Underpainting Practice – Andre the Giant

As I discussed in my last post, I’m making an effort to push myself more when it comes to artwork. A huge part of that obviously is trying oil painting for the first time around two months ago. But I am also trying to flex some artistic muscles that I haven’t used much. I described this in some depth already; although I enjoy drawing, I can see that I had become somewhat stagnant in a sense. Yes, I was getting practice. But I really wasn’t trying to learn anything new with it. I had a process that worked for me, and I followed that pretty much every time.

Hobbies can be hard to predict exactly – sometimes, life gets busy and certain plans might get delayed or derailed. But, at this moment in time, I’m really interested in learning more and getting better with paints. I watched a video by Chris Fornataro (“Paint Coach” on YouTube) where he talks about painting from life and how it can be difficult if your typical flow isn’t conducive to it. It sounds like his routines had brought him to a place where he couldn’t easily adapt to different scenarios. I realized that if a skilled professional like him could fall into a rut like that, it must be orders of magnitude more limiting for a hobbyist like me. The video I linked was really illuminating for me, and made me start to ruminate on growing and developing artistic skills.

Examples of underpainting from expert artists. From left to right: Yupari, Ben Lustenhouwer, Chelsea Lang, and Chris Fornataro. Check the links to watch full process and end result of these portraits. If you enjoy painting videos, these channels are fantastic for learning.

So, after some pondering, I determined painting from life is one of my long terms goals now. And I think there are a lot of ways to get there. But, as I’ve said, my routines and usual methods won’t work. Fortunately for me, there are literally thousands of videos on YouTube available to browse on this topic. One method that it seems many artists follow, which coincidentally also seems to be the Paint Coach’s approach, is to create an underpainting first. The basics of this process, as I see it, follow this general path:

  1. Using a mauve-brown color, paint the basic head shape, center feature line vertically between the eyes, then horizontal line(s) for eye and/or mouth placement.
  2. Using the same mauve-brownish color, block in major features like eyes, mouth, nose, hair, etc.
  3. The underpainting is done! Next, I like to start the “real painting” by adding color and mold/shape the paint into place. Some artists start dark first, others seem to pick a “mid hue/tone” that they can adjust as they proceed.

So, that is essentially the short explanation of underpaintings, at least as I understand them. At first, I had some difficulty conceptualizing the notion of being able to paint over an underpainting. Pencil is far less forgiving than oil paint, so it’s almost like I didn’t believe that I could easily make that first outline layer disappear. But does literally just fade away as you add your colors. This is one of the things I love so much about painting – that you don’t have to worry so much about getting everything right at the beginning.

Immediately after finishing the painting from my last post, I launched right into the subject of this one. I had a head of steam going from trying a freehand painting, so I decided to do another. I first purposely avoided trying to paint someone real/recognizable, but after one loose portrait, I had banked a small degree of confidence, so I randomly decided to try Andre the Giant. I’m a big Princess Bride fan, and have done a few pencil sketches before. Here’ how the painting turned out:

A study of Andre the Giant. Oil paint on paper.

All in all, this was not a bad effort. I feel that it’s right in line with my own personal expectations for something done without measurements. Meaning, that it’s not a great likeness, but still somewhat recognizable as that person, and not too bad in a general sense as a painting. As I’ve mentioned before, for portraits that are supposed to be of real people, one of my first questions after finishing is typically, “does it look like the person?” I think this one broadly checks that box…although I don’t think this is something Andre Roussimoff’s family would frame and hang anywhere.

One aspect that has become a recurring struggle with this loose style is trying to get the placement of features right. With this one, I was close, but I think the nose was somewhat out of position. In later portraits, you’ll see I start trying to lay down more horizontal and vertical planes in the underpaintings. I imagine this is probably something people usually learn early in art classes…but since I’m an untrained amateur, just trying to “learn by doing” (and by watching YouTube), I’m coming by some of these lessons more slowly. But I imagine some more of those planes/dividing lines could have helped a bit here.

You can perhaps see some of what I mean in terms of feature positioning in the above progression video. Even if I have a good eye at the beginning, paint does have a habit of shifting position to some extent. This is true even when I use pencil to sketch an outline at the beginning. I believe this might be something that just takes time to get used to and compensate for. There’s a lot that seems to fall into the realm of “better with experience”, so maybe I’ll be able to work the beats out after a couple dozen more paintings.

Again, this one certainly has it’s flaws. But perhaps most importantly? It was a lot of fun! And that’s really what this is all about. And the fun continues, because even as I’m posting as frequently as possible to this blog, I’m still backlogged as I continue to churn out paintings. I have no plans to slow down though, because I can’t stop thinking about painting. I am making progress though, as I’m now only six paintings behind! Hopefully more to come in the next couple of days.


  • My mantra: “Placement is everything.”

    • I’m with you there – although I am finding oil paint to be more flexible than colored pencil in terms of fixing mistakes, the other side of that coin is that this mysterious shifts in position seem to happen to me more often. Like, some placements I thought I had well in hand slowly move ever so slightly out of place. Then either it just looks “off”, or I ended up with multiple small shifts that added to a big one!

Leave a Reply