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painting support

What is an imprimatura?

An imprimatura helps you judge values better, and can also provide a base for optical color mixing effects. Imprimatura is a thin, transparent wash of color that you apply to a canvas so that you have an overall middle value on your canvas before you start to paint. It is better than painting on a stark which canvas, because it helps you to judge the darker and lighter values of the paint you apply to the composition.

The history of imprimatura

Artists in the guilds and workshops during the Middle Ages first used imprimatura as an underpainting layer. However it only came into standard use by painters during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy. They didn’t cover the imprimatura completely so that it shows through the final paint layers. Leonardo da Vinci used this technique in his paintings, as you can clearly see in this unfinished painting,

Leonardo da Vinci ,Adorazione dei Magi
Leonardo da Vinci, Adorazione dei Magi

How to do it

Leonardo da Vinci ,Adorazione dei Magi

Mix black with a little phthalo blue together with liquin or with a mixture of 80% dammar varnish 28% turpentine and very small amount (2%) of linseed oil (to prevent cracking).

The liquin makes the imprimatura dry quickly. Cover the canvas thinly, scrubbing the paint into the surface so that you end up with a transparent layer of a value of around six or seven (on the Munsell scale).

Color of imprimatura

I use a cool blue gray imprimatura because:

  • it often approximates to a sky color which is why I like to use this imprimatura. Then I automatically have my sky in place when I start.
  • it helps me more easily judge color.


An alternative to a cool imprimatura is to use a warm imprimatura (such as a sienna, an orange, or a pink hue), I use a warm imprimatura on occasions when painting a scene that is has mainly cool colors such as greens or blues.

Asilomar Beach Holiday 1 - 9in x 12in - Oil on Canvas - 2015
warm imprimatura

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