Tag Archives: gesso

Working on a Toned Ground

Here’s a trick I learned from Kathleen Dunphy: I tone my canvas yellow before I paint on it.

Many artists over time have worked on toned grounds. (The “ground” is the surface one paints on.) The white of a bare canvas is just too intimidating or too harsh, so painters tone the canvas with a thin layer of color.

Pine Tree Study by Stephanie Benedict
A plein-air study of two pine trees in snow. The right-hand side shows the yellow-toned ground. I toned this panel with a thin layer of gesso tinted with Hansa yellow medium acrylic paint.

A Modern Approach

The traditional color for toning canvas is raw sienna, which will give the canvas a warm, slightly orange-y color. I’ve tried that, and it’s OK. Others use burnt umber or red or a mixture of colors.

After I began studying with Dunphy in 2008, I explored a number of options: raw sienna, quinacridone burnt orange (which is like raw sienna only brighter), neutral gray, burnt umber. Eventually I came to agree with Kathleen: I like yellow the best. So now I tone all my canvases with a pale wash of cadmium yellow light or Hansa yellow before I paint.

Now, too much yellow can be a distraction at first, and make it hard to judge the relative color and value of the first paints I put onto the canvas. But the payoff is huge: the yellow gives an underlying warmth to the canvas, which complements cool paintings on cloudy days and highlights the warmth of sunny days*.

 The Process

The traditional method is to thin a little bit of oil color into a lot of solvent and wash it onto the canvas either with a brush or a rag. Then you have to let it set up before you start painting.

A more modern way is to use a bit of acrylic paint thinned with water and wash it onto the canvas with a rag. But the representatives at Gamblin Colors (which makes oil paints and mediums) convinced me that perhaps that’s not the best method, so most recently I’ve started adding a touch of yellow acrylic paint to white gesso, and adding a layer of colored gesso. I typically use pre-primed panels or canvas, so my colored layer doesn’t need to be thick or completely covering: I’m not trying to build a whole new ground. And I can make the yellow then very pale. Yes, it takes a bit of planning, but I like the results.

What do you think?

If you’re a collector, can you tell if your paintings have toned grounds? If you’re an artist, do you tone your canvas first?

*I’m not sure this would work for the painter who works in the Henry Hensche, full-spectrum colorist style. In that style, that extra warmth might conflict with the finished painting. But with a more limited palette, it works just fine.