Oil painting - materials & techniques: underdrawing
It is common for artists to draw their design, sometimes in considerable detail, directly onto the primed canvas or panel. Comparison of underdrawings with the finished image can provide insights into the artist’s ideas. It can show how some elements were adjusted until the artist was satisfied with the composition.
Sketch for The Derby Day (1856)
This is the preliminary oil sketch for one of Frith's most popular paintings The Derby Day which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 and is now at Tate Britain.
Examination of this painting with infrared reflectography revealed that the composition was first drawn in pencil.
Infrared radiation has a longer wavelength than the visible spectrum and it can penetrate paint layers. A video camera that is sensitive in the infrared region registers the image and displays it on a computer screen. Frith’s extensive underdrawing, including the detailed hatching of shadows, is visible using this technique.
Occasionally a figure might be underdrawn but not painted in. Alternatively, a figure that was not originally envisaged might be added at the painting stage. Frith made a number of changes to the position of certain figures, particularly the group on the carriage silhouetted against the skyline. The eye is immediately drawn to the woman with the parasol who occupies the highest point in the composition. Her parasol was originally much larger.