Why You Need to Start Using a Colored Ground on Your Canvas

Standing there staring at the stark white, blank canvas. Is this a familiar scene? It was for me until I started using a colored ground, (toning with a color) on my canvas. It was amazing how much this one technique improved my paintings. Now, I never start a painting with the white of the canvas.

Benefits of toning your canvas

  • can create visual energy
  • painting on a ground can be faster
  • can help you to paint looser
  • unifies, creating a nice color harmony in your painting
  • makes judging your lights and darks much easier

Colors used for toning your canvas

Traditional colors that artists use as grounds.

  • neutral grays
  • yellow ochre
  • burnt umber
  • raw sienna
  • burnt sienna

These colors are wiped with a cloth before dry to create a light, more even stain on the canvas.

Red is one of my favorite colors to use as a ground. I love the energy it infuses into my painting, especially when you are using a limited palette. Β The red is also mid-value, making it easier to judge the values of your light and dark colors. (I do not wipe it down. I like the solid red peeking through)

In the close-up picture below, you can see the hints and flecks of red showing.Β  This adds to the visual energy of the painting and creates unity in the look and feel of the piece.

close up of red colored ground article Krista Hasson

You can use any color that you like to tone your canvas.  If you are not sure what color to use, here are a few guidelines you could follow when you first start toning:

  • if your painting is cool, use a warm ground
  • If your painting is warm, use a cool ground
  • use the complementary color of the dominant color in your painting
  • red tones are good for green landscape
  • green tones are good for portraits
  • Warm orange tones are good for water scenes

If you don’t already tone your canvas, I recommend that you try it. Experiment with some of your favorite colors!

Paint some smaller paintings first so you get a feel for how it looks. Then move to larger pieces once you find the tone for you. Happy toning.

Cheers,  Krista

PS: Sharing is always appreciated!

18 thoughts on “Why You Need to Start Using a Colored Ground on Your Canvas”

  1. Eleanor Van De Bogart

    What are the grounds made of, for toning the canvas? Absorbent ground, mixed with watercolours or coloured gesso or what?

    1. Hi Eleanor, in this article the ground is just acrylic paint used to put a color on the canvas. This would be painted over with either oil or acrylic.
      An absorbent ground is an acrylic product put over a canvas, giving it a surface much like paper. This ground makes it able to paint on canvas with watercolor. It is also good for watercolor corrections on paper.

  2. Great article Krista! I tone my canvases as well. I’ve always hated the stark white glare of a blank canvas. A little colour puts me at ease.

  3. Hi Krista
    Great information! I use varied grey tones. Never considered red as an underpaint. What red do you usually use? Do you add a speck of white to bring up the color? Exactly what colours to you use to get your warm orange for water? Thanks.

    1. Hi Clara, I use a warm mid value red usually pyrrole red. I never add white as it turns pinkish (you could put it on thinner and let the white of the canvas brighten it). I love Winson & Newton Burnt sienna under water. It has to be Winsor & Newton as I find theirs has a nice orange tone to it. I like Cadmium Orange as well. I hope this helps. Happy painting πŸ™‚

  4. I can never find much information on this. I appreciate the article, especially the shades to use for what you paint. A couple of questions: do you prime you canvases first or does this serve as a primer as well? Do you use the same color on the entire canvas or use different colors for different areas ( for example, in a landscape, the sky area in one color, the ground area another? Thanks again.

    1. Hi, Trudy thank you for your comment. I do prime with gesso before covering the canvas with a ground. I tend to use the same color as I love how it helps tie it all together but you can use different colors, I have seen artists that do this and it works very well. Try out some really vibrant colors πŸ™‚ Let me know how it turns out.

  5. I have read about this technique and I think I even tried it once but I believe I wasn’t painting loosely enough and I covered the whole background so I figured why bother? I am so busy right now that I am going to have to save these articles so I can try things when I have more time. You are going to have a file of your own – lol.

    1. Thank you, Val, I have covered it all as well when I first tried it. It takes a little getting used to but once you do it really creates a lovely effect. Let me know when you try it again πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you, Susan, that is the best comment I can get. My whole reason for doing this is to share what I have learned over the years. My hope is that it will help or inspire someone. πŸ™‚

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