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One-Step or Two-Step?

March 16, 2015


As an art professor, my job included exposing students to various art techniques so they could choose the one best suited to what they wished to express. Most of my students had a fervent desire to learn how to paint portraits, capture likenesses and master flesh tones.


In Western art, there are two distinct ways to paint portraits. The first is the Two-Step method based on underpainting. For hundreds of years, this was the preferred approach. Artists from Raphael to Ingres employed it to achieve the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. During the Renaissance, a renewed focus on the human body inspired artists to combine science with painting. Human dissection revealed that human skin is a cool blanket over warm, crimson-colored blood. Human faces show the warmest coloration where blood is closest to the surface; the ears, lips, corner of the eyes.


To capitalize on this knowledge, artists covered their canvases in a blood-like color and modeled likenesses over it with white paint. White paint turns silver as it thins, revealing the red beneath, much like human skin. This made achieving a likeness easier because the artist needn’t worry about skin tones until the likeness was fully achieved, Realistic colors were added later with glazes when the underpainting had dried. Before colors were added, artists like Rembrandt referred to these incomplete pictures as being painted with “dead” color.




This is an example of a portrait in “dead” color I created for my students.



It took time to paint a portrait in black and white, wait for it to dry and add colored glazes to achieve the appearance of a living, breathing person. When the newly created middle class started buying art in the 1800s, a faster method of painting was desired. The invention of paint in tubes made the task easier and the alla prima method took hold. Alla Prima is Italian for “first attempt,” but it also means wet-in-wet or direct painting.


An alla prima portrait is usually painted in one session; the colors are often brighter without an underpainting and the brushstrokes looser, more “painterly.” Below is an alla prima portrait I painted of our son CJ when he was seven or eight years old. You’ll notice there is no blood-color covering the white canvas; the strokes are bolder and the impact more immediate. Today’s clients prefer this look. CJ’s portrait was completed in about an hour.




Alla Prima portrait of CJ



I prefer painting directly on white canvas because it gives me more of an opportunity to show off with my paintbrushes, but there are times when I do employ an underpainting. You’ll notice something interesting if you squint at both of these images. While CJ’s face darkens into the background, the Two-Step picture with underpainting does not. If the finished painting is to be hung in a room with poor lighting, I’m inclined to use the two-step method because the portrait is less likely to fade into the background.


If commissioned to paint Casper the Friendly Ghost, the choice will be an easy one.




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I'm sure it also makes a difference if you're using acrylics or oils.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on March 16, 2015
This "techy" topic on painting is quite interesting.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 16, 2015
Amazing I have never know this, even though I have always been interesting in art. Your talent is amazing.
By: Tabor on March 16, 2015 does Paint By Numbers fit in? Seriously, verrryy interesting. I didn't know these things.
By: Al Penwasser on March 16, 2015
quite interesting! i've never heard of/tried the first technique.
By: TexWisGirl on March 16, 2015
Maybe this explains, in part, the artists and scientists being more interested than ever in taking x-rays and scans of old art, to see what's underneath. But i know little about art, so there may be other, more important reasons, too.
By: mimi on March 16, 2015
Where are the numbers?
By: Cranky on March 16, 2015
Something else I never knew!!
By: fishducky on March 16, 2015
You really are good. I knew of neither technique but will now be looking for them. Thank you.
By: Arkansas Patti on March 16, 2015
Very interesting. I realize that I've used the underpainting method when I took a class in using pastels. She didn't give a name to it, and I didn't know what the heck I was doing, but it was kinda cool. Most of my work was lousy, but I created one portrait I proudly framed.
By: Robyn Engel on March 16, 2015
Now this is one interesting post. As a completely non artistic type, with paint , it fascinates me how portraits are done and why.
By: red on March 16, 2015
Love the portrait of your son. Bold.
By: Bouncin Barb on March 16, 2015
I prefer the method you used for CJ's portrait! Gorgeous!
By: Kathe W. on March 16, 2015
Fun art lesson!
By: Tom Sightings on March 16, 2015
I would pick you first for my team in a game of Pictionary!
By: Val on March 16, 2015
I had no idea there were two ways to go about this. Thanks for enlightening us!
By: Pixel Peeper on March 16, 2015
Fascinating, professor. I'd like to hear your views on techniques with watercolors.
By: Catalyst on March 16, 2015
Whoa! That squint thing works - that was freaky!
By: The Bug on March 16, 2015
beautiful work. i can't paint a portrait to save my life! i could do with charcoal or pencil but just don't know how to use colours.
By: JJ on March 17, 2015
I had no idea! I love your portrait of your son, and can't believe you did it so quickly. I'd like to learn to paint a bit, but I need to clear some time and space first. Not even sure where or how to begin.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on March 17, 2015
A very interesting post Steve, in fact a fascinating post!
By: John on March 17, 2015
never took to painting myself.
By: Ellen Abbott on March 17, 2015
A fascinating travelogue of the work of the Artist. Few people talk about watercolor. I've heard it's very difficult, and I know nothing about whether it's a serious medium or not.
By: Michael Manning on March 17, 2015
I do a lot of things well, but drawing and painting are not among them. My wife on the other hand, is a really good artist. I sometimes sit amazed at her work. R
By: Rick Watson on March 18, 2015
I have my own one-step method....the artist hands me my picture, and I hand him money. Or is that two steps? DOH! :)
By: Scott Park on March 18, 2015
Wow! Why have I not been to your site till today? I love art, I dabble in art, but you are an actual artist. I'm a fool with a lot of art supplies.
By: Cherdo on March 18, 2015
I wish I had had you as an art teacher. I was never "taught" any kind of painting technique. This is fascinating.
By: Mitchell is Moving on March 20, 2015

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