Grounds Matter: Why Your Favorite Artists Paint on a Layer of Color
Most of us start start a painting by staring down the blank page or the white canvas. That unblemished white can almost be overwhelming. Three artists, Caroline Jasper, Hugh Greer and Carla O’Connor have decided to bypass the white completely. All three artists start their paintings on a colored ground but not for the reasons that you may think.
What is a color ground?
When you buy a canvas in an art store, it often comes primed. That probably means the manufacturers covered it with white gesso. This is a white ground. A colored ground is simply the color you start as a base coat to your painting. Classically that is has been gesso but as you’ll see below gesso isn’t the only option.
Artists choose different colored grounds for different reasons.
Oil painter Caroline Jasper loves the water. She loves how it can change from hour to hour. As a painter, the way she communicates the mood of the water (still vs choppy for example) comes down to light. Which for Jasper, is the good stuff.
“Lighting is really the thing that makes the water so compelling,” says Jasper of her workshop painting in her workshop Color Moves: Painting Water with Oils. “For me it’s always about light, and color in the painting is simply the icing on the cake...If the painting is covered with a color ground to start with then I can paint what’s important to me and that’s the light.“
Starting on a colored ground allows Jasper to focus on the good stuff sooner in her process.
In opaque painting, artists use white or colors very close to white to show the brightest lights. However, if you put an almost white mark on a white canvas, you’ll hardly be able to notice the difference.
“If I had a white canvas, none of that would show up. I wouldn’t be able to see the good stuff, the light, until the end. So I have evolved in my work to painting on color ground.“
After a standard white gesso prep, Jasper coats her canvases with Holbein gesso. She uses carmine, orange or a combination of the two. This means she has a midtone to work on and Jasper can see her first lights beautifully.
Caroline Jasper starts with a colored ground for a second reason: energy.
“If you only copy the photograph in your painting,” says Jasper, ”you don’t get a sense of that action. So you need some color dynamic working for you to make that happen.“
Jasper has tried every color on the palette for her grounds and her warm reds and oranges work best. Part of it is because opposite colors create a visual bounce. If Jasper paints water that is reflecting the sky and is therefor bluer in nature, she’ll turn to an orange or a more orange-leaning mixture for her colored ground. Blue and orange are opposites on the color wheel. On the other hand, if the water is green, she’ll reach toward her carmine or carmine-leaning mixture. Green and red are opposites on the color wheel.
“Having a color ground can help to portray a sense of action, a sense of movement in the water,” says Jasper. “I don’t want to find these perfect little shapes ahead of time and draw them and then fill them in with a certain color that matches that. “
Setting Time of Day and Year
In addition to energy, working on a colored ground can help establish a mood unique to a season. This is how acrylic painter Hugh Greer uses colored grounds. In his workshop Create Mood & Atmosphere with Color and Value, he uses acrylic paint to tone and tint his boards before he starts his two winter scenes.
The backgrounds aren’t a color issue alone. They also represent what kind of winter day Greer is painting. The cool painting is an overcast day while the warm painting is a clear day.
Greer sets each paintings’ mood by his base coat. He covers one board with a mixture of diarylide yellow, quinacridone magenta, and white mixture. On his second, he uses a mixture of cerulean blue and white. He then builds his painting with a series of water-thinned washes.
“Acrylic paint is neither transparent or opaque so that some of that orange is going to come through and this is also a very good way to unify a painting as far as the harmony and color,” says Greer.
A colored ground also helps to unify a painting from the very beginning. This is he second big reason Hugh Greer starts on toned paper. It’s also a reason why Carla O’Connor covers her illustration board with gold gesso in her gouache workshops, Figure Design in Gouache: The Process.
“It unifies the entire painting, the gold. Right off the bat,” says O’Connor.
O’Connor cautions though that if you work on a colored ground, especially gold, you will have to adjust how you expect to see your color. Your blues, for example, won’t look how you expect them.
“All of this wonderful freedom has a big drawback, the gold has a big drawback, it has a huge impact on your color.”
Carla O’Connor works in gouache and so a gesso ground, colored or not, gives her a quality she loves about her chosen watermedia: lifting.
“This surface lets me have tremendous freedom in the actual application of the paint,” says O’Connor in her workshop Figure Design in Gouache: The Process.
When O’Connor paints gouache onto a surface treated with gesso, she has time to manipulate the paint. The paint particles can’t sink down and attach to the paper underneath. They sit on top giving O’Connor more time to manipulate her surface. This allows her to create texture in gouache that she wouldn’t be able to if she worked on an unprimed piece of watercolor paper.
It also allows her to completely wipe out an area she’s dissatisfied with. This has given her incredible freedom within her painting process.
“I find one of the biggest obstacles in all the workshops is the fear factor….with this surface, you’re totally free,” says O’Connor. “You can change it upteenth thousand times. And that helps to liberate the artist to go back to the painting process and not worry so much about the final painting.”
So whether you’re looking for a way to unify your painting, set a tone, create added energy or are just fighting the fear of white page, grab some color. You might be surprised how powerful that first layer can be.
Want to learn more? Check out each of these workshops: Caroline Jasper's Color Moves: Painting Water with Oils, Hugh Greer's Create Mood & Atmosphere with Color and Value and Carla O'Connor's Figure Design in Gouache: The Process.