How to Choose a Colour for a Tonal Ground (My Top 5 Pigment Choices)

How to Choose a Colour for a Tonal Ground (My Top 5 Pigment Choices)

Inspired by the dramatic, dark Flemish oil paintings I saw in Antwerp; I’ve just started working on a still life set up of some fab oversized pink peonies. I’m going to begin simply with acrylics then build up the piece using water-mixable oils.

Yesterday, I talked about the importance of a coloured ground and how this very simple step of preparing your canvas, can transform your working method. And I received lots of emails asking
‘How do you go about choosing a colour for your tonal ground?’

Well, the first thing I do is make a decision.

What is the most important thing or the most important problems that I can foresee within the painting I’m going to be working on?

For this still life, judging the values of the flowers and getting the drawing right are going to be the two trickiest areas –  but get them right….and they can pull the whole painting together. Choosing a sympathetic tone for the coloured ground will help me achieve this.

How to Choose a Colour for a Tonal Ground (My Top 5 Pigment Choices)

Peony reference photo detail next to Pale Umber ground colour swatch

How to Choose a Colour for a Tonal Ground (My Top 5 Pigment Choices)

Early block-in stage, using Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber mix, over the Pale Umber ground

Even though the finished painting will have a more solid black background, I’ve chosen a ground colour of pre-mixed Pale Umber by Winsor & Newton. Squint your eyes and flick them between the left-hand side of the central flower on the reference photo above and the paint swatch. You’ll see the Pale Umber which is a warmish light grey/brown, is already very close in value to the general shadow tone of the petals.

It’s not too dark, which means I can quickly draw out on top of it and it’s not so light that when I get to the brightest lights blocking in stage and white goes on, it will still allow my shapes to emerge.

So if the mid-tone value of the ground helps with the drawing and judging the rest of the values more easily, the colour, the actual pigment choice, will help with the mood of the painting.

I want the warm elements in this piece to shine, so the flowers heads, the wood of the table and the cream jug in the front. When the solid black of the background gets eventually blocked-in, and you can start to see below a darker colour being introduced, the warmth will sit nicely in contrast to the cool.

How to Choose a Colour for a Tonal Ground (My Top 5 Pigment Choices)

A Note on Drawing Out: Because there’s so much going on in a floral piece – the leaves, petals and jug, being a bit more fluid to start with, can take away some of the overwhelm, also a few wobbly lines won’t really matter. What I’m looking for is the silhouette shape of the whole image together. It’s amazing how much the viewer can create in their mind, once you’ve got the basic shapes in. So don’t let the feeling that you ‘can’t draw’ put you off from painting something like an organic floral piece. You can see when I’m first starting to draw this out, I’m putting in very simple, angled lines, rather than detailed round flower heads. I’m also always using the shapes around the flowers – the ‘negative spaces’, to help with my drawing and composition.

My top 5 Pigments for Coloured Grounds:

How to Choose a Colour for a Tonal Ground (My Top 5 Pigment Choices)

A coloured ground is always best if it’s close to a mid-tone, so not too dark or too light and it can be based on any colour that suits your work and palette. I’ve listed my top 5 favourites below:

  • Yellow Ochre diluted with water – This gives a lively vibrant yellow undertone, brilliant for adding sparkles of colour into landscapes. If I were painting a Van Gogh style painting or a colourful still life, I’d go for a yellow to add a glow and give the whole picture a feeling of warmth. If I didn’t want it quite as intense, I’d add a little white to it or even mix it in with gesso to create a lovely muted yellow to work on top of.
  • Burnt Umber diluted with water – This would be for a very dark painting to add a glow, or I’d mix it with white to create a Pale Umber, it would still have a warmth to it but have a more opaque coverage.
  • Raw Umber and White – Which is a cooler tone and works brilliantly for portraits and judging muted skin tones.
  • Golden Neutral Grey 6 – For other muted or cool paintings this an excellent choice. I’d probably use this if I were working on a series of paintings together, so everything is consistent throughout and I’d know they’d all started from the same point.
  • Ultramarine Blue and White – I’ll often choose a muted blue for seascapes, perfect if I’m painting Plein Air and I want to have a canvas that that’s already got a base sky colour, blocked-in.

You might be interested in this article about how changing your studio space wall colours can alter the perception of your paintings and towards the bottom of the post, it covers different colour ground choices in more detail.

I’ll be working on the floral still life painting over Christmas; I’ll create a step-by-step of how I approached the finished piece in the New Year!

This Post Has 42 Comments

  1. Thanks! Very helpful post; great tip about painting a series with the same ground colo/u/r as the starting point for each one. Looking forward to the step-by-step peonies post.

    1. Cheers Kendal, hope it helps with your colour choices.

  2. Hi! Will. Thanks again.
    You are the first artist who has actually helped with the
    use of warm and cool background colours and having them lined up is very helpful.
    Thanks again. All the best Jox

    1. My pleasure Jo, so glad seeing the swatches together is helpful to compare and contrast. Forgot to mention in at the article, of course, all the ratios of the pigments to white can also be tweaked to better match the values in the subject you’re working on.

  3. You are a superior teacher—far more of everything learned from you than any classroom person over the years!
    You explain everything in well supported detail. I also love your work‼️Thank You, RZ

    1. Thanks very much Rozanna, very kind of you to say so.

  4. Thanks for the info! I’ve switched to oils and I think this can be done with washes except without the white added. I just read that oils shouldn’t be painted over acrylic bases because over the years the paint will start to slip off! But with water soluble oils that probably is not a problem.

    1. Hi Bethany, yes you can apply a wash of oils or use a quick-drying alkyd white. As long as you dilute the acrylic slightly with water to from an absorbent layer the oil will adhere to the surface.

  5. Thank you for your background-favourites! I have used brunt sienna for greenery and yellowocra under skies. – What do you think? Maybe better With your lightblue behind the sky….?
    Thank you also for the newsletter! I appreciate it very much!
    Yours sincerely

    1. They would work well Marie, it can be an interesting experiment to choose one scene and then paint it with multiple times with different coloured grounds. That way you can start to see the colours and style that most suits your style.

  6. Thank you Will, you are the only artist / teacher whe gave me the most practical and easy to follow instructions. Started to study painting only three years ago at the age of 70 when I retired. You are the best. Your advice on ground colour has helped me immensely.

    1. That’s so great to hear Janaki, so pleased the method has been beneficial in your painting journey.

  7. Very helpful article, Will, thanks a lot! Enjoy your floral painting and I very much look forward to reading your step-by-step in the New Year :)

  8. Hi Will, this helped heaps

  9. Thanks so much Will, this is very helpful! Can’t wait to try this technique.

  10. You answered my prayers! Thank you so much. My project is a large one with a series of 24X36 canvases with a desert scene that travels across the canvases. Having a pigmented ground will help keep the color together. However, with my reference photos taken during the morning hours, my colors will be vibrant.. So I think I still need to play around with a couple choices I have for colored ground to help me decide. Thank you again for stearing me in the right direction!

    1. Hey Ann, yes it will really work well for a series of paintings to keep that consistency and colours throughout.

  11. Thank you so much! Such helpful information, as always!

  12. Good teaching and updates, keep it up. thank you so much

  13. Thankyou Wiil, for that useful info.

    1. Hope you enjoy experimenting with the different colours Ken.

  14. Thank you for these invaluable tips. This explains everything so clearly

  15. Hi, Will, thanks so much for this post!
    The pale umber looks very close to mixing burnt umber with titanium white. Would that be a suitable substitute?

    1. Hi Sherry, yes, that’s exactly what it is, a mix of Burnt Umber and White that has been premixed by the manufacturer. You can get the same colour just by mixing Burnt Umber and White.

  16. Dear Will,
    I have enjoyed working thgough couple of your courses very much this year, and look forward to more inspiration in 2020.
    You are a very fine teacher – warm, very lucid and encouraging.
    Very best New Year wishes to you and your Vanessa, from Beverly A

    1. So pleased you enjoyed the courses Beverly, and glad you’ve been enjoying the teaching style. Have a fab festive time!

  17. Thanks for this. I just completed the apple still-life painting you have on YouTube with yellow ochre ground, turned out great! Totally upped my game. Thank you again!

    1. Great stuff Wanda, so pleased you enjoyed the apple tutorial.

  18. Can’t wait to see the finished peonies! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and happy New Year!

    1. Thanks so much Monica, you too, have a wonderful time.

  19. Any chance these peonies might become one of the available courses? would love to give them a try! Can’t say how much your teaching has helped me, and given me the confidence to paint! Any chance you might set up a patreon, or some kind of ‘critique’ mentorship?

    1. Hey Inna, this current peony painting won’t be a course, but there is this floral course with white peonies available you might enjoy. Great to hear you’ve been finding the lessons helpful, I’m not currently running any live classes or critique sessions but fab to know it would be of interest. Have a great new year!

  20. Hi Will – I’m an acrylic beginner and am loving your videos and tips, thank you! I’m currently working through your apple (working with light) painting video. My apple is quite dark gold in colour. I’ve had to make my raw umber with primary colours (blue, yell, red, I gave both cool and warm hues) and and have struggled to get the light green hue you have. Any advice for on mixing my colours to get the right colour? Thanks so much in advance!

    1. Hi Fiona, pleased you’ve been enjoying the lesson, if you mix a Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium yellow and have about 70% Burnt Umber, 30% Ultramarine Blue add a speck of yellow it will give you a nice raw umber base to work from.
      Hope this helps,


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