Don’t think that the only way to start a painting is with a white support.
Yes, the pre-stretched canvases you purchase are invariably white, but it doesn’t mean you have to begin your painting that way.
Preparing your canvas with color before you start painting will add a subtle under glow, eliminate the need to cover every speck of support with paint and make it easier to judge the contrast and depth of colors.
Choosing The Tone
The tone of a paint is the lightness or darkness of the pigment, and not the actual color or hue. Some colors, like black and white, have a wide range of tones. Other colors, such as yellow, have a narrow range of tonal qualities.
The tone you select for your ground influences the choices you use in your painting. If you’re using a dark ground, the darks are already established. You will work on building the mid-range tones and highlights. If you’ve chosen a mid-range ground, you will concentrate on the deep shadows and lightest highlights. Using a white or light ground will require you to establish both the mid-range and dark tones.
Choosing The Color
Since the tone addresses the lightness or darkness of the paint and does not consider the actual hue of the pigment, the subject and the style of the painting are not necessarily part of the equation. When you add the hue into the mix, you’re adding another dimension to the use of a colored ground.
Typical colors used as a ground are ochre, sienna, burnt umber and neutral grays. Some artists advocate using a warm ground for a piece that is predominately painted in cool colors and a cool ground for a painting done in warm hues. Using the complementary color of the dominant tones of a painting is another technique that is frequently employed.
These are merely suggestions, as there are no etched-in-stone rules when it comes to art. However, they are tried and true tips that other artists have used for centuries.
Create An Atmosphere And Unify Your Painting
Let’s say that you want to portray a golden sunset. Using a yellow or ochre ground will give your painting a golden aura. Is there a fiery crimson sunset in the making? Use orange or Alizarin Crimson to bath the atmosphere with a ruddy glow.
What can you do with a simple still life? You can add extra punch to your painting by using a complementary color as your ground. A still life of oranges and marigolds that has a purple ground vibrates with the tension caused by the interplay of opposites on the color wheel. A deep red ground adds depth and life to dark colors like blacks, deep greens and indigo blues.
If you’re doing a portrait, try using green as the ground. This is the complement to the basic reds in skin coloring. This makes shading much easier and keeps your colors from being too intense.
The colored ground unifies the entire piece. Disparate colors no longer jangle the nerves, and the underlying hue gives a sense of harmony to the components of the composition.
A Colored Ground And Transparent Paint
If you’re using opaque paints, the colored ground’s effects will be subtle. However, if you’re using transparent pigments, the effects can be dramatic. Most artists work with a combination of opaque and transparent colors, but you should consider your palette when deciding what color ground to use, as well as the vibrancy and depth of the hue you select for the ground.
Luminosity And Using A White Ground
If you’re going for luminosity in a painting, stick with your white support. Watercolorists use white paper, which intensifies the luminosity of their painting. If you’re after the brilliance of white, don’t muddy it by starting with a colored ground. You’ll only cause yourself more work by adding layers of white highlights, and you’ll never achieve the luminosity that comes from the depths of the canvas.
The next time you’re ready to start a painting, consider beginning with a colored ground. It will speed your painting, give additional dimension to your work and you won’t panic when you see a blank expanse of white canvas staring at you.