Painting With A Colored Ground

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The clean, white surface beckons and intimidates many artists.

It cries to be used, to have color, texture and form grace the plane.

That pure white is typically the last thing the artist wants glaring out from his work.

So start with a colored ground to simplify painting and add luminosity to the work from deep within the layers of medium.

Why Use A Colored Ground?

Pastel work is the one medium that consistently begins with a colored ground. The artist uses colored paper to begin his work with a pre-made color temperature that unifies the whole piece. A golden tinted sunset will have more radiance from within if the artist begins with a gold toned paper. Just as a dark, brooding still life will instantly take on the desired velvety darkness if one begins with a brown, grey or dark blue paper. Using a colored ground for painting gives the artist a head start in the overall effect he wishes to portray and eliminates work.

Oil And Acrylic Paint

Canvas is typically prepared with white gesso. If the artist uses prepared supports, he will apply a dilute mixture of color to the white support. Acrylic paint is thinned with water, while oils will be thinned with turpentine or odorless mineral spirits. The base application can be a uniform glaze or vary in intensity, as an underpainting.

Dilute the paint to the consistency of watercolor and load a conveniently sized brush with the paint. Apply the paint freely to the entire canvas, adding more dilute paint to the brush as necessary. When the entire surface is covered, use paper towels to wipe the surface. If the tint is too light, reapply the paint and wipe when completed. Artists using acrylic will need to work very quickly, as the paint dries to a permanent finish. Oil painters should allow the paint to dry approximately 15 minutes. Oil paint diluted with this amount of mineral spirits dries rapidly.

There is another alternative for the artist who prepares his own canvas. He can tint the gesso primer before applying it to the raw, stretched canvas. This saves the artist one step in his work and may be useful if he finds that he consistently uses a particular color to undertone his painting. Use acrylic paint to tint gesso and use it full strength after mixing the paint. Do not add dilute the mixture and apply it in one direction, using long, smooth strokes.

Watercolor Paint

A beginning art student is admonished to save the white spaces. Traditional watercolor is translucent and does not include white paint. The only way an artist can have a true white highlight or object is to preserve the white of the paper for that specific purpose. It is important to plan the locations of white areas and protect the space. If there is to be white areas on the painting, liquid frisket is used to reserve the areas while the surrounding area is painted. This product is a liquid, rubber-like substance that is painted onto the area. It dries to a waterproof coating, allowing the artist to paint the paper and maintain the white shape. When the artist is ready to work on those areas, he gently removes the frisket and exposes the underlying paper.

Once the watercolorist has planned his white spaces and drawn the shapes to paint around, or applied frisket to smaller areas, he is ready to tone his paper.

Doing a flat watercolor wash that is uniform is a challenge, and a colored ground is a good way to practice this skill. Prepare a generous amount of paint in a container, diluting it to the proper intensity. Make sure the paint is completely dissolved to avoid globs of paint ruining the consistency.

Dampen the paper using either a brush or spray bottle. The paper should be tipped slightly so that excess paint will flow downhill and not puddle. Use a wide brush that holds ample paint and stroke horizontally across the sheet at the top edge. Use long single strokes, slightly overlapping as you proceed down the paper. Refill the brush with paint to maintain an even application. Allow the paper to dry thoroughly before commencing the next stage of your painting. This is a good exercise for a beginning watercolorist to learn to control the effects of the brush and paint. It’s really not as easy as it looks, but practice will help to develop the sixth sense watercolorists sometimes need to control their finicky medium.

For tinting a support, it is not necessary to have a perfectly uniform background, but this exercise is so basic to watercolor skills that it is recommended to practice. Doing this exercise is merely serving to do double duty for the artist by giving him practice while preparing paper for painting.

Using a colored ground is a practical solution for many artists for a number of reasons. It eliminates the distracting nature of the glaring white support. A colored ground allows the work to have a unified feel in its color temperature and is less exacting than a final color glaze. Dark paintings benefit from a dark ground since the artist does not have to eliminate the light from the deepest color areas.

If you have never experimented with a colored ground, get out your paint and try it. It may be the best new tip in your tool bag of tricks.

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