An imprimatura is an optional first step in the painting process whereby the artist’s surface is toned with a pigment. It can bring many benefits to the appearance of your painting.
A toned canvas can help you to create a particular quality of light and establish warm or cool tones. By working on a mid toned ground, the artist can perceive the relationships between different colour values more easily. Imprimatura can also provide continuity between different sections of your painting. It can create a base tone so that different areas don’t appear disparate.
What effects can you achieve with an imprimatura?
When you’re considering choosing a pigment for a toned surface, think about the effect you want to achieve.
It’s important to understand different properties of pigments and the overall effect they could have on the outcome of a painting.
For example, warm toned pigments can be useful for creating sunsets or autumn scenes, where you want to create an incandescent effect in different areas of your painting.
Imagine an autumn forest with low evening light shining through the trees. A sienna undertone would work beautifully to create heat from the sun and would also provide red tones in the autumn leaves in places where you’ve laid down transparent layers of paint. The imprimatura will backlight the transparent layers.
Think about where you want to show light in your painting and what the lightest colours will be. If you are painting yellow morning sun dappled over shimmering leaves, a golden coloured imprimatura of yellow ochre spread over a white gesso ground will be far more luminous to show through the top layers of your painting than any yellow mixture you could make with yellow ochre and white, especially if you are using titanium.
If you’re trying to create maximum contrast between your imprimatura and the colour scheme you envision for your painting, be careful when opting for the most obvious and intense contrasting colour. This can create a muddied effect, as the colours can cancel each other out, creating a neutralised appearance. Think about instead, how you can create a more organic complementary contrast.
You can also use an imprimatura to bring out certain colours or tones that you see throughout the reference you are painting from. Instead of using an organic complementary colour, use analogous colours (ones that would sit next to one another on a colour wheel). These colour schemes match well and make for serene and harmonious compositions.
Classic earth colours used for imprimatura
Earth pigments dry fast and are usually transparent or semi transparent. They’re also dark enough to establish light and dark tones at an early stage of the painting process, which would be useful if you choose to lift colour from your imprimatura in areas of your artwork that you anticipate will be lighter. All of these properties make earth pigments especially suitable for the task of toning your surface.
Burnt Sienna gives an earthy orange effect. This is good for creating warmth in a piece and contrast beneath paintings with many blue shades, such as seascapes.
Red Ochre combines well with other colours to create a range of natural shades. If you are doing a cityscape that involves painting brickwork, skin tones, rendering a desert scene, or even a forest scene, this would be a great option. Vermeer was known to use red ochre as an imprimatura in his paintings.
Yellow Ochre is good for creating light in the painting. Think of golden hour light.
Mars Brown is a rich brown that has a golden note to it. This can be applied on its own to deepen shadows in your piece, or mixed with yellow ochre for an effective light gold.
Burnt Umber is a warm brown, but has a slightly duller appearance than other pigments, making it suitable for paintings with low light.
Raw Umber is a brown that has greenish undertones. It would be a good option for painting plants, moss covered trees, or rolling hills on a rainy day.
Imprimatura to complement greens (forest scenes, grass etc)
Create contrast: To create an organic contrast to the colours of foliage consider using an imprimatura of a warm, reddish brown. You could even create an imprimatura in pink or magenta to create vibrancy and liveliness—this is especially effective in winter scenes.
Create harmony: Blues to emphasise deep shadows, or yellows to show bright light.
Pigments to use
Imprimatura to complement blues (seascapes, skies, winter scenes etc)
Contrast: Nothing makes blue pop more than an orange imprimatura. A dull blue can appear more intense if the orange tone underneath is similar in value. You can create simultaneous contrast by applying a neutral blue-gray mix over an orange tone—it will make it appear a brighter blue.
Harmony: Violet blue for winter scenes, yellow for daylight or burnt umber for stormy skies.
Pigments to use
Imprimatura to complement oranges, reds, pink colours (desert scenes, florals, sunsets)
A yellow ground under oranges and reds can create an intensity of light. You could also cool the red tones down with a blue imprimatura.
Pigments to use
Imprimatura to complement yellows (flowers, morning light, golden hour)
The luminosity of a yellow used as imprimatura, which has been allowed to show through the layers of a painting cannot be matched. If your painting is going to have a lot of yellow highlights and tones, I’d advise using yellow as an imprimatura and scraping or wiping off paint in areas you want the highlights to be.
Pigments to use
Imprimatura to complement paintings with dark shadows and deep blacks
Here, imprimatura can help you create deeper, darker shadows. Creating an opaque black toned ground is an option. Just bear in mind that oil paint becomes increasingly transparent over the years (even though we’re talking hundreds of years). This could make consecutive layers in the painting more difficult to see.
Pigments to use
Burnt Umber will provide a mid tone ground of yellowish brown and it will allow you to work quickly afterwards to establish dark and light values. Burnt Umber is close to the colour of the imprimatura Rembrandt would have used in many of his paintings.
Imprimatura to complement portraits
If you study a portrait, you’ll notice that areas of natural skin tone are far more muted than you might have originally thought. Even areas which might appear bright or dark, such as lips, if you look at them in isolation, you’ll realise they’re quite desaturated compared to how you may have initially translated them onto the canvas. Beginner painters who are trying to achieve realistic colour palettes often make the mistake of using highly saturated colours as a default. A neutral earth colour can help you to keep the colours toned down, creating subtle and realistic shifts in chroma.
Think about the earth colour you choose to match highlights in the skin tone or hair colour. Looking at Rembrandt’s work again, he used the technique of scratching off paint with the end of his paintbrush to reveal the imprimatura beneath. You can see this in the hairs of the moustache in the portrait of Nicolaes Ruts, where the hairs he scratched off are the finest and most luminescent marks made in the painting. Another interesting thing to note about Rembrandt’s paintings, is that he left imprimatura exposed in areas of shadow on skin, making the darker areas feel lighter and more transparent. You can harness techniques like these to give portraits more depth and definition.
Pigments to use
Have you found a favourite pigment for imprimatura?
The advice above is based on previous experiments I’ve conducted and what I have learnt. The most important thing is to experiment for yourself. If you find a pigment you love working with for imprimatura and feel like you want to share, let us know in the comments!
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