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Painting on a coloured ground

By Justin Cooke, Dec 13 2014 08:47PM

A Coloured Ground

A canvas or panel can be painted with a colour prior to being used for a painting. Traditionally this was a mid tone in some sort of earth colour. An alternative name for this is a tonal ground.

Light or Dark

Traditionally earth colours were used to prepare the ground. John Constable describes his prepared canvases as "Flats". A term that describes the flat even tone that he would have learned to use as a student at the Royal Academy in London. Go back a little further and Thomas Gainsborough, (a founding member of the Royal Academy) was using a light brown to prepare his canvases.

A canvas or panel can be painted with a colour prior to being used for a painting. Traditionally this was a mid tone in some sort of earth colour. An alternative name for this is a tonal ground.

Let me introduce you to

Mr and Mrs Andrews

"Thomas Gainsborough - Mr and Mrs Andrews" by Thomas Gainsborough - The National Gallery, London. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This painting was made by Thomas Gainsborough some time between 1748 and 1750. Interestingly for us this painting has been left un-finished.

Take a look at Mrs Andrews's hands in her lap.

You will see that here is an area of the painting that has been left unpainted...waiting for the addition of a baby...maybe. Or perhaps some bagpipes! We can't be sure.

What we see is not bare canvas. We can see the cracking paint of his coloured ground. and it is the light neutral brown that so many artists of that time used for their portrait paintings.

Later,as new brighter colours became available artists found that these colours could look more vivid when painted on a white ground and this is one of the great departures made by the impressionists from their predecessors .

Generally; before Impressionism artists used a tonal ground; Impressionism and after a white ground. Of course there are exceptions. Whistler was one; often using a dark ground, even black, and he was a contemporary of the Impressionists.

Can you use both a tonal and a white ground together?

Yes you can: In this demonstration I'll show you how and you'll see that both have their benefits.

We know bright colours show up best on a white ground, but a tonal ground can unify a painting into a certain mood. Many also find it easier to manage the tonal range in their painting by using a tonal ground. Perhaps by working toward lighter tones and then toward darker ones. But why not prepare a ground that will have the qualities of both.

In this example the paper was prepared with an even grey colour, except those areas that were to be be painted with very bright colours (the beach wind-breaks and parasol for example), these were left as un-painted white paper. Once dry the painting process was continued as normal on top. In this case with little water, pretty much as paint comes straight from the tube.

The paper was quite thin, so if I hold it up to a sunny window you will see the light coming through the areas that were not painted grey. This exaggerates the brighter colours

You may get a better idea if I turn the paper round, and we look at it from the back, with the light shining through.

It looks like this

With our paintings we can not always hold them up to a light and illuminate them from behind in this way. We rely on light being reflected back to us from the paper or canvas. With a white ground more light is reflected back through the paint layer than say a grey ground. So the colours are brighter.

We could definitely use this idea in our painting...and maybe experiment with different colour grounds to achieve different effects.

If you would like to find Mr and Mrs Andrews. Here is where they are.

The National Gallery, London.

Go in the main entrance and straight up the stairs and into the first room. This is the Central Hall. There is a door on the wall on your right, go through that and you'll be in the first of a series of rooms that lead one to another. You need to go on to the fourth room. You'll find Mr and Mrs Andrews there. They are on the left.

Opposite them are some Hogarth paintings, and I always think it looks as if Mr and Mrs Andrews are looking across at the characters in them with a mixture of amusement on his part and barely concealed "well if you must!" from her.

Here is a tip...

Traditionally; artists found it may be useful to use a wooden palette to mix paint when working on a toned ground. Often made of a dark wood such as mahogany or a wood that attained a dark tone over years of use, it made sense to see the colour on their palette as closely as possible to how it would look on a similar coloured ground.

I mentioned Whistler earlier...

I studied Whistler a lot for my dissertation years ago, and always liked the sound of his mahogany table as a palette. The table struck me as a good idea. In my studio I have a long workbench made of recycled pine which has adopted a dark patina with age. It has sheets of glass on top, which I use as palettes and replace from time to time. This would be for oil painting. Occasionally I put a sheet of white paper under the glass if I want to mix colours precisely for use on a white canvas. If using watercolour on white paper, my palette is a collection of white plates, bowls and saucers.

An example painted on a traditional brown ground

Look closely between the brush marks and you will see glimpses of the brown ground colour beneath.

These small amounts of colour, which are all over the painting, help to unify the look. Had the ground colour been blue, the painting may have had a cold, chilly, feel. If I had used red or yellow, it could have given the impression of heat or sunshine. Starting from my mid tone of brown; I painted firstly my lights, then darks and then bolder areas of colour. This was done for speed as it was a demonstration piece for a class. But it is also how you could work if you were outside in front of your subject. It is a very quick way of painting!

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