First drafts as underpainting

If you've been around writing blogs or forums, you've most likely come across the idea of the "crappy first draft." It's a fundamental tenet of most writers, the acknowledgment that a first draft will often be frustrating and horrid but it's important to get through it because...say it with me...if you don't write it down, you can't fix it.

I'm a fan of the crappy first draft. It's remarkably freeing to give yourself permission to write clunky dialogue, or thin and watery descriptions, knowing you can go back and fix them later. But lately I've also begun to see first drafts as more than just initial word crap.

I've begun to see them as underpainting.

What is underpainting, you ask?

According to Wikipedia:
In art, an underpainting is an initial layer of paint applied to a ground, which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint. Underpaintings are often monochromatic and help to define colour values for later painting. has this to say:
In its simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version of the final painting intended to initially fix the composition, give volume and substance to the forms, and distribute darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination...Color was then applied over the underpainting only when it was thoroughly dry.

It also adds:
Underpainting is rarely practiced today. For the last century, artists have simply begun painting directly on commercially pre-prepared white canvases with full color surpassing anything but a abbreviated drawing. Therefore, neither the function or the practice of underpainting are well understood.

I can understand why it fell out of fashion. Why paint the same picture twice?

Because that's how you get depth. Even if the first layer is completely painted over, it still informs and supports the picture as a whole. It's a place to get the lighting and the volume right, like in this example of seven layer painting. Or as seen in this video.

In short, underpainting lays out the foundation for the art to come. Just like a first draft.

For example, in City of a Thousand Dolls, I ended up rewriting the end completely, with a totally different set-up. And that was a lot of work, so much so that I actually debated not writing the full ending of this next book and just sending it to my editor in outline form.

But if I hadn't already written the ending to City that I did, I don't think the new ending would have been as solid. What I wrote earlier was like underpainting, making the whole thing better, even though the reader will never see it.

And you know what? I like thinking about first drafts this way. Instead of just wading through a crappy first draft so I can get to revision (my first love), I now see myself as doing essental work for my story, laying down a base coat that will add depth and beauty to my final book.

And that's kind of amazing.

How about you? How do you get through the first draft?


  1. What a great way to think about first drafts! I think we tend to focus on the unlovableness of the awkward first draft and how much doesn't get seen by the reader--but this is a much more rewarding way to look at the process. 

    Had to share it with my writing group!

  2. This is a great analogy! I totally agree with you about the importance of first drafts, and I always feel like the more effort you put into a first draft, the easier the other drafts will be. 

  3. Great post, Miriam! I get through my first drafts in exactly the same way you do - although it took me years to reach the stage where I was able to do that!

  4. I love this way of thinking about first drafts!  I actually remember studying underpainting in art class in high school, but I hadn't thought about it in years.  It makes the whole first draft process seem much nicer!

  5. I totally agree with this (sorry it took me a day or so to comment, I read it on my phone first). 

    I'm on an eighth draft at the moment... I don't even know why I'm still doing this. A lot of it is new material because I had to start from scratch to fix a few structural problems etc. However, I've found I can go back to previous drafts - the seventh, the fourth, the first if I must - and borrow descriptions, conversations, and little scenes to link to the new ones, developing them as necessary. I think that's kind of like what you're saying.

    I'll still have to go and paint over the cracks, but at least I can tell what shape the first few chapters are now (as for the rest of the book, not a clue. The plot's gone wibbly and is completely different, damnit).

  6. The first draft, for me, is basically "pin it all down, you can fix it later". Basically exactly what you do. I fix the things that are desperately in need of fixing on the way, bt mostly I just pin it down and get on with it.

    Then come the second drafts - aka rewrites. That's where all the fun starts.

  7. Love this analogy. I have a design background and this is so true.

  8. Being an art historian I really, really love this comparison. I'm going to write it down and pin it up above my working space. Thanks!

  9. I'm glad you liked it! It's making motivation much easier for me because  I actually feel like I'm making the book better. 

  10. You're welcome! I'm loving all the responses from artist/writers. It makes me happy. :)

  11. Yay! I was a little nervous because I'm not a painter, but the analogy just seemed so perfect I couldn't resist. 

  12. YES. I loves me some rewrites. That's why I had to find a way to get through first drafts better, because I'D MUCH RATHER BE REWRITING. :)

  13. Like a wibbly-wobbly plotty-wotty sort of thing? *grin*

    Borrowing is definitely part of what I'm talking about! Also I think that having written it down once (or more than once) gives you the ability to write it again better than it was before. But it still takes time. I'm rooting for you! *cheers*

  14. Doesn't it? I think it's very comforting. :)

  15. It took me years to get to this stage too. Lots of years and lots of writing. High five for practice! *high fives Emma*

  16. You're totally right, I think.  I'm trying to slow down with this draft and make it as good as possible without actually freezing. It's very difficult. :)


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