Painting on Grounds: Inventive uses of Media for Painting Students (Part 2)

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

It has always amazed me how few high school Art students use a ‘ground’ in their artwork. While grounds are common in contemporary art, many students continue to draw or paint solely on unprimed, undecorated surfaces (usually plain white paper). This approach can be wholly appropriate – and, indeed, sometimes wondrous – however, for many projects, there are considerable benefits to being creative with the treatment of a painting surface (as there is in painting or drawing onto different materials, which was discussed in Part 1 of this series). This article shows you how to integrate a ground within your artwork and illustrates just how beneficial this technique can be.

A painting by Andrew Young completed on a dripped, mixed media ground:

painting by artist andrew young
This intriguing painting by artist Andrew Young depicts tightly controlled images of people bicycling across a ground of streaming drips and collaged materials. The realistic figures and bicycles have a clever ambivalence towards one another, as they hurtle across the chaotic, unpredictable dance of running paint.

What is a ‘ground’?

painting on newspaper - a level art
A white ground in this skilful A Level art print by Alexander Pavely from Richmond upon Thames College partially obscures a layer of collaged newspaper. This makes the text less visible and allows the red buildings to stand out when printed over the top. It also makes makes the newspaper less absorbent, creating a better surface for the ink to print upon.

Short for ‘background’, a ground is the very first layer of paint (or other wet medium) applied to an artwork. It is an undercoat, which can either be covered entirely by subsequent media, or left visible in the final work.

Using a ground has several practical advantages, as well as some important aesthetic ones. For example:

  • Blending colours is easier. Most papers, canvases, timbers and fabrics are very porous. If you paint directly upon them, the moisture from the paint is absorbed almost immediately, resulting in paint that is difficult to spread and difficult to blend.
  • Paint dries richer and more vibrant. Without a ground to ‘seal’ a surface, paint dries prematurely and becomes slightly flat and dull in appearance; absent of its natural glossy sheen (if you have never used a ground, you won’t be aware of how full-bodied and beautiful paint can look when it is allowed to slowly evaporate dry).

    mixed media painting on a collaged background
    This painting by artist Kim Naumann has been completed on a collage of textured paper, such as wallpaper and gift cards. The blue and brown washes over the top has settled in the creases and indentations, highlighting the texture and creating a beautiful ground for the painting.

  • You can paint on a greater range of surfaces. Many shiny materials, particularly composite boards (such as hardboard, which contains oil) repel acrylic paint. A professional primer such as Gesso (see below) is designed to adhere to such surfaces and to create a ground that is perfect for painting upon.
  • Texture. A ground can be used to smooth over imperfections in the underlying surface or to create new texture.
  • Flimsy papers can be strengthened. A sheet of paper becomes stiffer and more resilient when covered with a thick ground (sometimes painting both sides is necessary, in order to minimise warping). A sturdier piece of paper is especially beneficial if later adding collage or heavy elements to a work. 

    painting by ian francis
    This painting by artist Ian Francis has been painted on a black ground. Black forces you to apply thick (or many) layers of paint and it can help create deep, brooding shadows.

  • It allows you to easily cover underlying colours. A thick primer reduces the number of layers needed to cover a intensely coloured surface.
  • Paintings can be finished faster. If a ground remains partially – or completely – visible in a finished work, the painting can often be finished much faster. At a very simple level, your work is already partially done: the canvas is covered entirely from the start (time is usually of vital importance for high school art students who are obligated to complete work within tight time frames – if you need more tips for increasing your work speed, please read How to Paint and Draw Faster).
  • Paintings can look more ‘authentic’, as if they belonged to a ‘real’ artist. Why? Because grounds encourage layers and in doing so, give a greater opportunity for the artist to really interact with the work; their soul to be tangled within it. Layers give history and depth.

Image sources: Kim NaumannAlexander Pavely, Ian Francis and Sam Winston (below).

painting by artist sam winston
The ground is an integral part this artwork by Sam Winston. Clearly visible, the mottled greyish ochre layer provides a beautiful backdrop for the delicate white lines that make up the drawing.

A striking painting by Michael Shapcott:

art by michael shapcott - contemporary portrait
This amazing painting by Michael Shapcott features layers of colour: splashes / washes / drips that have been worked over, creating a rich, vibrant, multi-layered work.

A Guide to Painting Grounds

Gesso Grounds 

graphite drawing of fruit still life
This graphite drawing, upon a mixed media ground, sealed in places with a thin layer of gesso, was created by the talented Georgia Shattky, as part of her IGCSE Controlled Test (Art examination). Note that in areas where the gesso has been applied (the textural strips, running diagonally through the centre) the gritty surface makes pencil lines very dark and impossible to erase (although they can be partially smudged away).

Gesso is a professional primer (a paint-like product that has been designed specifically for preparing a painting surface). It binds well to a range of materials and has a chalky texture that is great to paint on. It is usually thinner than paint (so spreads over larger areas easily) although different brands have different consistencies. Extra thick varieties can also be used to create sculptural effects or sanded to a smooth finish. (I recommend Atelier gesso).

A gesso ground is generally advisable whenever you are painting on something that is extra absorbent or paint-resistant. It is not necessary with most papers (although it can be advantageous, for the reasons listed above).

Gesso is typically white, however it comes in a range of colours as well as black and clear, and can be mixed with paint to create other colours.

Note: Gesso doesn’t have the same glossy ‘finish’ as acrylic, so it is generally not suitable for leaving as part of the finished visible work, unless covered with a protective surface such as glossy impasto gel or varnish.

Coloured Grounds

When selecting a coloured ground, it is advisable to use a colour that will be prevalent in the painting, as in the example below by Adrian Gottlieb.

paintings by adrian gottlieb artist
This sequence shows the completion of a painting by artist Adrian Gottlieb upon a brown ground, over a base coat of lead white oil primer. The hue was intentionally chosen to match the darker tones on the subject’s face. The earthy colour shows through faintly in the finished work, giving a faint warm earthy tone.

Acrylic Grounds

If you don’t have access to Gesso, pure acrylic paint (of any appropriate colour) can be used to create a ground. This can be cheaper and more convenient, as most students have a supply of acrylic paint to hand, however it creates a glossy surface that is sometimes difficult to paint or draw upon (although some people prefer the slicker surface to gesso’s chalky texture). Watering the paint down (see below) will eliminate this problem.

An acrylic ground can also be used over the top of gesso, or to under-paint specific areas, as in the example by Linda Mann below.

building up painting in layers - linda mann
Three stages in the completion of a painting of this accomplished still life by artist Linda Mann. You will note that a different ground has been applied in the warm and cool areas. In this case, the ground takes the form of an ‘under-painting’ where tones and basic colours are applied.
international gcse art sketchbook page A*
An outstanding International GCSE sketchbook page: the three coloured works are each created upon acrylic grounds.

Solid acrylic grounds (as well as other grounds described on this page) can form an integral part of an IGCSE / GCSE and A Level Art project. In the outstanding International GCSE sketchbook page shown to left (completed by Nikau Hindin while studying at ACG Parnell College) – part of an IGCSE Art and Design Coursework project that achieved 99% – three of the four studies have been completed upon an acrylic ground. Note that the edges are ragged and uneven, helping to create the feeling of an experimental ‘work in progress’, as is typical of a sketchbook page. As mentioned above, the colour of the each ground is the most common colour in each individual work, with large areas of the ground left visible at completion. Having a ground visible in the final work clearly speeds up the painting process – a factor that is very important for A Level Art students.

The artwork to the left by Lyndon Hayes shows a contemporary approach to a ground. Not only is the brown a useful mid-tone for the flesh of the runner, a large expanse is left visible in the foreground of the work.

painting by lyndon hayes, artist
Painting by artist Lyndon Hayes

Messy, Textural Grounds

The real fun with grounds occurs when you begin to treat them with as much enthusiasm and dedication as you give the subject of the painting itself. Messy, gestural grounds can be very appropriate for sketchbook exercises and, in many cases, provide welcome contrast to a tightly controlled observational drawing for which high school art students are well known. Textural grounds can also be used as a method for imparting texture to the objects within the artwork and for creating a visually interesting surface.

textural painting by jane mitchell artist
A beautiful painting by artist Jane Mitchell, created upon an old Javanese boat panel from Indonesia

In the example to the right, by Jane Mitchell, a semi-translucent baby’s pram has been painted over a textural background – creating the impression of a decaying wall surface. The work suggests urban decay: forgotten moments in time; a snapshot of human existence in a crumbling, eroding world.

A pastel drawing exercise by Adiefineart:

pastel on acrylic ground
Expressive drawing with pastel on acrylic ground: perfect use of media for sketchbook exploration

Acrylic Washes / Ink Washes / Watercolour Grounds

Captivating work by Stella Im Hultberg:

tea stained paintings by stella im hultberg
When you make a ground using a watery medium, it dries in beautiful, unexpected patterns. Two beautiful works by Stella Im Hultberg on a ground of tea-stained paper.

Some of my favourite grounds are those produced with watery, unpredictable mediums. A watery paint, ink or dye, with all its wild splashes, irregular runs, seeping and pooling, is the stuff of magic. When making such a watery ground, you embrace a sense of freedom and endless possibility. Sometimes my students will spend a whole lesson – or an evening at home – making a pile of beautiful, splashy, crazy grounds. They get thick, wet-strength paper (300gms, for example) – or scraps out of the bin – or other random things (see the previous article in this series for ideas) and dunk bits in water, ink or acrylic wash and lay them, dripping, on a table. Then they splash colour everywhere; splatter a fine mist of inky rain.

graphite drawing on acrylic wash - sketchbook page
This drawing (by me, Amiria Robinson, as an example for my IGCSE Art students) was completing using graphite and white pencil upon acrylic wash. The ground was created using three different colours of watered down acrylic (yellow ochre, then red umber then cool blue), applied while the previous layer was still wet, with a large, flat, dry-bristled brush.
coloured pencil on acrylic wash - fruit still life
This beautiful ‘A’ grade IGCSE Art examination final piece was created by Georgia Shattky, while studying at ACG Parnell College. The ground was created using subtle acrylic washes, with the fruit, vegetables and fabric folds drawn over the top using coloured pencil. Cleverly composed and accurately drawn, the mottled ground gives this work a creative element that lifts it out of the ordinary.

Beautiful Indian ink splatters by Lisa Sarsfield:

indian ink and water splashes
This beautiful array of splatters by Lisa Sarsfield was created by splashing Indian ink onto wet paper. When dry, a layer of homemade walnut dye (made from soaked and boiled green walnuts) was washed over the top. Although created for a collage exercise, this would make a great ground for a painting.

An eye-catching image by graphic designer Graham Smith:

drawing over a ground of ink wash
Carefully placed blocks of coloured wash can be used to direct the viewer’s attention, as in this image by Graham Smith.

Artist Andrew Young, with drips that have run off the painting and onto the wall:

andrew young artist, painting on a background of drips
Andrew Young painting over a beautiful ground of drips

Crackle medium

Crackle medium can be used to create a ground that has an ‘old’ weathered appearance. Dry-brushing can be used to exaggerate the appearance of the cracks. While care should be taken to avoid using mediums like this just for the sake of it, this can be a fun medium to experiment with.

Image sourced from a great tutorial about how to make homemade crackle medium using glue by Makethebestofthings

homemade crackle medium using glue
Home-made crackle medium using glue


Shellac is an ‘olden day’ varnish, available through art shops in the form of dried shellac flakes. It is amber in colour and can be used to seal an artwork prior to painting. It is usually applied after a sketch has been done, as shellac is translucent, and the pencil lines show through (sometimes they smudge a little). It is usually necessary to complete any sketches first, as it is very difficult to draw onto shellac with a pencil, due to its shiny, hard surface. It is sometimes difficult to paint on too, as certain paints ‘peel’ off it.

shellac painting ground by amiria robinson
A detail of a painting (by Amiria Robinson (me) which has a shellac and mixed media ground, visible on the table surface. Layers of paint were intentionally chipped off, exposing the shellac layer underneath.

Translucent Grounds

encaustic paintings by Janet Nechama Miller
Artist Janet Nechama Miller completes encaustic paintings (layers of wax mixed with oil paint). Far below these wax layers, the original ground can be seen peeking through.

Gel medium can be particularly useful when painting over a surface (such as a map or speckled piece of timber) that has awesome marks that you want to keep.

Encaustic (wax mixed with oil paint) can also be used when working over old salvaged materials, as in the awesome example to the right by Janet Nechama.

In conclusion…

Using a ground often results in the creation of rich, multi-layered works that have a history to them; buried marks that fill them authenticity. Instead of being superficial or surface-deep, your painting becomes the work of an artist: filled with song.

This article is the second in a four part series about creative use of media for high school art students.

Read Part 3: Beyond the Brush.

Read Part 1: How to Make your Art Project Exciting!


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