The number one mistake all beginners make is buying a pre-stretched canvas or canvas board from a discount book store and not unwrapping it.
The number two mistake is leaving the canvas white when they start painting.
The first technique I always teach in painting (and a technique I use on 99% of my work) is to cover the white canvas with one solid paint colour which is called a ‘ toned ground’.
This is short for ‘toned background’ and is No. 1 of my painting principles.
It can be called a ‘toned ground’ or ‘coloured ground’ as it can be used in drawing and painting.
Using a coloured ground does a number of fantastic things that are not to be underestimated when starting to learn how to paint.
It can transform your paintings by making them look more professional, increase the speed in creating your paintings and give you a a fool-proof method of creating a tonal mood in your work…Different artists throughout the ages have used toned grounds in their work, from Turner to Jack Vettriano.
Turner used pre-coloured sheets of watercolour paper with different hues (colours) of browns, blues and greys.
When faced with a scene he would look through his pre-painted watercolour sheets and select the most appropriate colour.
For example, a warm brown for an Autumnal tree scene.
You can apply a toned ground (also called a coloured ground) opaquely or as a transparent stain (called an Imprimatura)
For our initial purpose an opaque finish is best as it stops the acrylic painting looking too ‘watercolour’
Pro tip: It is applied after priming a canvas with gesso if you’re working on a raw canvas.
What colours do you use for the toned ground?
It depends on the mood and feel you’re after in your painting. You’re trying to imagine what’s underneath the painting and then build opaque layers of colour ontop of this.
My preferred choice for landscapes, still life’s or portraits nearly always stem from one of the Earth colours. See: What are my paints made from?
Usually either Burnt Umber + white, Raw Umber + white or Yellow Ochre.
For the absolute beginner I recommend using Yellow Ochre.
It’s usually included in most beginner sets and can be used diluted with a little water.
It’s also brighter than you think so is good at taking you out of your comfort zone.
Using Yellow Ochre can cause some hesitation if you are first starting painting as the yellow can seem too strong, but you just need to have a little faith!
For example, if you are painting a blue seascape the warm undertone of the yellow can balance perfectly to the cool blues in the scene, adding the feeling of the sun hitting parts of your painting.
Pro Tip: If you try using the Yellow ochre straight from the tube but still find it a little too strong in intensity for your taste just add some Titanium white to the mix to mute it down – it will give you a colour close to Naples yellow.
Are your watercolour techniques ruining your acrylics?
If you’re coming to Acrylics or Oils from Watercolour you will naturally use too little paint.
Watercolour is based on diluting, Acrylic is based on adding.
If you combine scratchy, watery paint onto a white canvas your painting will look amateurish.
If you have the same scratchy watery paint on an opaque ground colour your painting will look rocking!
The coloured ground is doing all the work for you.
How does a coloured ground help me?
Bought canvases and boards are nearly always white.
When you have a white canvas any colour you paint onto it looks drastically different because of the optical effects and tricks colour plays on you.
As a beginner this can be disconcerting, for example, if you paint a light grey onto your white canvas it will look black.
With an untrained artistic eye it’s really hard to judge colours and tones accurately because of the effects of ‘Simultaneous contrast.’
Pro tip: Have a look at the video half way down this article to see the effects of simultaneous contrast
How much do I dilute my Acrylics? (and do I just use water?)
It depends on the brand of paint you’re using.
Heavy body paint will need more water than a soft body paint. As I use this technique on most of my paintings I use a fluid acrylic from Golden paints. This has already been mixed in the factory to a thin consistency and has a good level of acrylic binder in the paint and a really nice strong saturation of colour. You can add a touch of water into it and it will still hold the acrylic bond really nicely.
If you’re just starting with the technique using standard Acrylics will work fine.
Pro tip: Some manufacturers recommend you don’t dilute Acrylics with more than 40 – 50% water due to diluting some of the acrylics adhesive qualities (as you are diluting the amount of acrylic ‘binder’ in the mix). However, for this stage of the painting this doesn’t matter, as we’re painting directly onto the canvas. We want the paint to ‘grab’ onto the canvas and soak it. If you mix in too much medium at this stage it can cause a resist to the further layers of paint adhering onto them as easily. Keep the mix thin and ‘lean’.
Pro tip: If you are finding the paint is pooling in small droplets on the surface when you are just using water you need to add a dash of ‘flow release medium‘ to the paint. This will help to break down the surface tension and make the thin layer of paint soak into the canvas.
How do I apply an Acrylic Coloured Ground?
Time :10 Mins
Level: Absolute beginner
Yellow Ochre Acrylic paint ( I demonstrate with Golden Acrylics Heavy body paint) white canvas or canvas board, decorators brush (I use a Purdy 2 inch decorators brush), kitchen roll (paper towel), water, newspaper, Cranked handle palette knife ( I use a number 45 RGM palette knife)
Pro Materials: (Tear off disposable palette, Cranked handle palette knife ( I use a number 45 RGM palette knife), water mister, Golden fluid Acrylic.
So here’s what you do:
1. Lay old newspaper on the floor, or work on a really old floor or table.
2. Mix the Yellow ochre in a jam jar/old mug or plastic tray with water until it’s the consistency of milk/single cream. Student Quality paints will need less water than artist quality paints.
3. Grab some kitchen roll in your left hand (because your bound to get some unwanted drips when you first start).
Pick up the canvas. Paint around the edges first, trying not to get too much overflow onto the front of the canvas. Angle the brush to minimize bristles sneaking over the front of the canvas. Apply the paint with a scrubbing motion to ‘push it’ into the canvas so it soaks into the canvas.
4. Place the canvas on the floor or low table. Then working quickly brush the paint from left to right to cover the canvas.
5. When you paint there will be darker streaks of paint on the edge of the canvas because the bristles push it out. You have to keep working backwards and forward to smooth out the indiscretions.
6. squeeze the brush in the kitchen towel to take out most of the moisture and then gently go over the canvas again working from left to right, overlapping strokes and lifting the brush at the end rather than working back and forth.
Watch out for drips on the side of the canvas and if your too enthusiastic watch out for spray from the brush.
Pro Tip: I premix a whole airtight plastic container with a ground colour so I don’t have to mix the perfect consistency every time.
Pro Tip: If you are mixing the paint and the water together don’t use the decorators brush, it will pick up too much of the paint and be tricky to mix together. Try using a plastic kitchen spatula, old paintbrush
Pro Tip: I Use Golden Fluid Acrylic paint as it has a stronger staining effect than watering down Heavy body paint.
Pro Tip: If using Acrylic ground for oil paint make sure you add water to the acrylic. As acrylic is plastic based it can cause a skin that the oil paint will sit on top rather than sinking into the canvas.
Pro Tip: If you add too much paint to the initial layer the paint won’t behave the same on the weave of the canvas.
So where do we go from here?
You’ve unwrapped your canvas and got a lovely coloured ground painted. Now we need to have a quick understanding of brushes so we have the right tools for the job.
These brushes are off the hook, brilliant for decorating at home as well, come with a little cardboard ‘brush house’ to keep the brush in shape between uses. Look out for sets for sale as these can be really good value. I usually buy mine from Johnstones paint. They look like a trade only company but are also open to the public. And they do a free painting app for choosing colours to decorate at home!
I predominantly use Golden paints as I find the colour saturation really good and the Titanium White has some amazing opacity. They also have a huge range of mediums, Gels & varnishes.
You might also like:
1. 8 key differences between student grade & artist quality paints
2. How to paint an acrylic landscape painting (Put that new coloured ground into good use!)