How to–grounds

Most artists do not know how to prepare grounds for oil painting. I know this is true because none of my teachers were able to prepare acceptable grounds, and none of the commercially-prepared canvases that I’ve used have been acceptable. This is even true for vendors who claim the highest expertise.

A bold statement maybe but I’m sticking to it. If you attend art school graduate exhibitions, as I do, the truth of this is unmistakable. The vast majority of students focus on video and photography; the few painters use acrylics.

A ground for oil painting has 2 problems to solve:

  1. Protect the canvas from the bad effects of oil.
  2. Provide a surface suitable for the artist’s technique.

Protect the canvas

Traditionally, artists coated the raw canvas with glue made from animal hide. Animal-based glues were used widely in many fields, not just in artists’ studios. This protected the canvas from subsequent oil paint layers.

Animal glue certainly works but it has many gotchas; it can go bad, for example (it is an animal product, after all). Today, there are other options, such as acrylic polymers.

What!? Acrylics used with oils?

I started out with acrylics but stopped after I was introduced to oils. I experiment with them from time to time (the marketing is relentless) but I don’t plan to switch. Acrylic paints just can’t compare to oils. That’s as true now as it was when I started.

There are a lot of additives, polymers and whatnot, designed to retrieve acrylic paint from uselessness and fashion it into something resembling real paint. GAC 100 is from a family of similarly-purposed polymers from Golden.

Golden claims that GAC 100 can be substituted for animal glue. Based on my experience with GAC 100, this claim is true. Recently, I’ve prepared–what?, 40-50?–canvases with GAC 100 and haven’t encountered any issues. It’s one of the few acrylic-polymer products that I can recommend.

So today, this problem is easily solvable. There are many options to choose from–traditional and modern.

Note that if you use commercially-prepared canvas, make sure to check the back after use. If you see any stains, you know that your commercial provider failed even this easy step.

Acceptable surface

The next problem, the painting surface, is more difficult to solve. The goal, remember, is an acceptable surface. What, exactly, is an acceptable surface?

Traditionally, acceptable meant smooth–the smoother the better. Wood panel surfaces were extremely smooth. (Wood panels predate canvas.) Surfaces consisted of many, 7-8 or more, layers of gesso, each scrapped smooth.

The same mirror-like smoothness was sought by the early painters on canvas but this position soon modified. Traditional gesso, chalk and glue, is fragile. This fragility doesn’t matter on firm supports like wood, but on the more flexible canvas, traditional gesso easily cracks.

Artists strengthened traditional gesso by substituting oil for glue. This expedient makes gesso flexible and suitable for canvas. Today, oil grounds are essentially the same material that was used by the early canvas-using painters–oil, pigment, and chalk.

This oil-chalk mixture can produce good surfaces, especially when applied with a scrapper.

The situation today

Today, artists and vendors assume that acrylics can be substituted for all traditional materials. Is this true? Yes, it’s true, the same way that you can substitute a video tour of Paris for an actual trip there. You can do it but why would you?

One problem is that acrylic gesso is too coarse. Even after repeated sanding, the surface remains unacceptable. I’ve never seen any commercially-prepared canvas that uses acrylic gesso with an acceptable surface.

I haven’t even mentioned the biggest problem that some artists have with using acrylics with oils: de-laminating. Some artists claim that oil paint applied over acrylic gesso is prone to flake or peel. I have been using oils with acrylics for several decades and have yet to encounter this problem. But even without this problem, acrylic gesso is a poor ground for oils.

What I do

Step 1. I protect the canvas with 2-4 coats of GAC 100. Each layer is lightly sanded. You can substitute animal-hide glue. The number of coats depends on the coarseness of the canvas/linen.

If you are happy with the surface after applying the GAC/glue, skip to Step 3.

Step 2. To firm the surface, I apply 1-2 layers of acrylic gesso. I sand each layer. Sometimes I skip this step entirely, although it’s useful when making gallery-wrap canvases (staples or tacks on the back). A crisp, white edge is an easy substitute for a frame in the gallery.

Step 3. Apply a layer of oil ground. I use a scrapper to apply the ground.

For Step 3, I like to create a gray-tone ground by adding ivory black paint to the gesso. You might ask why not just prepare the surface with oil paint alone? Some painters actually do this, and I’ve done this in the past. I don’t use gesso-less grounds today because the surface isn’t smooth enough. And, importantly, gesso provides a slightly absorbent surface that makes it perfect for painting. Note that acrylic gesso doesn’t provide any absorbancy, which is another reason to avoid painting directly on it.

Here is a newly-started painting called Oh no!, on which I use a gray-toned oil ground. You can see the ground under the unfinished hair areas of the two women.

In this case, I used Rublev’s lead oil ground. As purchased, Rublev’s oil ground is useless–totally useless. It’s a runny mess. Normally, oil grounds are firm enough to spread. The Williamsburg Titanium Oil ground in the following photo is typical. You can see that it’s stiff and stands up on the palette knife.

By contrast, the Rublev ground is runny and drips off the knife. Note that the Rublev ground is in this condition after I added chalk and ivory black paint to it. Originally, it was utterly useless like I said.

With the addition of the chalk and paint, I can apply it with a brush (it’s too thin to apply with a knife), and then smooth it with a rag. The resulting ground, although thin, is actually nice as long as the underlying layers are smooth.

Given this, it’s easy to create your own oil ground by mixing lead white oil paint with chalk. There are many chalks suitable for this purpose. I leave it to you to look it up.

By the way, I had bad results with the Williamsburg ground and will no longer use it. I blame the titanium. Too bad too because it’s got great texture and handle-ability. Stick to lead oil grounds.

The last thing I want to talk about is drawing. For Oh no!, I drew on the gray-toned ground. Sometimes I don’t tone the ground and instead use the white surface. When I use the white surface, I apply a thin gray tone over the finished drawing before I start painting. These days I prefer the first method I described–gray-toned grounds.

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