The Right Way to Start a Painting

Hey guys!

I wanted to share with you today a very important tip when painting landscapes or still life with acrylics (or oils for that matter) on canvas.  Starting your painting this way will immediately set you out on the right foot towards a more professional-looking finished artwork.  Similarly, not doing this initial step can start you off the wrong way, impairing your colour and tone choices, forcing you to put more work and layers of paint into your painting, and generally giving you a hard time.

The Right Way to Start a Painting

So what is this super important thing I’m talking about?

It’s using a ground.

Wait, what?

What is a ground?

A ground is simply the initial flat colour of your canvas before you begin your actual painting. All purchased stretched canvases have a white ground.  This is due to a couple reasons: these canvases are always primed, ready to accept paint, and the most popular colour of gesso is white.  It is also the least expensive colour to use as a ground, and simply making all canvases have white grounds is much cheaper than making canvases available in a variety of colours.

This is all well and good, because cheaper costs mean a cheaper price for us as artists to buy our canvases.  The problem, however, lies in this:

White is the worst colour on which to start painting.

In acrylic and oil painting, white is the highlight colour.  It is the brightest, purest colour you will put on your canvas, and we generally save our pure white for the very last step to add that pop of brightness.  This is the exact reason we shouldn’t start a new painting on a white ground! White is incredibly bright – it will alter the perception of the colours you put on the canvas…making colours seem duller than they really are.  Your poor paint colours have no chance competing against that bright stark white!

We also generally start painting with thinner paints and work our way up to thicker applications.  This means that as you’re gliding your paint across the canvas, it will not be thick enough to fully cover the texture bumps of the canvas, and that stark white will shine through your paint, giving it an amateur, unfinished look! It will take many layers of paint to fully cover this glaring white, leading to frustrations and bad colour choices.

what is a ground

The blank canvas is the natural enemy of the artist.

So how do we avoid this!?  We use a coloured ground!

A coloured ground is simply an application of a flat colour of paint over the white canvas, and allowed to fully dry.  We then start painting overtop of this new colour!  The new colour helps us judge our paint colours and tones much better, as we can see the paint’s true colours and brightness  when it’s not competing against brilliant white.  Whatever colour we pick as our ground will shine through our paint layers, adding extra dimension to our work and giving it a professional feel instead of that bare canvas rearing its ugly head.

What is the best colour to use as a ground?

Well, this question really has no true answer.  That depends on you! …actually, wait, there is one true answer: anything but white!

Really, though, the choice of a ground colour depends on what you’re painting and how you want your painting to feel.  I can give you some suggestions, though:

Generally using the complimentary colour to the main colour of your intended painting is a good idea.  This will promote balance and will increase the perceived intensity and saturation of your colours.  An example would be using a peachy colour for a base of an underwater scene (the orangey-peach compliments the upcoming blue tones of the painting).  Another example would be to use a green colour for the ground of a painting consisting of many bright red poppies (the red poppies will look brighter against a green ground).

Another method is to use the opposite temperature of your intended painting. For example, using a warm pinkish-red colour underneath a winter cool blue/purple scene will add warmth to an otherwise cold-looking image.

Some artists like to stick with earth tones all the time. Some artists stick to one ground colour for all of their paintings, regardless of the subject matter or colours.  These are usually neutral earth tones like soft browns and ochers that will basically match any colour scheme. It also adds a subtle unifying factor through all of their works, adding a bit of a signature style to the paintings.

I usually stick to a peachy-pink colour. I generally stick with pinks and peaches for my grounds, changing it slightly depending on what I’m painting.  I feel this gives a bit of unison to my paintings, as I like to paint different subjects, keeping the grounds generally the same colours can serve as a bit of a tying in factor and making my works recognizable as my style.  I also like using a peachy tone underneath any human subject painting, as the peachy tones really help me judge the saturation of my skin tones.  I change my peachy pinks depending on the temperature I want, using warmer reds beneath a cool painting and cool blue-reds underneath warm paintings.

So basically, as long as you’re not trying to paint over that initial white, you’re off to a good start!  Just play around with

Any colour is better than white!

Any colour is better than white!

different grounds and see what works for you!

I will give you one last pointer, however: regardless of what colour you choose, make sure you’re using a generally unsaturated version of that colour.  No super bright greens or neon pinks here, they will start giving you the same problems that white will.  Keep it to neutral tones of your chosen colour and you’re off on the right foot to making one good-looking piece of art!

Also, please note that this post is mainly referring to painting actual subject matter like still life, landscapes, portraits. Painting abstracts basically throws out all the rules, and your first layer of “ground” can actually be a bunch of different colours, as long as that white canvas ends up being covered by the time your first layer is finished, it’ll have the same effect.

I hope this post was helpful. Till next time, keep creating!
-Ashley <3

The Right Way to Start a Painting

Leave a Comment :)

  1. Hi Ashley

    I am self made Artist, never learned about anything, but I can paint whatever I want even portraits, landscapes, flowers, anything I can see and paint almost same thing on the canvas with oil paints.

    I want to learn how to paint live scene, what techniques I can use to paint quickly because scenes changes with from morning to evening. There are only a few hours to paint a live scene of a beautiful landscapes.

    Also want to know about which colors combinations are required for specific landscapes, including water, mountains, trees etc..

    What ground should I use for most of my paintings and there are so many questions.

    Let me know if you have those instructions on your website, or videos or if I can talk to you or just this blog to learn about things, please guide.

  2. Enjoyed this article…have always painted on to canvas without priming..thats about to change. I am still a learner.

  3. Hi Ashley, some painters don’t recommend using a ground to start an acrylic painting because few years down they say, the acrylic paint will separate from the canvas. What is your view about this? I am a beginner and would just like to start on a good habit. Thank you.

    • Hey Luz! Thanks for your comment! If the ground you’re using is simply acrylic paint, there’s no way that would happen. The only time a problem could occur is if you’re watering down the paint so much that it ruins it’s chemical composition. Simple painting a ground on a canvas won’t make the painting separate, as it’s no different than any other layer of paint. Hope that helps!

  4. Hi Ashely – Great videos… thank you so much for taking the time to do them. I’m sure they are helping loads of beginners like me. My question is regarding the brushes you used for the pear tutorial. What brand are they? Thanks again!

    • Acrylics and oil don’t mix, so there would have to be some kind of barrier between them. I believe there is a medium you can purchase that allows acrylics and oils to exist on the same painting, but it may be the other way around: applying it over oils so you can paint acrylics overtop. I don’t know for sure one way or the other because I don’t work with oils, so if you’re interested in doing something like this, you’ll have to research it.

  5. Thank you for this information Ashley. Im a novice artist starting from scratch. I didn’t realize that my paintings weren’t coming out 3d looking because I was stopping my paintings on grounds. I didn’t even know that’s what you call a flat part of paintings. Now I’m ready to try out my paintings with a ground and actually using my brain to paint and not just slap on paint. I also would paint on the white part of the canvas. I won’t be doing that mistake anymore. Have a great day.