Underpainting with Acrylic Paints for an Oil Pastel Painting

Several folks have asked about the technique I use to do a underpainting with acrylics for an oil pastel painting, here is my process.

I don’t always use underpaintings with my paintings, but if I do here are some several reasons:

  1. If a scene is complex perhaps it would make sense to establish a base of value ranges (usually 5 ranges) – in this case the underpainting will be black and white acrylic.  An artist friend recommended this method once and I love what it has done for my paintings.
  2. Or, if the scene is to have a dark undertone the surface is prepared with a black and white acrylic underpainting.
  3. If a scene has a certain range of colors or is a setting with a lighter atmosphere, a underpainting with colored acrylic paints in local color, use compliments, or apply as a solid color to give a warm undertone.  Again it allows for value ranges in color.


  1. Painting surface must be able to take a wet application:  hardboard, watercolor paper, Wallis/U-Art papers, etc.  First step if using harboard, is to sand paper the smooth-side of the hardboard and apply a coat of Gesso to front, back and sides (this seals the board).  Watercolor paper doesn’t need this step.
  2. Lightly sketch out the scene on the surface.
  3. Paint the underpainting using acrylic paints – black and white, or colors (by use as noted above).  The acrylic is applied with a brush and with mostly loose strokes.
  4. Apply two coats of “Clear Gesso” whether the surface is hardboard or watercolor paper.  Two coats give a real nice texture because Clear Gesso contains sandy grit allowing the oil pastels something to grab when laying/spreading the paint.
  5. Paint

What follows are two examples of paintings done with a black/white acrylic underpainting and one done with colored acrylic underpainting (sorry for the order of images – tried but couldn’t get Virginia Beach to line up next to the underpainting of the scene).

Black and White Acrylic Underpainting
Black and White Acrylic Underpainting


FINAL OPS - Twilight View

FINAL OPS – Twilight View

Colored Acrylic Underpainting - Virginia Beach

Colored Acrylic Underpainting – Virginia Beach

FINAL OPS - Virginia Beach

FINAL OPS – Virginia Beach

About Mary

Oil Pastelist
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40 Responses to Underpainting with Acrylic Paints for an Oil Pastel Painting

  1. Francesca says:

    I think it’s great that you share your knowledge! Some people are really “jealous” of their skill secrets. I truly believe “what goes around comes around” plus talent will always find its way to come out … no matter what! 🙂

    • Mary says:

      Thank you Francesca, I do appreciate your thoughts here and don’t disagree. If it wasn’t for other artists sharing their techniques in books, artist online communities or through video’s – I wouldn’t be painting. I’m very grateful ~

  2. Talk of coincidence. I was just about to pose a question about under-painting to all my artist friends. I was planning an acrylic scene of a moonlit night and was wondering about the correct way to go about the under-painting. Thank you.
    1)Would you suggest the ‘clear gesso’ step even if I intend to do the painting with acrylic/oil paints??
    2)also, for the black and white under-painting have you actually used black or shades of blue??
    As usual, your works are wonderful.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Malvika, thank you for your wonderful feedback! I’m not an expert with acrylic painting, but I don’t believe you have to apply clear gesso after the underpainting. I have three colors I use for black: Mars Black, Ivory Black or Payne’s Grey – all depends on the color of the value ranges I want to establish, the undertone to the overall painting, or the ultimate hue tones I want for the piece. Just a few decisions I make before I begin the UP. Thanks ~

  3. Stefano says:

    Fascinating, Mary, even for a non-painter like myself!
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Really interesting and informative, thank you.

  5. Nuno says:

    Thanks so much. Very informative!

  6. poppytump says:

    Superb results from your preparation with underpainting Mary !
    I do so enjoy your pictures and enthusiasm, it really is very inspiring to come to your blog and see your work .

    • Mary says:

      Poppy you are something else! Thanks, you know how to say the perfect things to make my day start out just right! How can I not be enthusiastic – with feedback like this. I’m having a whole lot of fun and I’ll bet your thoroughly enjoying yourself with photography – you are bringing a new dimension to creativity through your lens. Underpainting adds so many new dimensions to painting; I don’t always use the technique, but when I do – who knows what will develop on that blank surface!

  7. Thanks for explaining the process Mary. This techniques certainly add depth and subtle color nuances.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Mark – absolutely. Also watercolor, gauche, and soft pastels w/alcohol washes used as underpaintings often lead to fantastic designs/patterns for the artist to work into their painting. Love underpaintings, although I don’t always use them – all depends on the look I may be after for a particular painting.

  8. Don says:

    Beautiful Mary – the light is absolutely exquisite.

  9. Maria says:

    Hi Mary! I loved your explanations, thanks for sharing it! I think I first need to get the first part properly…then we will see 😉 Take care!

    • Mary says:

      Hi Maria, you are very kind – thank you so much. I hope you try OPs one day, just be sure they are artist quality, not student – student have a higher concentration of wax making OPs difficult to move around. You’re going to love them if you give them a try!

  10. Your paintings are so realistic they practically always look like photos!

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, appreciate your beautiful comment. A whole range of styles/looks can be achieved with oil pastels – it’s one of the reasons why I love painting with the medium.

      • I tried oil painting but didn’t get the feeling for it. I admire the results you get from oil pastels! I’d never dreamed it was possible!

        • Mary says:

          Thank you – two things: if you use artist quality OPs they are softer and much easier to use. Student grade OPs have too much wax and are harder making them more difficult to spread and blend. The medium responds better with many layers of OPs thinly applied and at some point in this process the OPs feel like they glide across the surface. Based on your style, I think OPs would be a great compliment to the subjects you paint. I hope you give them a try again, I think you’ll grow to like painting with them.

  11. Forest So Green says:

    This is very interesting. I enjoyed reading it, Annie

  12. doronart says:

    Mary interesting process and technique thank you for the input… yes you still have to get the finish products!!!

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Doron and sometimes I go completely away from what the underpainting reveals. All depends, but there are times when the process of laying in an underpainting provides a roadmap.

      • doronart says:

        Interesting on both occassion mind you going away from the underpainting must be harder though.

        • Mary says:

          Yes, it is harder so in my case a good plan for what the painting will be before I begin the underpainting is important. To change once the underpainting is down, all depends on how much oil pastel has been laid down because oil pastels never dry. So if only a few layers of OPs are down that I can take painting in most any direction the painting takes me.

          • doronart says:

            Interesting I never tried the oil pastels and I can see that the acrylics as base take them well on. Do they work like normal oils paint or you need to add anything before?

            • Mary says:

              Hi Doron, oil pastels come in stick form – while they do have oil in their formula, they aren’t in liquid form. To paint you lay down the paint with the stick and then spread the OPs with palette knife, finger, tortilum or some other tool. Some artists add a solvent to liquify the OPs, but I don’t use this method because I want to maintain control of movement and also clean colors. Hope this helps. One day I may try oil paints with a palette knife – intrigues me.

              • doronart says:

                Yeh I saw the paint before just wonder how they react when used.. all I remember is my hands got messy.. And watching your paintings and control facinate me how you manage to keep so clean and tidy and always super blending. No doubt the day you touch normal oil paints the same as with your OPs will strike. Thanks for explaining.

  13. Beautiful!The colors are outstanding!

  14. Oh, but what it all comes down to is a talented hand in order to get results like these, isn’t it?! 🙂

  15. Mary, this is coming out awesome!!! Thanks for sharing your process. It is very helpful!

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