One of the most common colour questions I get asked on the Art School is “How do I choose the right colour to paint my coloured ground?”
But before I tackle that subject in more detail, I wanted to look at an often overlooked subject, studio wall colour.
To answer the previous question completely, you should be thinking of your studio space as a whole.
The colours that surround you in your studio space influence the perceptions of the colour on your canvas and are often the secret source to effective classical painting.
It isn’t as glamorous as the actual painting, however, getting it wrong can throw your eye out without you even realizing it…
So what colour do you paint your artist studio walls?
The first thing to consider is the type and style of paintings that you’re going to be creating in your space and then decide which colour will be most sympathetic to that.
What’s that I hear you say?
You’re on a journey of artistic discovery. How do you know what style you’re going to be painting tomorrow, let alone next month!!
Mmm, good point.
Ever developing styles, techniques & interests in your artistic career are to be expected.
So what I’m going to look at are general guidelines for developing artists, specific colour walls for the very focused amongst us and “Studio Shortcuts” for artists who occasionally want to try a new style without committing to a whole new colour scheme.
A simple rule of thumb
The darker the paintings you want to create, the darker the wall colour.
Let’s start with black.
Classical still life paintings
Onions, Acrylic on Canvas, Will Kemp, 2012
Why paint in a black studio?
Black studio walls are great because they stop reflected light from bouncing around your studio space.
If you are setting up a classical still life painting with a single, strong directional light source, black is the way to go.
If your aim is to work mainly from life it’s easy to create a simple, single light source without the walls bouncing light into your shadows and ruining the dramatic chiaroscuro effect.
Studio Shortcut: A workaround if you don’t like the idea of having a permanently black studio is to create your still life set ups within a shadow box.
This is simply a black box where you can control the light, without having to paint within a black space. You can make shadow boxes from black foam core and gaffer tape or hang black fabric on either side of your still life setup. You can vary the size of the box depending on subject size and available studio space.
Pro tip: Even the colour of the clothes you wear will influence the perception of the colour you’re painting.
By painting in a black shirt or t-shirt you stop any colour casts appearing unknowingly on your canvas, making it harder to judge subtle shifts in the dark tones.
You can easily test the effect of your clothes on your canvas by placing a white canvas on your easel and moving closer and closer to the canvas whilst wearing different bright colours, observing when you start to see any hue of that colour appear of your canvas.
Unfinished study of a French girl, Oil on canvas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1895-1896
Greys, greens, and grounds.
For portrait painters, a colour that goes towards a green/grey can be advantageous and skin tones will look fab against it.
A favourite of classical realist portrait painters (more readily available more in the US) is Mohegan Sage by Benjamin Moore.
If you have a lot of natural light this will give you a nice tone, however en masse it can be a touch too dark for some studios. At the Angel Academy in Florence, the walls were also a dull olive green, and a good equivalent in the U.K is DH Slate by Dulux Heritage
Figure painting studio, Angel Academy Florence, Italy
It’s a cool neutral grey but tends slightly more towards green than other greys which can look blue.
Having a slightly greener looking hue, looks better with skin-tones.
Having a neutral colour, or one that isn’t too highly saturated will also help prevent colour casts from the walls influencing the way you perceive your canvas on the easel. It helps you to keep anything from taking your eye in your painting.
When you look at the colour swatches above they are still quite dark in tone, but what sits very harmoniously against them are the ground colours I very often demonstrate with – Burnt umber/Raw umber and Titanium white mixed, in fact these ground colours are a good starting point for your wall colour.
Depending on the light in your studio, the colour when painted on your wall can look warmer or cooler and can vary drastically. More than you think, so I have always ended up customizing my paint so it’s just right for me and my studio space.
So what did I choose as my neutral coloured wall?
From past experience I knew I wanted a slightly lighter, more neutral tone that wasn’t as green, so customized French Gray by Farrow and Ball to be a little bit warmer and this works really well for me in my U.K studio space dominated by natural North light which is cool.
Studio Shortcut: The quick fix is to paint a large sheet of MDF board or Masonite with a neutral tone and then prop it on your easel, behind your canvas so you can get an idea of which colour you prefer.
Working from photographs, or contemporary paintings
White studio walls.
White gallery walls are an invention of the 20th century, in the National Gallery in London there isn’t a single white wall displaying the paintings.
Having white walls and ceilings will produce the most illuminated space, with light bouncing around the room surface and surrounding surfaces creating ambient, reflected illumination.
So if you mainly work from photographs, or abstract paintings this can be a lovely space to work within because it will feel light and airy.
You can also consider an off-white if you paint in sunny climates and have direct sunlight coming into your studio, as brilliant white can feel, just too white.
Pro tip: Often you’ll find yourself getting picky with the colours, as each environment is slightly different and the colour of the internal studio lighting can drastically change the perceived colour of a paint.
So often you need to tweak the colour yourself, I usually add in fluid acrylics from Golden as they mix into the paint easier.
On a personal note, if you do get direct sunlight into your studio and you have white walls, controlling the light that is bounced around can be problematic. It can cause background glare making the space too illuminated so your eyes adjust to this brighter light and seeing more subtle tones in the darks becomes difficult and tiring.
I initially painted 2 of my 3 walls brilliant white as I live in the U.K and wanted to have an illuminated space on either side of me with a more neutral colour facing me, as I not only paint realistic portraits but contemporary abstracts and the flexibility of being able to turn my easel to either backdrop has been fantastic… or so I thought.
Through the winter this has worked well, however, during the summer I’ve noticed around 3pm the sun comes around to the glass front creating a glaring space for a couple of hours or so. On top of this, I’m finding I’m enjoying painting with the skylights behind me and facing the white wall more frequently than I first thought.
The solution would be to control the light coming in with diffuser blinds, soften down the brilliant white wall that I now find myself facing to a more neutral colour or to recline with a glass of Pimms and reflect on your mornings paintings rather than the thought of redecorating, it is the summer after all!
Monet’s studio at Hotel Baudy
Fear not colour lovers, you don’t always have to have neutrals as a backdrop. I suggest them because they make it easier for a beginner to judge colour mixing and subtle shifts in hue and tone. If you’re more of a colourful, impressionistic painter and your studio space is large enough that you won’t get any direct colour bouncing on your paintings then the more vibrant earth tones such as Yellow ochre can work equally well.
Which brings us neatly to our initial question:
“How do I choose the right colour to paint my coloured ground?”
The concept of painting your clean pristine white canvas a bright yellow before you begin to paint a blue seascape, can be a hard one for beginners to get their head around. But the same principles apply to your coloured grounds as your studio walls.
So here are a few of the most common questions I receive:
Do I always need a coloured ground?
The majority of the time, yes.
By preparing the canvas and removing the glare of pure white, you create a surface to paint on that is easier to judge tones and colours whilst quickly adding a mood to the underpainting.
However, there may be specific occasions when a white canvas is the best choice.
If you decide to use thin transparent glazes to build up a painting, in much the same way you would build up a watercolour painting, then having the white canvas underneath keeps the luminosity of transparent pigments (As a result of the light going through the transparent pigment and reflected off the white primer) it also makes use of the transparent nature of the paints.
N.B. Not all acrylic paints are transparent, check the paint label to see it’s opacity level as they vary greatly.
For example, the Pre-Raphaelites sometimes painted onto a white ground for applying thin transparent glazes to the face, however, if they made a mistake they did not paint over the area but scraped back to the primer and started again.
So yes, if you have a specific painting that you want a maximum brightest from a transparent pigment then go with a white.
A note for portrait painters
If you’re using the Grisaille technique to paint a portrait, the process can be a combination of a coloured ground and a white ground, albeit on a subtle level:
- 1. Coloured or toned ground
- 2. Tonal grisaille underpainting – here the whites that are added act as a mini area of white canvas, where you want the most luminous effect (so mimicking the white canvas example above)
- 3. Coloured semi-opaque glazes to build the painting up.
Why would you paint the canvas yellow, if the main subject is blue?
The coloured ground colour can change depending on the scene you are painting and the mood you are after.
If you wanted to paint a lighter, warmer more impressionistic feel landscape, a light Naples yellow coloured ground would be lovely because it would give the clouds a glow and the whole picture a feeling of warmth.
© Seago Estate, courtesy of Portland Gallery, London photo credit: Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)
The Yellow ochre is great for sunsets/beach scenes/ scenes with a glow of sunlight on them as the coloured ground shines through from underneath, if you’re after a cooler effect you can use a neutral grey colour (Raw umber & white) or a soft blue (Ultramarine blue & white).
The ground helps you to judge tonal values in your painting, pull the colours in your painting together and stop any accidentally left white canvas, so think about the general feel and mood you want to achieve from your painting and work from that starting point.
Why are some ground colours dull and muted and others bright and vivid?
It all depends on your subject, colour palette and mood you want to create.
If you’re painting a portrait you can use a muted ground such as Burnt umber / Raw umber and Titanium white mixed, so it is easier for you to judge skin tones.
Or you can use a dull green under painting technique called Verdaccio, this is similar to painting a Grisaille portrait but instead of using tones of black and white, you use tones of green.
Traditionally it was created from a mixture of Mars Black and Yellow Ochre. This was used in Renaissance painting, especially on portraits because you could then add subtle glazes of warmer red flesh tints over the top and the figures would ‘pop’ in contrast to cool green background.
Due to the green colour of the flesh at this stage of the painting it is sometimes called the ‘dead colouring’ stage of a painting.
Other mixes include Chromium Oxide Green & Mars Black & Titanium white, or Yellow ochre, Raw umber and Mars black. However, I’ve also found Green Umber (from Old Holland) can be used on its own to create a nice effect.
A coloured ground is always best if it’s a mid tone, so not too dark or not too light, however, it can be based on any colour that suits your work and palette.
Now your canvas is all prepared the only thing to think about is your colour mixing!