Importance of Drawing and Imprimatura in Classical Painting Technology

A short description of the classical painting method with oil colors


Make your drawing on paper as if it is your final product. Copy it on tracing paper and retrace the lines on the back side of it with dry pastel pencil (Carb-Othello).
Transfer drawing to the board and rework it with diluted burnt umber paint using a fine brush.
Don’t think that drawing is something that is not fully related to the painting with colors. Drawing is “the melody” of the visual art and the colors are “the harmony”. Keep in mind that “the harmony” gives only the moods or impressions of the moment but only “the melody” is able to unfold the whole story.
By drawing your subjects “inside-out” you study it on a much deeper level than by just dubbing it with #40 brush.
I know that most of us don’t have enough patience. In this case, our paintings will be similar to the “3 chords guitar music” – just O.K. for friends and family.
Draw with precision using different pressure and line thickness. Draw with a pencil and with a brush.


Imprimatura is the classical term for a semi transparent or transparent color layer used to create a toned ground for a painting. It literally means “what goes before first”.
Imprimatura acts as harmonizing element for all upper color layers if they are laid according to the laws of the classical technique allowing the imprimatura to show through in certain places.
It also determines an overall darkness (or lightness) of the composition.
The advantage of an imprimatura over a toned gesso or a toned primer is that the white ground reflects the light through the imprimatura and upper semi-transparent layers, creating almost a magical 3-dimensional illusion.
The color of an imprimatura depends on the lighting source in the composition you are going to paint and the subject.
If we would consider a raw umber to be a neutral color for imprimatura, then you may want to go to a warmer or cooler sides by mixing yellow ochre with bone black in different proportions.
Never choose the darkness of this layer by mechanically picking 50% grey tone.
You always can put the second layer or add darker tones during your next step – shadows study.

Shadows Study (underpainting)

The portions of the drawing which are darker then imprimatura are painted with Burnt or Raw Umber in thin layers. Imprimatura should still be slightly visible through the darkest parts.
Small details are usually omitted. Areas where bright reds or bright blues are going to be painted are usually left uncovered.

Shape Study

In this stage, only four colors are used: Lead or Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Red Ochre and Bone or Ivory Black. The trick is to mix them correctly to have a scale of neutral grays. First mix Black and White, then add a bit of Yellow Ochre. Add Red Ochre carefully just until it eliminates the greenishness brought to the mixture by Yellow Ochre.
Work thick in the lights and less thick in the shadows. Don’t use semi-transparent “soapy” layers. Leave a small parentage of the darkest parts of the shadows uncovered.
By the end, the objects on your painting should look like they are made out of unpolished marble without out details in the highlighted areas and the darkest shadows.

Live Colors Stage

Mix real object colors. To the previous colors add : Ultramarine, Prussian Blue, Madder Lake Deep, Red Cinnabar or Cadmium Red, Cadmium or Lead Yellow. Each color for each object must be exactly of the same darkness as they are on the previous layer. For highlighted areas and shadows use one step lighter and one step darker mixtures. Sometimes you’ll need a lot of layers to complete this stage. Each time narrow the highlighted and shadow areas, painting them lighter and lighter.

Glazing and Finishing

Glazing can be done with transparent or semitransparent colors. Don’t overdo it and carefully choose the areas for glazing.
After the glazing is done, the very dark shadows are finished with the semi-transparent (almost opaque, if needed) colors and at last the very highlights are put on.

Egg tempera painting and even icons were often finished with oils. Be cautious though, if somebody will suggest using some “old magic recipes ” for this purpose, such as Maroger Medium or Amber Varnish. You may ruin your work completely without knowledge about how and where to use them.
Here are several recipes of Oil Painting Mediums & Varnishes.


Let the painting dry as long as you can afford before varnishing it. Damar varnish is O.K. Olifa (heat thickened linseed oil with lead) should not be used in Fine Art at all.
There are many new developments in the area of acrylic and polyurethane non yellowing varnishes. Unfortunately most of them are not removable. On the other hand, some of them are extremely durable and might be the best and the only choice for protecting valuable artwork.
I’ve used some of these successfully for several years on some of my works. For the time being, I’m leaving the choice to you.

Several basic painting rules

* Let each previous layer dry completely. Wait at least 10 days. 30 or 45 is better.
* Never dip dry brush in to the paint. Wet it first then dry it a little with a paper towel.
* Use different brushes for each color.
* Avoid touching painting surface with your bare hands. Use bridge or mahlstick.
* Have a very clear plan and know several steps ahead what you are going to do today.
* Let the painting dry at least for 2-3 weeks before putting on the next layer.
* Don’t try to fix something on your painting with brushes, which you couldn’t do or forgot to do with a pencil.
* Never start painting on a white canvas or board. Always put imprimatura after the completion of the detailed drawing.