version of the carbon copy paper you find in check books. I’m a huge fan of this technique, and it’s another topic I have posted about quite a bit. If you’re interested in more on that process, you can read about it here, but in summary I have the drawing blown up to full size, cover the back with a very thin coat of oil paint, fasten it over the panel, and carefully trace over it. It works like a charm.
Now I’m ready to actually do some painting! In the past, I would just dive in at this point with full color, but I’ve added an intermediate step the process. An underpainting. This is an old technique, but I’ve been a late adopter. What it entails is pretty much painting the entire painting in monochrome, and then painting the entire painting a second time over the top in color. It sounds like a crazy amount of extra work, but the more I’ve worked this way, the more I love it. It allows me to solidify the overall value scheme for the paining and work out any compositional issues that I might not have resolved in the drawing. Because it’s done in monochrome, I can easily push different areas back and forth, lighter or darker, until I get the balance just right, without having to be concerned with color. This is particularly useful to me in paintings set in a very dark overall key like this one is, where subtle changes in value in the shadows can be difficult to judge until they are all in place and working together. The shades of gray in the gradation in the walls of the cupola, for example, were almost impossible to discern from each other on the palette, but in context on the panel, they are quite obvious. It’s so much faster to make these changes in monochrome that I’ve actually found that the extra work of the underpainting is often saving me time overall, and I think it’s making my finished paintings better…which is even more important.
Really, the underpainting is a refinement of the drawing. It’s a great place to play with details like the design of the space station outside the window or the cloud patterns on the Earth. Things that are hard to communicate in a line drawing, like the brighter backdrop of the Milky Way behind the astronaut’s head and outreached arm, are easy to convey in paint. And while I hint at form and depth with a little hatching in the scale drawing, I am able to really begin to create some space with the full value range at my disposal.
Well, almost the full value range. Because I want to really punch the glow of the earth and stars, I’m forcing myself to save the brightest values for the overpainting by not even putting them on my palette. I’ve also painted the Milky Way slightly brighter in the underpainting that it needs to be because I will be glazing over it in the color stage which will darken it. But I’ll get to that.
I’ve got another few days of work to do on the underpainting. As soon as it’s finished, I post some images and get ready to start adding color.