Toned Grounds For Paintings

October 1, 2009
This subject of toned grounds came up recently in a discussion I was having with other painters, and I thought I’d make a post here about it. Many painters like to use a ground that has a different tone or color applied to it rather than the typical white ground that primer coats leave behind.
In the discussion I was having, an artist was wondering about the possibility of using a black primer instead of white. My reply was that doing so would tone down (lower the value) of most pigments. The only way to reach full intensity in that case is to use pigments that are very opaque. Conversely, transparent or semi-transparent pigments, which most paint pigments are, will take on a brighter tone as they optically mix with a bright or higher value ground. However, fully opaque pigments will appear slightly darker than they do naturally when surrounded by brighter values. Please study this graphic below for example:

Same red circles

Same red circles

All the reds in this graphic are duplicates of each other, and the larger outer ring is 50% transparent. Compare the two small circles on the left, however, and the two small circles on the right with each other. The red circles on a brighter value ground appear darker than the circle on a darker ground. In that discussion I was having, a comment was made that the dark ground intensifies the color. Actually, the color on darker value grounds appears with its natural tone. It isn’t made MORE bright; that IS its brightness. You can’t brighten a color in this way, but you can make it appear darker using this effect of surrounding it with brighter values. A color complement, in this case green, will add vibrancy to the color, but not change its brightness in the way that value will.


Greyscale & Complement

Greyscale & Complement

An interesting painter who used dark value grounds and outlines was George Rouault. It’s a dynamic effect and worth exploring. Something to bear in mind, however, is that as oil paintings age and the paint naturally looses volume, the pigments appear even more transparent as the oil looses its refractive properties. It may take some time for that to occur, but it’s a reason why many old oil paintings seem too dark now. (P.S. Yes, I considered posting a velvet Elvis example, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.)

Rouault "Old King"

Rouault "Old King"



  1. Hi
    I have just started experimenting with media on mylar. No problems with oil acrylic or pastels, but I am wondering about watercolour. I like the results, but wonder how fragile is it. What happens if water/moisture gets on the surface?
    Is there a recommended fixative to use?
    I have watercolour in tubes & found I needed to use it almost full strength + when you do use water, it is a lot of fun.

  2. There’s a similar surface called Yupo that I wrote an earlier post about, and some artists paint on it with watercolors. They seem to like the look, but I can’t say I recommend it. The paint just sort of dries on the surface without really adhering to it.

    I know some artists who spray an acrylic varnish on watercolor to protect it. Glass or plexiglass framing is more common. It should be okay as long as it stays dry, but the paint may eventually dust off.

    • Thanks David,
      I sprayed the watercolour with fixative, and that seemed to work.

      Now I am wondering about adhering the mylar to a wood support. I can get a very smooth baltic birch.

  3. You shouldn’t need to use wood as a backing. It would be heavier than necessary. Just use mat board or quality foamcore. You could then use drafting tape to adhere it as you would paper and mount it under a mat.

    By the way, this discussion is off-topic for this particular post. I would have moved it but can’t figure out how, so if you have more questions could ask on one of my posts related to drafting films? It would keep things more organized. Thanks.

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