Grounds for quality


Dear Artist,

“What sort of ground should I paint on?” While there are a few common and safe answers, there’s a wide variety of opinion on the subject. I’ll confine my remarks here to the preparations for oil or acrylic.

At the present time I’m in the toned-ground school. This means white gesso tinged with another color. Perhaps the best is a warm gray made by adding colors of choice to the white base. There seems to be so far no problem with the exterior latex acrylic primers that are available in paint stores. The main reason for toned grounds is that the artist doesn’t need to fight the tyranny of white. A convenient near-middle or light tone is already provided and cursory brushwork remains fresh against it. Also, darker darks and lighter lights can be worked on either side of it. Furthermore, ground tones can be refined in anticipation of subject matter and the planned use of glazes. For example a warm ground later glazed with pthalo blue will neutralize to an even more sophisticated tone. Further, brightly toned grounds, or bright gradated grounds, can add energy to work when left as “holidays.” With brightly toned grounds such as red oxide it’s a good idea to isolate them with a coat of medium so they don’t penetrate and fox later layers, particularly light ones. Transparent glazes in single or varied colors over brilliant white grounds are another way to go. Some artists enjoy working up a grisaille over a white ground, textured or plain. This is where elements are painted in shades of gray or brownish, for instance, then colored by glazing. This method leads to compositionally sound paintings by avoiding the early entrance of demon color.

The main idea, after sound mechanical and chemical practices are in place, is to experiment until the surface and tone are just right for you at the time. If the ground is happy, the painting is half painted.

Richard-Parkes-Bonington_Near Honfleur_c.1823

“Near Honfleur” c.1823
oil painting by
Richard Parkes Bonington

Best regards,


PS: “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.” (Robert Frost)

Esoterica: chic anglais (not what you think) This is an expression coined by the French in the 18th century which describes the brilliant color effects of painters like Sir Thomas Lawrence and R. Bonnington who were painting transparently over bright white grounds.

The following are selected correspondence to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.


Anything goes
by Charles Kaufman, Germany

I use black, browns, prussian blue and brown, indigo blue, reds, orange, sometimes greens, red-orange, red with black or blue on top of it, yellows, purples, sometimes all on different parts of the canvas… well, you get the idea. Whatever is near at hand or whatever color I feel like using at the time works. There’s only one rule… never white.


Likes intensity
by Eileen Williamson

I use a toned base for my painting also but I like to use colours that will give me intensity before I’ve even started. I like to use reds, browns, ochres, greys full strength. I will also take a canvas that is already painted, turn it upside down and paint right over top. I love what happens when the colours peek through in a serendipitous manner.


Thin support
by Reg Ash, London, UK

I’m worried about the canvas we buy these days. It’s pretty thin. The light passes right through it when it’s against a window. I can’t afford linen. That’s why I lay down another ground.

(RG note) In the drive to supply stretched canvas that is reasonably priced manufacturers have gone to cheaper and cheaper quality. Most of this is cotton duck — some of it almost the quality of sign cotton, which is really not too satisfactory for fine art. I wouldn’t buy anything less than 10 ounces per square yard — (284 grams per square meter). Even then, while well enough factory primed, you will have to prime it again to achieve opacity.


How to prime
by Helen

What’s the best way to put on the ground?

(RG note) I do a lot of canvasses at a time with a household paint roller. The problem with rollers is that they give little or no texture. Some artists prefer to put it on fairly stiffly with a fan blender or other big brush in order to introduce a spackly texture or brush stroke effect.

The paint roller is fastest and can also be fun because, with a little practice, you can introduce gradations to the ground. I like my grounds to be varied so I can choose them as I go through the pile. The whole ground subject, as I mentioned in my letter, is very important — so that the artist gets the right feel. Many artists these days are rediscovering the business of painting on wooden panels. Various hardwood plywoods are excellent for small supports. These can be primed as you would a canvas. For extra excitement I recommend a clear shellac, then a varnish — in order to let the wood texture and color participate in the painting. Oil sits up on this surface beautifully. Clear or tinted acrylic medium is also a good ground.


Textured ground
by Stan James

I work on prestwood (Masonite) panels and I use this method to get the surface I like best at the present time. First I prime with a latex sealer. When this is dry I put on a fairly thick coat of half-and-half gesso and modeling paste. I roll it out evenly with a small hard brayer. Working in fairly small areas while it is tacky I press and blot it with a trimmed natural sponge. This picks up the surface and provides a sufficiently rough surface which takes my brushstrokes well. I use white, and, working in watery acrylic glazes, I lay in the basic forms early.


Guilty pleasure
by Sue Legault, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Julia Cameron has some great thoughts on creativity in her book, The Right to Write. Guilty pleasure, she says, is what writing is all about.

Left to its own devices, writing is like weather. It has a drama, a form, a force to it that shapes the day. Just as a good rain clears the air, a good writing day clears the psyche.

If we eliminate the word “writer,” if we just go back to writing as an act of listening and naming what we hear, some of the rules disappear. There is an organic shape, a form-coming-into-form that is inherent in the thing we are observing, listening to, and trying to put on the page. It has rules of its own that it will reveal to us if we listen with attention. Shape does not need to be imposed. Shape is part of what we are listening to. When we just let ourselves write, we get it “right.”

In a section about people not “having the time” to write, Cameron says, “We all have time to write. We have time to write the minute we are willing to write badly, to chase a dead end, to scribble a few words, to write for the hell of it instead of for the perfect and polished result.”

Also: “I believe that what we want to write wants to be written. I believe that as I have an impulse to create, the something I want to create has an impulse to want to be born. My job, then, is to show up on the page and let that something move through me, in a sense, what wants to be written is none of my business.”

“Writing just for the hell of it is heaven.”

(RG note) Thanks for the contrast. The word “paint” can be substituted for “write.”


Russian mind
Olga Knyaz, Author’s Russian Tapestries, Moscow, Russia

We have invited Russian art public to subscribe Your Twice-Weeker, we think it is useful for understanding of life, not art only. But what will be result you will write us, perhaps. To translate the texts and enforce the person, who is not ready — it is strange for Russian soul. The Russian soul likes the freedom, all our history is full of examples of different rebellions. You know it. You have seen that Repin’s picture with the appeal of angry boatman. There is interesting saying about Russia (of famous Russian writer): “It is not possible to understand the Russia with mind, it is not possible to measure it with small measuring tool.”



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