Intention, Composition and Underpainting are Tools of the Trade used by the Artist

Today’s work set aside to dry ….

Beginning with underpainting of Westerly Winds Victoria BC 30 x 40 inch oil on canvas

Beginning with underpainting of Westerly Winds Victoria BC 30 x 40 inch oil on canvas by Terrill Welch 2016-01-14 IMG_7555

Sometimes I am asked why do I use this tool of a flowing, rather shapeless underpainting? Wouldn’t a ground colour do? Why not just begin the painting and start with a pencil or charcoal sketch to mark the forms?

The answers to these questions are interrelated and to some extent personal and subjective to my intent. So lets start with my intent with this painting – I want my viewer to be standing along this specific shore on this specific day and be able to feel their presence within the landscape. Admittedly not a small task considering that 80% of the North American population lives in urban centres and has limited ability and time to spend watching how a specific landscape looks at different times of day and at different times in the year. Still, I believe part of my job is to provide this experience which then becomes more familiar to the viewer in the face of the actual physical environment. I make no assumption at all that the viewer is familiar with what it is I am about to paint. If we keep this in mind, it helps to understand the task I must complete with a rather simplistic landscape in order to convey the power of the universe through the sun, sea, and land.

First, in this case I began with a quick 20 minute plein air sketch yesterday.

Westerly Winds coming Ashore on the Sea 8 x 10 inch acrylic plein air sketch on panel board by Terrill Welch 206-01-13 IMG_7543

I wanted and needed that time on the shore to gather as many sensory notes as possible so that I can retrieve them for this work. So let’s unpack this underpainting process.

To proceed with a loose flowing “sketch” if you will for the underpainting is preferred in this case because the simplicity of the landscape makes it all the more difficult to render the movement and tension between the elements in the scene. This style of underpainting is preferred to a ground in this situation because the process provides a first check on the “rightness” of the composition for the intended purpose. The reds, yellows and oranges are simply a tool to bring the most movement and brilliance to the greys, blues, browns, yellows and whites of the finished landscape. Through trial and error I have found these pigments for underpaintings the most effective for capturing the significant range of lively blues in our west coast landscape. Therefore, the underpainting adds a strength to the end result that is near to impossible to replicate by beginning with the specific colours of the finished painting.

Do I always do an underpainting? No. Its use depends on my subject and my intention for the finished work. I sometimes do a quick painting sketch and work with the white canvas. I sometimes use a ground colour only. I sometimes work with wet grounds too. But this kind of underpainting, used for this work, is a favourite and there are reasons for this that go beyond any visual result and more to an intuitive remembering.

When I work a canvas up with this kind of underpainting, I begin to physically learn the window of space and the painting language that will be translated onto the canvas from my sensory information which I have gathered up to this point. My physical reference material will often include both photography and painting sketches.The sensory information is much more than what I see. It includes what I heard, smelled, tasted, and felt. There was the rolling of the stones on the shore beside me and the steps of people walking past. I could feel wind pushing cold air into my back and brushing my hair across my face. I could smell the cold dampness of snow, rain and salt. My eyelashes were cool. My hands were stiff with cold. But there was a warmth in the gray, the blue-green and the a brightness in the sky that was punctuated by the sturdy cliffs and the jut of land. It is all of this that I must translate into brushstrokes. The movement of the brushstrokes for the underpainting are like rough notes for the beginning of this painting conversation. I am intimately aware of the forcefulness between the elements of this seascape. I want this on the canvas from the very beginning.

iphone capture plein air painting Victoria BC by Terrill Welch 2016-01-13

I hope this helps to explain why I sometimes find this particular process of underpainting necessary to the rendering of my final work. Thanks for joining me and all the best of today.

Here is the finished painting:

Westerly Winter Winds Victoria BC – 30 x 40 inch oil on canvas

Details and purchase information are available HERE.

© 2016 Terrill Welch, All rights reserved.

Liberal usage granted with written permission. See “About” for details.

Creative Potager – Visit with painter and photographer Terrill Welch

From Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada

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New original oil painting THE VIEW

This painting shall be a bit of a surprise I suspect. As I mentioned on Monday, I have only one 15 minute sketch of a figure, a few passages from The Underpainter by Jane Urquahart and an image for a painting that wouldn’t leave me along.

I set up my palette and haphazardly mix a couple of colours in the usual loose Terrill Welch fashion.

You may have noticed before, I do not usually sketch in my paintings but prefer to use an underpainting to guide the development of my work. However, I did put in just a view pencil lines on this 24 X 18 inch canvas for this one.

A few quick strokes with a large brush as the story begins to unfold…

“Still it moved me, this wildness, and so I drew Sara standing by windows, looking out towards the frantic lake, the hectic sky. I drew her stillness in the face of torn clouds and rain – I wanted that contrast. Also, I was attracted by the muted light that came into a room when the sun is buried under blankets of heavy clouds, the soft-blue tinge in lends to the skin.” (p,167)

Using my sketch as reference I create the composition – not standing as in the story but sitting and unlike the sketch, she is leaning slightly out a window. Neither the story, nor the sketch is a perfect fit. I am on my own with mostly the image of the woman in my mind’s eye for guidance.

The underpainting is complete. I need to let the painting rest and set up. If you look carefully you can see that the figure is clearly looking left as in the sketch and as I intended.

“The next day the storm had finally worn itself out. The sky was a piercing shade of blue, and not a tree, not a leaf was moving. But the upheaval in the lake, the thunderous noise, was worse than ever; the water inkier, the whitecaps whiter…. In the middle of the morning – there was sunlight now, coaxing an impression of pastel colours from under her skin – Sara leaned her forehead against the glass of the window and said, “I can’t do this I can’t stand her any more.” (p. 169)

I start to build up the image. The colours are harsh and seem like they will never come together. I am tired. I have been painting for a long while. I didn’t notice at this point but she is starting to come alive on the canvas and has turned her head slightly to the right.

“I put my brush down on the ledge of the easel. “All right, we’ll take a break then, “I said, though nothing in wanted to stop.

“No, it’s not that…” she said. “I can’t look at the lake any more. I can’t bear it.”

I stared silently at her familiar back. I never thought about what Sara would be doing while she was posing. I was interested in anything that belonged to her in the immediate vicinity, felt that knowledge of the objects around her would enrich my drawings and paintings. But while I was working I believed that the gesture I ha prescribed was absolute; her pose, my line, the contour of her shoulder working its way into the composition on the page. I believed that I was drawing – deliberately drawing space around me so completely there would be no other impressions possible beyond the impression I controlled.” (p. 170)

I am happy with how far I have come with the painting. But you can now see that she has turned her head completely and is looking out at the view on the right. Who am I to argue? Not that it would have done much good I am sure. This is one refined and determined woman.

“There full days of staring at a seething lake, larger and wilder than some oceans, a man seated behind you concentrating on the seventh vertebra of your spine or the blue veins at the back of your knees, the dispassionate scratch of the pencil reproducing the creases in you flesh. What did I know of that?” (p.170)

My body aches with the fatigue of painting. My mind plays with that of the woman I am painting. “Who are you?” I ask. But she does not answer. I listen to her essence as it slips between me and the canvas. Finally, I can do no more. I must leave it until morning.

“It would be years before I could admit that although I wanted every detail of her in my painting – her body, her ancestry, her landscape, her house – wanted the kind of intimacy that involved not just the rendering of her physical being but also the smell of her skin and hair, the way she moved around her kitchen, the sounds at the back of her throat when she made love, I would have preferred not to have been known by her at all.” (p.170)

I wake a five a.m. anxious for daily light. I write, I tweet and I fuss until there is enough light to paint. I switch my white paint out from the faster drying titanium to zinc. I review my blue paint. I fix my mind’s eye on the light and the reflected light. The room is lit by another window we can’t see. And there is the light from the sky and sea which we know is there but we only know this through the muscles of her back as she sighs into each wave and each bit of breeze coming off the water. The day goes on like this – one brush stroke over another. Then without warning, the painting is finished.

Oh, there are still a few things, possibly, to tidy up. But, for the most part, it is done.

I put down my brushes. I search THE VIEW.  Have I allowed her to know me?

Note: all excerpts in bold quotes are from The Underpainter (1998 paperback edition) by Jane Urquhart.

And THE VIEW is not for sale at this time.

Sprout question: Can you tell us about something your muse aches create?

NEWS FLASH: Knock me over with a feather! I have just discovered that I am on this international list of 21 Artist to watch in 2011 published by Skinny Artist.

© 2011 Terrill Welch, All rights reserved.

Liberal usage granted with written permission. See “About” for details.

Purchase photography at

Creative Potager – where imagination rules. Be inspired.

From Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada