Getting Started: How a Prepared Canvas can Drastically Improve your Painting

The number one mistake all beginners make is buying a pre-stretched canvas or canvas board from a discount bookstore and not unwrapping the cellophane from 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 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.

Why?

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

Materials:

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 the 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.

Resources

 

 

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 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.

This Post Has 517 Comments

  1. Hello Will,
    Will a good quality acrylic house paint primer provide a reasonably satisfactory alternative to gesso? I’m just starting out and most (all?) of my work is definitely not worth saving. I just want to have fun without spending too much on this “trial hobby”.

    1. Hi Don, if you’re just experimenting you could, but the archival and handling properties qualities wouldn’t be the same, it would make the most difference on a flexible support such as canvas because gesso has more flexibility to prevent cracking.

      Cheers,
      Will

  2. I am 67 years young and found the lessons very interesting they helped me a lot

  3. Your tutorials are so helpful! Thank you for taking the time to explain things so fully for us struggling beginners!

  4. hi will.. your website is great.. actually i needed a bit of help… i was pretty good at water colours about 5 years ago.. then i tried pencil sketching and completely lost touch with water colour, itz been few years without painting in water colours but now whenever i try to use watercolour i jst cant serm to get it right., itz as if i vompletely forgot how to use watercolours.. any suggestion?

    thanks
    Vaishu,

    1. Hi Vaishu, nice to hear from you, I haven’t personally got any Watercolour tutorials on the site but coming back to any new medium can seem hard at first. Just start with a couple of colours and practice a simple wash and brush handling, don’t feel that you have to create a finished painting, just get used to moving the paint with water and see how it reacts. Your dormant watercolour skills will soon come back!
      Cheers,
      Will

      1. thanks… and yeah your profile picture is realy cool…..

  5. Hi Will,
    Thank you so much for this website ando the tutorials. They are very helpful.
    I have been painting with acrylics for quiet some time now. Somehow I have never been satisfied with the colors in my paintings. My whites are chalky. I cannot achieve consistent skin tones. Cannot figure out what I am doing wrong. May be I am missing some important techniques? Do you have any sucreations for me?

    1. Hi Aparna, whites will always be chalky and make colours appear more pastel. If you want a more saturated finish try adding thin applications of paint (called glazes) to your colours to boost the vibrancy and saturation.
      Cheers,
      Will

  6. Will, You are brilliant! Best teacher ever. So smart giving us learners a step-by-step painting guide. I’m a therapist and writer and have decided in my later years to try painting. I have so many questions and I always come back to your site. This fall I hope to have more time and actually take a class from you. Thank you for all the encouragement. Best from St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

    1. Thanks very much Doris, very kind of you to say so, hope you find time in the fall for your painting.
      Cheers,
      Will

  7. Hello
    Your tips are very useful.. I am using oil paint colors.. Can you please give some tips on oil paint? Like How to use and what to add..
    Thank you

  8. Hi Will

    I’m blown away by your website. You are really knowledgeable and really generous to share so much of your knowledge. I am learning heaps from you and intend to keep doing so. Thanks so much.

    Vanessa

    1. Pleased to hear it Vanessa, glad you’re finding it helpful.
      Cheers,
      Will

  9. Hi Will,
    Just found your website and I am loving the advice and inspiration you are providing, as a beginner I’m finding it extremely helpful so thankyou! If I can ask a question.. I’m going to be starting an african landscape/sunset very soon so would like to know the best colour to use for the colour ground? Many thanks!.

    1. Hi Sophie, nice to hear from you, and really pleased you’re finding the site helpful. If you’re going for an African sunset a rich warm red can work very well, as long as you have a good titanium white for covering over the strength of the red it can be very succesful for sunsets.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  10. Hi there I paint a little have just got done painting on a burlap canvas what is the best sealer for this also I’ve tried finding more canvas boards with burlap can I glue pieces of burlap on canvas canvas boards will this work? Thank you janet

    1. Hi Janet, you would prepare burlap canvas the same as any canvas, so you protect the fibres from oil paint if working with oil with a canvas size (Gamblin do a good modern PVA size) or apply an acrylic gesso if working with acrylics.
      Cheers,
      Will

  11. hello Will , love this site very informative , my question is , what ground color to use for a predominately red painting , am wanting to paint Venetian Masks , would green or an orange work or stick with umber? thankyou

    1. Hi Jane, yes you could pump up the colour to a richer orange/red for Venetian Masks and that would work well.
      Cheers,
      Will

  12. My backgrounds look blotchy, and when I try to repaint I get too much build up. I’m so frustrated!

    1. Hi Sandy, just try with some super small test pieces of card and vary the consistency of the water, even a slight change in the consistency of the paint can change the way the paints goes onto the canvas. When you find a mix that works then try that onto the canvas, there still might be a slight change due to the different surface but it will give you an idea of the differences that can vary depending on the consistency of the paint.
      Cheers,
      Will

  13. Greetings Mr Kemp!
    I am a brand new student of art/painting and have no clue what I’m doing right now, but paint I must lol! My only experience with acrylic painting came from a colour theory class I took many years ago. I never forgot it; I fell in love with the act of painting..the whole deal. Recently, that “love” transformed into a compelling inner call to again put brush to canvas and I couldn’t deny it. I found your website and started reading. It is the first time I have EVER sketched anything (including shadow cast) and got a result that others could identify lol (formerly a professional stick figure sketcher ha!). Your tutorials, your site is a God send and helped me to get out of my head and actually begin. I want to thank you so much for your support and selflessness in helping poor souls like me lol. I very much would like to take your beginning acrylic painting course (I will have to save for it), and will continue to make good use of all the great help you have provided. Thank you Mr Kemp…it’s been a long time getting here .

    Yours…Robyn

    1. Hi Robyn,

      Nice to hear from you and so pleased that you’ve been enjoying your journey back to painting, and finding the lessons helpful. Yes, those cast shadows can make a massive difference in the realism to your work. Hope you enjoy exploring the tutorials on the site.
      Cheers,
      Will

  14. Hi Will…Robyn here again…thank you most of all for for helping me with the courage to just START

      1. Hi Will!
        I read the article on procrastination and, yup, that’s me..all of it. Thank you so much for helping me not feel “alone”, squashing a myth I’ve always had because my brother is a born artist whom I’ve always envied, and the big shot of courage I need.

        You’re awesome!
        Robyn

        1. Good one Robyn, pleased you enjoyed it.
          Will

  15. Hi Will,

    I have watched and enjoyed some of your YouTube videos. I appreciate this article as well. I have a question about canvas prep. I saw another artist sketch his painting with a watercolor colored pencil, then take a black permanent marker and define the lines and then shade the dark regions. Then painted over the entire canvas with an acrylic wash of light blue, very similar to what this article describes. Then they went in and started painting the dark regions and then just continued to paint the entire painting. My big question is about using the black Permanent Marker. Have you ever done that? Is it a good technique?

    Thanks in advance for your reply!

    -Garrett

    1. Hi Garett, yes you can draw in with a Permanent marker, it can be handy if you’re painting very detailed oil paintings and want to work ontop with a turpentine based wash knowing that you will cover 100% of the canvas with paint. If you’re going to be leaving odd sections of the coloured ground showing using pencil or just going straight on with the paint can give you a fresher feel.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  16. Hi Will,

    I wonder if your page is still active or not?!, since the last comment is from 2013, but I take my chance….
    First I would like to thanks a lot for such great advices. Then, I am kind of aspiring artist (more into drawing), who was away of work for so long. So this is life…, any way I started to do painting quite recently again. I felt I would like to try a new technique, I’ve selected gouache, and I enjoy it a lot. Now, I have some ideas which I would like to try them on black canvas, the artist store close to home advices me is better that I start with white canvas and paint it black instead of using a black convas from beginning??, I myself have no idea which one is the best??!!, just suspicious if I paint the canvas black myself it will interfere with my water base paint…,So I was wonder if you have any tips for me….?!?,
    Thanks a lot for the page again!

    1. Hi Leila, hope you’re keeping well, you can apply a black gesso to your own canvas (golden paints make one) and then work with gouache, that would work fine. It’s only if the pre-prepared canvas has an oil primed surface you would have issues, look for an acrylic primed and you’ll be fine.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Thanks a lot Will, great and helpful tips, No more confusion!! :-))

        Cheers,
        Leila :-)

  17. Hi thank you for the lesson. Just what I needed to know. Xx

    1. Pleased you found it helpful Susan.
      Cheers,
      Will

      1. That piece of instruction is hugely valuable! Learning about laying the tonal ground makes all the difference in the world! Also makes that blank canvas much less intimidating.

        1. Good one Robyn, pleased you found it helpful.
          Cheers,
          Will

  18. Thank you so much for posting this in such a direct concise format. I have long questioned how to properly prepare a larger canvas in a way that would take me from the “cute” small commercial work that I do, a more professional, more artistic presentation. The yellow ochre for a seascape makes so much sense now that you’ve explained it. Your words have helped! Thanks again. I have your site bookmarked.

    1. Good one Chris, pleased it’s helped.
      Cheers,
      Will

  19. Will
    is there some rules about coloured ground
    for exemple
    cold coloured ground for next warm colour
    or
    warm coloured ground for next layer which will be cold colour
    Thanks
    Svetlana

    1. Hi Svetlana, it depends on the effect you’re after, but if you know you will be painting a cool skin tone, having a warm underpainting can help to emphasize the differences between the two, so try and think what the end result will be and then work back from there.

      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Hi Will…
        I made a huge mistake concerning tonal ground in attempting a self portrait project (I can’t wait till I can afford your portrait course). I started doing a lot of research and what I saw was either an untouched canvas with the sketch and subsequent painting, even black gesso for a grayscale under painting, and an umber wash over canvas and subject sketch. I am quite overwhelmed and really disappointed that I misunderstood how to proceed. I am beginning again and would like to know do you suggest the umber wash process?
        Your time and help are always appreciated!
        Sincerely…
        Robyn

        1. Hi Robyn, for a portrait you can have success with any of the methods you mentioned, it’s more of a cast of experimenting to find the technique that suits you own style. For a classical portrait painting you would paint on top of a tonal coloured ground. The umber wash is the same as the technique for applying the yellow ochre just using burnt or raw umber rather than yellow ochre.

          Cheers,
          Will

          1. Thank you so much Will! That’s exactly what I needed to know! I will be applying white gesso over the canvas (start over). There’s only one layer of paint (a blue-gray ground): should I do 1 or 2 layers of gesso and do you recommend light sanding either way please? I’m ok with making mistakes in order to learn; being ok with wasted time and materials is harder for me lol.
            I realize your time is precious, so please know I appreciate it!

            Have a fantastic day Will!
            Robyn

          2. Hi Robyn, if you’re painting over an existing painting you’ll need a couple of coats of gesso, so apply one layer, a light sand, and then a second coat, then the blue/grey ground, then you’ll be all prepped and ready to go.
            Cheers,
            Will

          3. Awesome! Thank you again Will! Let’s see if I can not screw this up lol!

            Robyn

  20. Hi Will,
    if my painting has deep reds , which colour should i use to prep the canvas with ?
    thanks
    smitha

    1. You could still use the yellow ochre, or any warm earth colour, a burnt sienna could be nice.
      Cheers,
      Will

  21. Thank you!
    I just started painting and your tutorials and advice have helped me out a lot. Thank you again.

    1. Good one Natti, pleased you’ve been finding the tutorials helpful.
      Cheers,
      Will

  22. I am not a beginner but have recently started using acrylic rather than watercolor. I am doing a large (30 x 48) painting. I have 13 birds that I will be painting on the canvas and have already drawn my birds on my white canvas. I would like to add an acrylic color ground but am concerned it will cover my drawings. Will the milky color ground allow my drawings to show through? And I want to use a metallic gold background for part of the painting along with some light blue and white with texture. What effect will the yellow ochre have when I apply a metallic paint to it? Thanks, your video was very useful and I hope I can successfully use your advice.

    1. Hi Joyce, for the painting you’ve described I would stick to the white canvas rather than the coloured ground. The ground would cover the drawing and alter the effect of the gold. The yellow ochre colour works well for landscapes and still lifes to bring elements of foreground/middle ground background together but for more mixed media approaches you don’t always need a coloured ground. I would make some small postcard sized test pieces and experiment with drawing a bird and then trying different colours on top to see if it suits with the aesthetic you’re trying to achieve.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  23. Hi Will:
    I am the most novice of novices. I was wondering; how long do you let the undercoat dry before you paint on it?

    1. Hi Kinsey, for an acrylic coloured ground it will be touch dry in about 5-10 minutes, sometimes quicker, depending on the thickness of the paint layer applied.
      Cheers,
      Will

  24. What if you are doing a painting of an object in the middle, and a completely white background? Do you have to paint the entire white canvas white? Is it okay to just save paint and time by leaving it white? Or is it better for some reason to just paint or primer it white always?

    1. Hi Jalayna, it’s a personal preference really, but you can paint straight onto of the white canvas, I would still add a few brushstrokes of white paint over the white canvas around the object so it stops the painting of the object feeling too ‘stuck on’.
      Cheers,
      Will

  25. In preparing a primed canvas with a ‘toned background’ before starting an oil painting should it be toned with a diluted oil, diluted acrylic paint, or would either be ok? Thanks

    1. Hi Lyle, it depends on the gesso you’re working ontop of and the time you have for the painting. If working on an oil gesso you will need an oil ground, if working on an acrylic gesso you can use either.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  26. Hey Hey, Just wondering at what point is it recommended to sketch? before or after the coloured ground and Gesso application?

    1. Hi Adrianna, you would gesso first, then coloured ground, then sketch.
      Cheers,
      Will

  27. Hi.I am beginner in acrylic.I have done oil paintings and i feel it is much easy to handle blending than acrylic.I tried acrylic on mixed media paper but it outcome didn’t come good.Do i have to use canvas or is it because of low quality acrylic.?
    Can u suggest which acrylic paint to use?

  28. I gessod four layers on my canvas (lightly sanding in between). Ended up with a nice smooth surface. I’m glazing acrylic layers for depth, but it’s supper hard to control the paint. Is my surface too slippery? Or is this technique correct?

    1. Hi Leisa, yes, the surface might be too slippy for absorption of the acrylics, you can add in some acrylic flow release into the water so the paint will soak into the surface easier.
      Cheers,
      Will

  29. I want to paint the canvas yellow, tape off a few words using artist’s tape, then paint over that. Will the tape take off the yellow paint on the canvas?

    1. Hi Amy, if you use low tack masking tape it will work fine and won’t pull of the paint.
      Cheers,
      Will

  30. I am thrilled I stumble on your site. I am self taught and I have been painting with acrylics for over 15 years. In all that time I have never learned even half the tips you point out, thank you. I look forward to joining your online class soon to learn more about techniques I have been missing out on. I did have one question though.. I paint a lot of underwater wave perspectives and I am gonna try use your color grounding step but wasn’t sure what color will work great for that. Are there a few colors you recommend? Thank you again!

    1. Hi Luke, pleased you’re learning lots from the lessons, a light yellow mixed from Naples yellow and a touch of titanium white can work really well against stronger blues and turquoises of waves.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  31. Very inviting class you have.
    I look forward to improving my
    Ability of throwing my brushes…now instead of breaking the brushes and throwing them at the canvas, I hope to form a more gentle appriach approach and maybe even paint something.
    :)

    1. Ha ha, pleased you’ve found it helpful Dannl.
      Cheers,
      Will

  32. Hi Will,

    Thank you for the tip with the Naples color I will definitely try that. I did have one more question and please be nice try not to laugh to hard at my beginners mistake Lol… I am starting on a landscape painting and my canvas is 18×36. I applied yellow ochre for the color ground but experienced underjudging how much paint I needed to spread across the canvas cause parts of canvas to dry quicker thus pulling layers of paint off in some areas and now it doesn’t have that smooth look to it. I don’t know if I should apply another layer or just leave as is cause I know you mentioned to keep layer thin. Obviously I would assume a bigger Purdy brush for a bigger canves. Do you have to use a bigger brush or do you have a personal way of covering more surface area in blocks of space with a 2″ Purdy? Dang sorry I feel like such a doofus for asking this. How could I screw up this easy step.. Lol!

    1. Hi Luke, 18 x 36 is pretty large so that can be common with the acrylics drying so quickly. If the first layer was reasonably thin you can definitely add another layer ontop to even out the surface. For that scale, I’d personally still probably stick with the 2inch brush.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Thank you Will. Yes that helps a ton. I feel that it’s pretty even with some wishy spots here and there, I don’t wanna over do it I guess for me it was my first time doing this so at least now I know how to execute for future paintings. I did a test run with yellow ochre and white on a 8×12 canvas and created the ocean blues and whitewash and it seems to pop out more. What a paint and time saving tip. Thank you again Will!

        Aloha
        Luke

        1. Good one Luke, pleased it helped with your painting.
          Cheers,
          Will

  33. Hello Will,

    I’ve watched countless YouTube tutorials and I have found your videos and website to be the most informative, educational, and just easy to follow. I’m newly retired from a high stressful career and I’ve been wanting to paint for almost forever. I’ve loved art my entire life, but never had the opportunity to do something until now. I am a “true” beginner (like stick figure drawing skills) and have white canvas paralysis. I am hoping that a toned ground might jump start the creative process. Please continue your tutorials and website. Thank you a million for being online!

    1. Hey Linda, thanks for your kind words, so pleased you’ve been finding the tutorials helpful in your new painting career! yes, a toned ground can work wonders, have fun uncovering your untapped drawing and painting skills!
      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Hello Will,

        Since my initial comment from March 2016, I have been on your website and painting alongside your free youtube tutorials religiously. I recently finished the cherry and apple studies. My family really liked the outcome so I suppose I’m on the right track! Am looking forward to purchasing the next course from your library. I do have a question and hope you can decipher what I’m doing wrong. I have made a small investment in upgrading my acrylic paints and brushes from student grade to the next level. Definitely not professional grade (yet!), but just a little something in between. Lately, after preparing my canvas with gesso and the toned ground, as I start to build up my painting with layers of paint I somehow end up with a vinyl like texture that creates an almost “slippery” or “wet” look to the paint/canvas. The subsequent layers of paint don’t adhere or absorb and it just looks crappy. A few times I reapplied gesso and started over but then it reoccurred. Is it something I’m doing wrong in laying down (brushing on) the paint or is it because I’m still using student grade (like really inexpensive) canvas? I hope I was able to clearly describe the problem.

        Any insight is greatly appreciated,
        Linda C

        1. Hi Linda, nice to hear from you, and pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons. It’s a balance between absorption of the canvas/paint surface, the thickness of your toned ground and then the subsequent thickness of paint application.

          Thick acrylics will dry to having a vinyl-like texture and the level of sheen to the paint will vary depending on how much acrylic polymer has been used to create the paint in the manufacturing process.

          For thinner applications over thicker paint try using a glazing liquid so the paint film can adhere to the thicker paint more easily. You might find this article of interest about the absorbency of your paint surface.

          Hope this helps,
          Will

          1. Thank you for the quick response and link. I hope you continue to upload more videos…I really enjoy your teaching methods and admire how you paint.

            Linda C.

  34. I will be attempting to paint , on stretched canvas, primed with gesso, a blue sky and cumulus clouds, no land/earth. Would you still recommend a yellow toned base coat?

    1. Hi Linda, when you have such a strong blue base I wouldn’t use a pure yellow ochre, a Naples yellow with a touch of white or a light peach can work really well for skies.
      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Thank you for your prompt reply. Another question – is it OK to use two different manufacturers paints on one painting? Such as Golden and Liquitex (NO BASICS) all artists quality?

        Separate question – Is it ok to mix these two brands Such as Liquitex titanium white and Golden Cerulean blue? Or to mix any two brands: such as Utrecht, Grumbacher, Golden, Windsor Newton , etc?

        Thank you,
        Linda

        1. Hi Linda, yes, you can combine brands, there might be slight differences in the drying times of sheen to the finish depending on the manufacturer but I often use different brands within one painting.
          Cheers,
          Will

  35. Hi Will,

    First of all, brilliant website and videos. I am now trying to get myself familiar with paints and their consistency. I have two questions.
    1) For a acrylic color ground, I attempted it for the first time and saw that I mixed the paint with water but it gave me uneven consistency. Sometimes it ends thicker (darker), sometimes, lighter. Don’t know what the correct way to do this.
    2) I see your paint tray palette doesn’t have ‘slots’ or compartments, but seems to be a slab of plastic. What is it called, and it seems easier to mix colors on it, I presume?

    1. Hi Stilian, pleased you’ve been enjoying the site, if you have a look at the beginning of this tutorial you can see the ratio of water to paint I use for the ground. I mix the colours on a ‘tear-off’ disposable palette or a stay-wet palette for larger works.
      Cheers,
      Will

  36. Hi Will,
    I’m still loving your site. But the only thing scarier to me than the blank white canvas, is using a yellow ochre ground color for everything. This is especially true for a painting I’m starting – of snow/storm clouds blowing off the Matterhorn in the dead of winter.

    Everything in this scene is thickly snow covered under a cold winter sky, with the exception of some Alpine bedrock showing through near the foreground. Even the rock of the distant mountain appears a kind of hazy blue-gray with lighter snow highlights – i.e. not really “rock” colored.

    Something you mentioned in the discussion of Tone and Contrast (re: light, midtones, dark, and the middle of the midtones makes a good ground color) gave me an idea, and I may have found an interesting trick:
    Via Photoshop (on my Mac), I’ve taken the original photograph, and used the Gaussian Blur Filter set to maximum. It produced an almost uniform single-color picture. The overall color is like a light, gray Prussian Blue. Because of the way the Gaussian Blur works, I think that should nearly represent an “average” midtone color for the entire composition.

    I experimented with this same blurring technique on a number of summer landscape photo subjects, and the “average” midtone color (after Gaussian blurring) in those cases, looks like a toned down burnt umber or a gray-green umber.

    Might this be a valid way to evaluate the middle of the mid-tones? Can I use the resulting color as my ground color? Or should I try to make a go of it with the yellow ochre for all? (Please don’t beat me. I know you’ve already told us yellow ochre a thousand times … at least a thousand times…)

    Best Regards,
    Mark

    1. Hi Mark, nice to hear from you. You don’t have to use yellow ochre for all your paintings, I mention in the video about using other earth colours for more muted scenes and subjects such as portraits.

      Have a look at this recent tutorial of a winter snow scene where I use a more muted ground colour.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Thanks Will!
        Awesome awesome awesome tutorial!

        For what it’s worth, I applied my Mac Photoshop Gaussian-Blur trick (I described in the previous post) to the photograph in your tutorial. The resulting ground color that trick produced, is virtually identical to the ground color you choose in the tutorial – with just the faintest hint of blue in it. This Photoshop trick will be a great temporary “crutch”, until I’ve properly retrained my eyes to “see” ground colors the way you do.

        So I’m off to the Alps (without ever leaving New Jersey)! If you don’t hear from me in a month, send in the Saint Bernards; it means I’m lost in the snow near Zermatt…

        A Thousand Thanks,
        Mark

        1. Good one Mark, really pleased you enjoyed the tutorial and glad the Gaussian-blur technique worked out. Have a great time in the Alps, what an inspirational landscape.
          Cheers,
          Will

  37. The advice on painting a ground Absolutely changed my style for the better!
    So Cool…..

  38. Hi Will,
    1) Are the techniques for creating Coloured Grounds the same with oils as acrylics except for choice of thinning medium and drying times?
    2) Can multiple Coloured Grounds be used in the same painting? For example, one Coloured Ground for sky areas, and a different Coloured Ground for land/water/subject areas?

    By the way – using Coloured Grounds reminds me of an average musician (me) playing on a really fine instrument – it actually makes me “hear” and “see” nuances and new ways of adding expression, which would never occur to me without that Coloured Ground (or fine instrument).

    I can’t thank you enough for pushing me out of my comfort zone. We all need a little push sometimes!

    1. Hi Mark, good to hear from you and really pleased you’ve been enjoying experimenting with tonal grounds, to answer your questions:

      1) Are the techniques for creating Coloured Grounds the same with oils as acrylics except for choice of thinning medium and drying times?

      Yes.

      2) Can multiple Coloured Grounds be used in the same painting? For example, one Coloured Ground for sky areas, and a different Coloured Ground for land/water/subject areas?

      Yes.

      Cheers,
      Will

  39. Hello,

    I’ve been going through your website and tutorials, they are amazing and helpful, thank you so much.
    I have a question regarding unstretched canvas, I have limited storage space in my studio and I tried to work on unstretched canvas by taping the edges to a board but it always wrinkles and ripples and I throw it away, is there a right way to do it?

    Regards,
    Leena
    Kingdom of Bahrain

    1. Hi Leena, you can temporarily staple the canvas with a staple gun or use canvas tacks and a hammer to attach to a board/stretcher bar when you paint and then remove the tacks to roll for storage. That way you’re stretching, then painting, unmount the canvas for storage, then remount/stretch later.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Thank you so much

        Will try it soon,

        Regards,
        Leena

  40. Hello, Will. I am wondering what colours of acrylic paints you would choose for a tonal ground for a night landscape, such as the Aurora Borealis reflecting in a lake’s surface. I have heard some artists use a type of red to give a more luminous quality to the blue they use as the next layer. Love to hear your suggestions.

    1. Hi Leslie, for a Aurora Borealis, having either a dull blue to give the whole underpainting a cool tone, or if you’re feeling brave start with a bold green, that way when you build up the painting the colours in the sky will really glow.
      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Happy Thanksgiving from Canada! Thank you for the tips about underpainting! I will try the bold green as you suggested! Much appreciated!

        Leslie

  41. I want to paint a seascape using acrylics paints on a varnished wood surface. What is the best procedure to follow for a long lasting effect?
    How should I seal it when it’s finished?
    I have been using Liquitex acrylic paints. Do you recommend a different brand?
    Thank you so much for your expert advice,
    Deb

  42. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge Will. I’m just beginning and a white canvas is a bit scary but I feel much more prepared now! Looking forward to viewing your other tutorials!

    Sally

    1. My pleasure Sally, really hope you find the lessons helpful in getting past the blank canvas and creating some fab paintings.
      Cheers,
      Will

  43. Aloha, Will, from Blue Hawaii- I always enjoy your lessons and blogsite!

    I never paint anymore on a white canvas since I found that the colored ground over a gessoed canvas makes all the difference in the world in my art work. Whether acrylic or oil, the end results will look ‘alive’ and have ‘more body’ to them, whereas the 1 or 2 paintings I’ve done without the applied ground are flat and the colors not as great as I would have liked them to be. My favorite ground is a pale yellow ochre for landscapes and seascapes. I hope this helps somebody who is trying to decide on using a ground or going white.
    Cheers,
    Liz

    1. Hi Liz, so pleased you’ve been finding the coloured ground helpful in your paintings, thanks for sharing your experiences.
      Cheers,
      Will

  44. Hi Will, great resource you have created here. I’m a beginner and teaching myself acrylic painting. I’m really trying to refine what I’m already doing and was wondering what course of yours you recommend for someone wanting to learn more about blending, glazing and layering colour. Working both dark to light and light to dark. Also looking mostly at portraits. Thanks Nicole

    1. Hi Nicole, the oil portrait glazing course looks at blending thicker paints, then building up thin coloured glazes of colours. I’d recommend having drawn a few portraits first before jumping into the course.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

      1. Hi Will,
        Thanks for your reply. I’ve decided to download both the beginners acrylic and portraits courses and see how I go from here. Thanks again.

        1. Good one Nicole, really hope you enjoy the courses.
          Cheers,
          Will

  45. Thank you! I was curious if the yellow ochre was used in all tonal grounds and you clarified that other colours are used depending on what mood you want your painting to take. This is great! It’s going to take my beginner work from a 2/10 to a 3/10 ;)

    1. Good one Sheena, really hope you enjoy experimenting with the technique.
      Will

  46. Hi Will,

    Thanks for your awesome videos and helpful information.

    I’m using INKJET PAPER as a support… I’ve printed a PHOTO, using pigment inks. Then I’ll add acrylics, to certain portions. The matte paper is 100% rag, 300 gsm, and I don’t want the final (painted) image surface to be too glossy.

    First question: If you agree that it’s best to prepare the paper before Acrylic painting, what product is best for priming, so that the printed image remains visible?

    2nd question: After painting is complete, I hesitate to use a matte glaze, because of the “milky” look, especially over darker areas. Would a semi-gloss glaze be better?

    3rd question: Would a Matte spray varnish be better to coat it evenly? Parts of the print will have different paint depth levels, and some areas will actually be left unpainted.

    1. Hi Lara, nice to hear from you, if you’re working on to pigmented inks it’s best to apply a coat of varnish over the print first and then add any acrylic on top and then add a final varnish to bring the sheens together. You can use a satin varnish to give you a semi-gloss finish. You can roller on a giclee varnish to the print when the surface is flat and then spray finish a varnish if the surface texture is very uneven.

      Hope this helps,
      Will

      1. Thanks for your valuable ideas, Will.

        I’m seeking clarity on which varnish to use as the initial step, to prep the photo.
        Should I use something like Golden’s Satin POLYMAR varnish?

        How would Golden’s “Fluid Matte Medium” compare, as far as prepping, before adding acrylics? Do you agree that the Matte Medium might “fog” the photo image, or lighten the color of the pigment inks?

        Look forward to your thoughts, and thank you.

        1. Hi Lara, I’d personally use a specific giclee varnish, breathing color make some good ones. The matting agent in any matte medium is white so it will always lighten dark colours but not as obvious on lighter images. Best to try a few different finishes first on some test prints to see the aesthetic you prefer before committing to a larger scale piece.
          Will

          1. Hi Will,

            I appreciate the reference and your feedback… thanks!

          2. Hi Will & Lara,

            Sorry to interrupt, but you just made me remember from my childhood (1950s) I had an Great Aunt who used to tint Black & White Photographs for people, turning them into the most beautiful & realistic color portraits – color photography not being yet available. I had completely forgotten about her. WOW. Was this the technique that was used to do that? (1950s – would she have somehow used oil paints, or were they inks?)

            Again, Sorry for the interruption – but Thank you for a whole FLOOD of memories that were lost!

            Mark

          3. Not at all Mark, watercolours, inks or oils would have worked well over the black and white photos, you can see a brief history of the techniques here. Glad it brought back some good memories for you mark.
            Cheers,
            Will

          4. Hi Mark,

            Good to hear your memories, Mark.

            The techniques your great aunt used were commonly used, and are still used today by those who shoot with film. She would have approached the hand-coloring differently than my projects, because the photos she used were probably silver gelatin… the coated surface of this type of print is good for applying color.

            With the modern inkjet printers and papers that I’m using, there are different considerations.

            I watched a video online which said that there is no “ideal” medium or varnish for mixed media, which includes contemporary photo prints.

            I agree with Will: experimenting with different mediums and sprays is important when using contemporary materials. Each piece could have varying results.

  47. My colored ground seems streaky, showing lots of brush strokes. What might be causing that? Might the paint too thick or too thin? I think it was about 50/50 paint/water. Or might it be a problem with the brush? That is just a big general purpose house painting type of brush. I love your tutorials. Thanks!

    1. Hi Becky, the streaky effect can be a combination between all of the 3, either a stiff bristle, the amount of water in the dilution or the absorbency of the surface you’re painting onto. Try creating a test piece where you change one element, so the same dilution but a different brush or less dilution and the same brush. That way you’ll see which factor is altering it most, I’d start with the water dilution amount.

      Cheers,
      Will

  48. Hi Will,
    I have taken your oil portrait class and am back on your site reading more about grounds in acrylic for my oil paintings. I have issues using acrylics (when trying to not thin them into the mist!) when preparing a large canvas. I used a 2″ brush, but it dries when I get half way across the canvas. I ended up with a thin layer of color but then about 20″ in, a definite harsh line where it dries at the end of one stroke before I can get to the next one. I added a little water, trying to lessen the effect only the make it more pronounced. Could you help me understand how to prepare a large (in my case 24 x 36) canvas in acrylics. Loved this lesson, but still groveling with this issues. Regards & by the way, my portraits are stepping up. Many thanks,

    1. Hi Pam, nice to hear from you and really pleased you’ve been seeing progress in your portraits.

      For larger canvases you can spray/mist the canvas surface with water first before applying the ground.

      If this doesn’t give you enough working time you can you can spary/paint the back of the canvas with water to give you a temporarty stay-wet palette effect. If the ground colour isn’t grabbing (water is beading on the surface) you can add a couple of drops of acrylic flow relase (from Golden paints). This helps to break down the surface tension of the water diluted paint and it will grab into the surface more easily. The wetter canvas surface will give the paint a little extra working time and help blend those joins.

      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  49. Hi Will,
    Please can you advise me as when I am painting a mixture of wet on wet acrylic paints once dried they seem to lose their intensity and become muted, often looking slightly dirty .
    I would have painted the ground white to start so not sure what I am doing wrong ?

    My second question is once the paint has dried it almost looks as though tiny holes appear on the surface of the paint so I end up retouching the painting , again not sure what I’ve done.

    Please can you help.
    Thanks
    Maddy

    1. Hi Madeleine, yes many acrylics will dry more muted and duller once dry, the same thing will happen with oil paints once the oil has dried.
      Some have a medium added in the manufacturing process that gives them a more satin finish when dry (Old Holland New masters Acrylics) but you can control the final finish and sheen by applying a varnish depending on the aesthetic you’re after – matte, satin or gloss.
      The tiny microscopic holes are from where the water molecules evaporate from within the paint film.

      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  50. Would love to know more of your learning techniques. This one was really great/

  51. Whew! I’m dizzy from reading all the above comments – but am glad to see others share my concerns. Just to mention a couple things….what is the problem with leaving the cellophane wrap on the pre-primed canvas from the store? I found that after I removed one and didn’t start painting on it for a while, the frame warped and I still can’t get it straightened. Also – about the coloured ground…I love the idea, and yellow ochre is my favorite, but I do a lot of background swirling of colors already for sky, or recently a lot of black/brown/ochre for old 14th century style portraits – so even with those backgrounds, there should be a base coloured ground? (I do like a golden glow at times). Speaking of portraits, I do have difficulty getting a smooth finish so the features don’t get “pixelized” as someone mentioned above, especially eyes and mouth. You mentioned sanding, but as you said, the weave does grab the paint and I feel there must be a reason for its roughness. I’m not a beginner, but have been absent from painting for a long time and am jumping back in….am new to oils. There’s always something to learn. (I will take a look at your glazing course). I’ve been working hard at trying to capture the essence in some well known ancient faces. Its amazing how the old masters could paint so smooth and realistically and didn’t even have the products we have today. Thanks for whatever feedback. : )
    .

    1. Hi Jean, nice to hear from you.

      “What is the problem with leaving the cellophane wrap on the pre-primed canvas from the store?”

      Ha, ha, there is no problem at all, it was just a comment like buying new gym kit but never going to the gym!

      Coloured ground is a classical painting method from oil painting. You don’t have to use it for all pieces, but it can be very handy for judging tonal relationships in still life’s and portraits. For a super smooth surface you can paint on primed boards instead of canvas.

      Hope this helps,
      Will

  52. Hi Will, I am so impressed the way you explain step by step so easy, I took a semester of painting with oil and acrylics and let me tell you I am learning more from you in just couple of videos I have seen that from the teacher that I had last semester, I am so happy I found your videos and your tips, thank you so much.

    1. That’s great to hear Victoria, really pleased you’ve been finding the lessons easy to follow. Hope the paintings are turning out well.
      Cheers,
      Will

  53. Can you make a toned background by mixing acrylic paint with the final layer of gesso or do you recommend painting the toned background on top of the gesso as it looks like you did in your tutorial video? In either case, can I then paint oils on top of it?

    1. I should have continued reading the rest of the posts. You answered similar questions submitted by George Wehbe and Brigitte in 2013. Great website! Thank you for the tips and wonderful videos!

    2. Hi Renne, yes you can mix in a colour to the gesso and paint oils on top as long as the acrylic ground has been diluted with water.
      Cheers,
      Will

  54. Will,
    Thank you so much for all the great information. I just started painting again last year and am using acrylics vs oils. I noticed even though my canvas was preprimed I was having problems covering the white. I found your video very helpful.
    Carol

    1. Good one Carol, glad the video helped.
      Will

  55. I there,

    Thank you for this insightful post.
    I would just like to know do you draw out your art before or after you primed your canvas? I predraw my work and this wil be the first time I will be priming my canvas. I still need to erase alot while drawing out my work so will that harm the primer?

    1. Hi Clarissa, you would draw you image after priming the canvas, you can erase from the primed surface using a kneadable putty eraser very easily.
      Cheers,
      Will

  56. I was reading another artist’s blog, and he likes doing an underpainting of his subject, so it looks like a gray scale painting. I don’t see you mention that anywhere. What are your thoughts, please.

    1. Hi Anne, this technique is called a ‘grisaille’ and it can be very useful for judging the value balance within your compositions.
      Cheers,
      Will

  57. You may have already answered this somewhere amidst the 500 or so responses to this video….but how did you get a grey ground tone out of ‘raw umber and white”? That grey is what I want for my next piece…but I’m not sure that combo would do it for me. Am I missing something obvious?
    thx
    Dave

    1. Hi Dave, it might be the subtle differences in monitor display/paint brand combined. For an absolute neutral grey you can get neutral tones from Golden or mix your own using a combination of Ivory (sometimes called bone) Black and a little Burnt Umber.

      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  58. Hi Will,

    Your website is so beneficial and handy for art lovers, I am really and influenced and touched by the works of great impressionists. Their colors are filled with life and joy. How can I develop an impressionism in my paintings without being too jarring?

    Regards

    Mohamed

    1. Hi Mohamed, so pleased you’ve been enjoying the articles, and great that you’ve been inspired in your paintings. For keeping a non-jarring impression if you practice holding the brush at the end of the handle and standing at arm’s length from the canvas. Having the extra distance from the surface will encourage you only paint what you can see from that distance rather than becoming too focused on the details.
      Hope this helps,

      Cheers,
      Will

  59. I want to use a white canvas to display a piece of free-form crochet and your guidance on grounding is really useful – thank you.
    Here’s hoping that the canvas will hold up when I stitch the thing on…

    1. So glad you found it helpful Gillian.
      Will

  60. Any tips for preparing a canvas, or wood panel, for oil painting?

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