Underdrawing

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Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, Self-portrait, 1892, National Museum in Warsaw. Unfinished portrait showing underdrawing.

Underdrawing is the drawing done on a painting ground before paint is applied, for example, an imprimatura or an underpainting. Underdrawing was used extensively by 15th century painters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. These artists "underdrew" with a brush, using hatching strokes for shading, using water-based black paint, before underpainting and overpainting with oils. Cennino D'Andrea Cennini (14th century most likely) describes a different type of underdrawing, made with graded tones rather than hatching, for egg tempera.

In some cases, underdrawing can be clearly visualized using infrared reflectography because carbon black pigments absorb infrared light, whereas opaque pigments such as lead white are transparent with infrared light.

What is remarkable about some historical examples of underdrawing, in, for example, the Annunciation (van Eyck, Washington) or the Arnolfini Portrait, is the extent to which artists made radical alterations to their carefully laid designs.

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