Painting on Colored Grounds

Great for Acrylics and Oils

For acrylic and oil paintings, I prefer to begin with a colored ground. I then allow vibrant bits of this background color to show through in the finished painting. This simple technique is a long time favorite. It creates color excitement and acts to unify the painting.

Featured Painting:
'Song of the Platte'—acrylic on canvas by Ken Hosmer

As mentioned in the previous blog post, to overcome the "Covid-19 blues," I headed for my childhood home in the New Mexico mountains. For this trip, I took a box of large stretched canvasses and my acrylic paints.

Although the  subjects I painted were varied, each acrylic canvas shared a common denominator—a brightly colored ground. Selecting this color has become a personal fascination. When planning a new painting, I  consider many options such as red, red-orange, turquoise, green, magenta or other background tones.

Painting the Ground
I start with a white canvas. Then a coat of artist acrylic paint is applied and thoroughly dried. The idea is to have a background color which will not be disturbed during the painting process. For a transparent ground, I thin the paint with a small amount of water or acrylic airbrush medium. To opacify or lighten the color, I add white to the mixture.

For oil paintings, on acrylic gesso primed canvas panels, I also use thinned acrylic paint. On oil primed canvas, I use alkyd paint for the ground, as this is compatible with traditional oils and dries in several days.

'Gone Fishing'—an earlier workshop painting, shows the use of oil on canvas panel with a transparent phthalo turquoise ground. The cool background color electrifies the warm thickly applied oil paint.

Color Choices
Once I pick a major color dominance for the painting, I often choose an opposite color temperature or complementary hue for the ground. So for example, if the painting has warm red flowers, I might choose a cool color such as green or turquoise for the ground. If I plan a landscape which has a dominance of greens and blues, I might begin with a background of red or orange. However, it is sometimes best not to overthink the process. I may select a background color simply because it feels right.

Years ago when I first began exploring this technique, I mostly used softer tones; with time, background color choices have become much bolder. It is very exciting to begin with a bold color, and see how this influences the final look and mood of a painting.

'Forest Serenade'—acrylic on canvas. The ground color is a mixture of phthalo green and white. This is played against the red-violet tree trunks and branches. As this painting progressed it developed a feeling of silvery moonlight. So I darkened the light sky and added a full moon.

Color Harmony
One of the great benefits of this technique is that it easy leads to color harmony or unified color. I leave random bits of background hue showing throughout the painting, a technique called broken color, which visually ties the painting together. Also, I often thinly apply the final paint allowing the underpainting to show through. This can be beautifully subtle and again contributes to color harmony by creating visual color blends and repeating a common hue.

'Song of the Platte' close-up—Notice the pyrrole orange ground color coming through the sky and clouds.

Other Helpful Tips
The underpainting color generally works best when it falls in the mid-value range.

Because a vibrant background color makes it difficult to judge value, I strive to block in large areas of the painting as soon as possible. To aid in seeing value relationships more accurately, I often begin with at least one dark area and one light area applied to the mid-value background.

Notice that the block in for 'Winter Light' includes some lights and darks to assist me in judging value.
'Winter Light'—acrylic on canvas. The pyrrole red ground color resulted in a very warm snow scene.

When I teach this method in workshops, one of the most common errors is that students cover up too much of the background color. To overcome this, I suggest leaving extra background color around the edges of objects. Also we can lift paint, re-exposing the background color.

Have fun with this valuable technique. It's a great way to add color excitement to an otherwise ordinary painting subject, create mood, and achieve color harmony.