An Abstract Underpainting

Woman in Meditation


Have you ever messed up a painting putting in a background? I have. I have ruined many paintings putting the background in last after spending hours or days working on the main subject.

What do I mean when I say “background”? I  mean the area behind the subject in a still life, a floral, or even a portrait.

I don’t know why backgrounds bug me so much. But they do. So, sometimes I paint the background before I paint the rest of the painting. How do I do that?

I paint an abstract underpainting.

What is so great about doing an abstract underpainting?

1. It is fun.
2. It gets rid of the white or blank paper that many artists are intimidated by.
3. It creates a sense of unity within a painting.

How do you do an abstract underpainting?

There are several ways.  Since I am a watercolorist, I am speaking about doing an abstract underpainting with watercolor. So, keep that in mind as you read the rest of the article.

1. You can do a spontaneous abstract underpainting

Use a wet in wet technique. Wet your watercolor paper completely, splashing color onto the page. Let colors run into each other. Lift the paper up so the paint will move around the paper. Use gravity. Let the paint drip and roll into other wet areas. Splatter the paint, throw salt, or place crinkled plastic wrap on the paper to create different effects.

Remember this is an underpainting. You are going to place something on top, so do not get too dark in the areas you know the subject will be. If you want to you can draw the subject on the paper before you do the underpainting. I prefer doing an underpainting without knowing where everything is going to go on the page. It keeps the work a little fresher for me with more surprises.  Let the paper dry completely before placing your drawing on the paper.

abstract underpaintings

Examples of abstract underpaintings cut out and taped to drawing paper.

2. You can do a planned abstract underpainting.  Here are the steps I use with this method:

  • Limit your palette. I like to limit myself to three colors. That way the underpainting doesn’t get too overbearing.
  • Create an abstract underpaintings on a large piece of cheap drawing paper by doing what I suggested for the spontaneous underpainting.
  • Let the underpainting dry.
  • Look for areas of the underpainting that are desirable by using a mat. Place the mat on the underpainting sideways, upside down, or diagonally. Keep looking for designs your eye likes best. You will know it when you see it. 
  • Cut out the designs you like. You may find two or three in one underpainting. Save these for future use. 
  • Copy the chosen abstract underpainting on to your watercolor paper. Place the small cut out design next to your work area for reference. I sometimes take these small underpaintings and tape them to a large piece of drawing paper to stay organized and to keep them from getting lost. Try to match the colors, shapes, values, and textures you see in the underpainting. Remember it is impossible to copy the small cut out underpainting exactly. Don’t worry about that.


Once you have your abstract underpainting done you may feel like your painting is almost finished. It will definitely feel as if it is on its way.

The next step would be to place your drawing on the page and begin painting the subject. You may let some of the underpainting show through to give a sense of unity and harmony to the painting. That is what I did with my painting titled Meditation.

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4 Responses to An Abstract Underpainting

  1. Artist says:

    Hi, I found your website on the list of the 50 Best Blogs for creative thinking. Congratulations. I’m always interested in creativity of all kinds. Great site.

  2. Thank you Cecilia. I went to your website to have a look. Very interesting. I had never heard of synesthesia. ~Terry

  3. Raena says:

    LOVED this post!! Thanks for the info. I recently did a tiny little drawing with that type of background. I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked it so much; I think this answers that!
    .-= Raena´s last blog ..Contributions to Ripple =-.

  4. Raena, glad to be of help. The abstract underpainting really does tie everything together.~Terry

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