Techniques & Mediums: Watercolor Ground

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watercolor ground What is watercolor ground?
For those of you familiar with other mediums like acrylic and oil, watercolor ground is the equivalent of gesso.  It’s a primer, but unlike acrylic/oil gesso, it is specially formulated to be a porous surface that accepts watercolors, instead of repelling liquid like a traditional gesso would do. What this means is that you can turn any surface into something suitable for watercolors, instead of being limited to paper and illustration boards. The brand that I have been using is made by Daniel Smith, and they offer 4 colors – white, neutral, black, transparent. I’m told Golden also makes some, but I have not tried that yet.

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What can I use ground for?
All kinds of fun things! I’ll go over the uses that I have found for it so far. Using it has definitely enriched my watercolor paintings.


stag_thOne of the uses that DS touts on the product is that you can use it to give yourself do-overs. Watercolor is notorious as an unforgiving medium because of its transparency. You typically can’t cover up and re-paint areas if you have done something you don’t like.

tintingAs with many people starting out with watercolors, when I first began, this was a very intimidating factor for me as well. But over my years of working with the medium, I went from being terrified of that aspect, to loving it, as I learned that the key to working with watercolors, is working with them. You have to learn first how the paint behaves with water and paper, and then learn to relax and not get worked up when it doesn’t do exactly what you wanted at first. You have to learn to love the random expression it allows you, and to collaborate with the chaos. It’s only by working with the layering of transparency, bleeds, spills and irregular textures that you can showcase the full beauty of the medium.

With that as my philosophy for working with this medium, I don’t recommend watercolor ground as a do-over. Watercolors are not about mistakes and trying to cover them up — it’s about the beautiful interaction of pigment, light, and water, and finding ways to make those elements interact in a way that expresses what you want. Using ground as white-out for mistakes makes it too tempting to just shortcut your way past some golden opportunities.

What I have found it very good for though, is to create a different kind of layering effect. To achieve this, without blending my painting beneath into a muddled gray, I use it in combination with workable fixative. At carefully planned points in the process of a painting, when I am certain I will not be wanting to lift or blend pigment that has already been laid down (the most common example for this is when I have achieved a very rich texture that I want to layer paint on top of but don’t want to blend into smooth obscurity), I spray the painting with workable fixative.

swan_thKEY: “WORKABLE” fixative!  Be sure not to use “final” fixative, as you won’t be able to paint on top of it. And even with workable fixative, I use a very light finger on the nozzle. Too much, and you end up sealing the painting completely with a glossy non-porous surface that the paint and liquid just beads and rolls off of.

Applied thickly, white watercolor ground is nearly opaque white. Not quite. After I have fixed my painting, I can dilute the ground and apply my desired opacity on top of certain areas. After which,  can start building up transparent layers of colors again on top of this translucent-reset. This can add a whole other range of layering possibilities when combined with the transparency of watercolors.

At this point, we’re out of the range of traditional watercolor painting, and moving into more of a mixed media realm I think. Using this technique of a combination of workable fixative and ground, you can get the lovely textures and luminosity of watercolors, as well as a vibrant depth of pigment built up quickly that mimics more opaque mediums like gouache/oil/acrylic, but only in select places and select times during the process of the painting.

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Select White

inthewake_d1On the topic of “traditional” watercolor, you step off that path whenever you chose to use opaque whites. And I can appreciate that more as a rule of thumb rather than a hard limit. When you’re painting with watercolors, use of white is most effective, and most beautiful when you use your paper for your highlights. Watercolors really glow because it is a process of building up your dark tones, pushing those into vibrant shadows, and letting your highlights be retained by letting the white of your paper show through thinner glazes.

queenIt’s always important to remember that this is the reason that you should use the white of your paper as much as possible for your whites. Don’t use opaque white to compensate for lack of forethought in planning out your painting. As I said earlier, that just shortchanges yourself and you miss out on what watercolors really shine at.

If you’re going to use opaque white, do it with intention. Don’t use it as a crutch.

That said, there are times when using white can be incredibly effective and appropriate. Most of the time I use only very small touches of white, done with gel pens (Uni-ball Signo Broad, and Uni-ball Signo Angelic are my preferred, which you can find at

Sometimes I want to tint these select whitened areas though, and at those times, watercolor ground can be used effectively, because I can then paint on top of that surface once it has dried.

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Relief Texture Buildup

butterfliesBecause it is very viscous and thick, I found that by dabbing thickly into sketched areas, I was able to build up relief texture. Once that dried, I sanded smooth with fine-grain sandpaper, and then was able to paint on top of that relief.

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Painting on Non-Traditional Surfaces

illuminate2And of course, painting on non-traditional surfaces. This, in fact, was the original reason I purchased watercolor ground in the first place. I wanted to try painting on canvases. In fact, that’s only one of the more very recent applications I have put it to, with very positive results.

00_AAt its most basic, you can simply take a large flat brush, paint a canvas surface with the ground, let it dry 24 hours, and then you have a surface suitable for watercolors. I prefer a very smooth and grainless surface to work on, so I like to apply the ground very thickly and then down the surface before I start to paint. Fun thing to do do with mini canvases (these 3×3 inch canvases were purchased from The final paintings are sprayed with varnish to protect the surface and they can be framed without glass.

meditationsD2_When working on larger canvases, I ran into difficulties with transferring my sketches to a canvas surface with any ease. Usually on illustration board or watercolor paper this is fairly easy. So I developed a technique of sketching onto very lightweight rice paper, adhering it with ground to the canvas, then painting layers of clear watercolor ground on top of the paper, effectively bonding it all together. You can read about this process in detail at this previous post.

Clear acetate was another surface I played around with. In this case, the ground was painted only in select areas where I wanted to have my image. I could then paint watercolors on top of that, and the whole is “floated” in a shadowbox type frame mount for a very 3-dimensional effect.


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Miscellaneous Applications


Jewelry! These tiny miniatures were painted by using jewelry bevel frames. The interiors were painted with watercolor ground, then with size 0 brushes the paintings were done in watercolors. A barrier layer of Diamond Glaze (a clear glue used for jewelry) painted on that, and then clear resin poured on top to seal the painting entirely within the frame.

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Final Words

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you found my experiences with watercolor ground to be useful/inspiring/enlightening. If you are looking to buy some, you can find it at Daniel Smith stores. And if you liked this article, please be sure to mention my referral number when you checkout! TRP01141

{ Leave a Reply ? }

  1. Amy

    What a lot of wonderful information. Thanks for sharing your tips and methods.

  2. Adelaida

    I had no idea there is an art supply of this kind! I feel enlightened now, thank you 🙂 Surely must check if anyone sells those grounds in Poland.

  3. TJ Lubrano

    Absolutely love this post! I’ve used watercolor ground once and while i loved it, I never explored it again. Your post is filled with tips and tricks and inspiration. I need to make more use of it. Thanks soooo much for sharing this 😀

  4. Larry MacDougall

    Thanks Stephanie. I had not even heard of this product. I will have to go out and get some and start experimenting. 🙂

  5. Aurora Davison

    Your art is a true inspiration which has beckoned me to try my hand at watercolours.
    As I am learning, may I please ask what ‘workable’ fixative you use?
    cheers, Aurora

  6. Collie

    While my experience with watercolor is limited (I have been fairly successful with what I have accomplished), my desire to be proficient with watercolor is immense. What you have described, the paintings you have shared, are so inspirational for me. I look forward to adding this to my learning tasks. Thank you so much.

  7. Rhonda

    Hi Stephanie,

    I just found your artsite and blog thru a random search for “watercolor w fixative”…and I am thrilled to have come across such a trove of skilled and lovely work, plus so many inspirations for using different mediums, methods…time is so short ;] One question I would appreciate if you might have a second to answer is which brand/type of fixative have you found works best w watercolor layering…I have only tried Spectrafix but thinking about testing Lascaux. Altho i don’t do the lovely dreamlike, faerie type images/work that you do (more landscape/random moments scenes), I have always been the most ardent fan of that style as in Warwick Goble, Rackham, Dulac, Rie Cramer…and your work shines amongst those! FYI…I have signed up for your newsletter; looking forward to it. Best regards…rhonda

  8. Trina

    Thanks so much for the info about watercolor ground….I didn’t know this existed and would work for creating paintable texture.

    I have all your books…have you ever thought of doing an online school teaching your technique? If you ever do in the future Please let me know.

  9. Maria

    Thanks so much for this — was thinking of purchasing some ground to try watercolors on non-traditional surfaces and this was really informative!! Love seeing all the different surfaces you’ve experimented with!

  10. Carol

    Miss Stephanie, will you ever do a video? This would be wonderful .

  11. Anupama

    Thank you for sharing all the tips.I hadn’t heard of Watercolor ground…Wow!

  12. Kathryn Kerr-Peterson

    Good morning Stephanie

    Thank you for your fabulous site, beautiful art and the wealth of information that you have shared.

    I’ve been researching watercolour ground to apply to MDF board and it appears that Daniel Smith is a versatile product. I was particularly pleased to hear that you like ultra smooth surfaces and would like to check that ‘down the surface’ means taking sandpaper to it.

    The link to view the previous post on using rice paper between layers of ground was unavailable, is there an alternative way to view this post?

    With thanks

  13. Kathryn Kerr-Peterson

    Thank you Stephanie, I appreciate your response and look forward to viewing the post.

  14. Linda Smith

    This is wonderful information! I have 2 jars of watercolor ground, but was never sure what could be achieved with it. Your explanation of all your experiments with ground is so well written, I’m excited to get started myself! I’m thrilled to have discovered your article!

  15. Lauren Rains

    Hey Stephanie! Thanks so much for this incredibly resourceful article! (Also I love your work!) I have a question:

    What about using watercolor ground on wood? I have been creating artwork using wood stain, but would love to have access to more colors.

    Have you tried this on wood? How’d it turn out? Thanks!!!

      • Lauren Rains

        These are absolutely Incredible! The one of the honeybees really stood out to me – bees seem to keep coming up in my life as a funny synchronicity! ;o)

        Question: What do you seal these with? Standard Poly? Would you recommend Oil or Water-based?
        And, have you had any issues with the color fading over time?

        Thanks for the reply and great resource Stephanie,
        – Lauren

        • Stephanie Stephanie

          Oh, not ALL of those are on wood. The ones where you can see wood texture. The others (like the bees) are done on hot press watercolor paper 300lb

      • Lauren Rains

        PS: I also love Gaze. She is so empowered to me in this piece.

  16. Bev Ann

    I just found your site when tying to find out more about watercolor ground vs gesso. You gave me so much more than I expected. Can’t wait to dig in and experiment.’

  17. Janine

    Could you do a video showing the relief texture build up?

    • Stephanie Stephanie

      I’ll keep that in mind for a future post

  18. Bob Witte

    Hi, Stephanie. I am just starting to experiment with this watercolor ground on regular canvas panels. I got a small tube of Golden ground gratis with an order. I painted it on the canvas, let it dry about 18 hours, drew the figure ( I am predominantly a figurative/portrait watercolor painter), and started painting the way I usually would….almost vertical, fairly high key and several washes to build up value. So, now the issue. I am finding that the wash seeps out way beyond the “borders” of where i want the shape and then doesn’t lift off well. It’s sort of like it absorbs out to a roundish shape from point of application. Does this happen to you, other brands of ground, any ” solutions”, does this where the workable fixative comes in??? I appreciate any insight you might have. Thanks so much for your time and expertise. Bob Witte

  19. Carol

    I have a good sized area of a watercolor painting that is gouache. It is not acrylic gouache, but it is good quality. I want to go back over some of that area with Daniel Smith waterclor ground which I have used in other ways on top of watercolor in the past. Then i plan to paint water color on top of the ground when dry. Will this work? Must I somehow
    fix” the gouache re first?

  20. May

    Hi, I’m just wondering what grade sandpaper you would use on the ground?

    I have some Golden and Daniel Smith absorbent ground but haven’t really tried using it yet.

  21. Susan Werthem

    I’ve been using watercolors on pallet wood planks and just plain lumber. I have not prepped the wood except some limited sanding. I sprayed with an acrylic sealer. Will the paint look the same years down the road?

  22. Marlyne

    Hi Stephane,
    Love your work, especially those on wood. I’ve just bought a jar of DS transparent ground to specifically use on some nicely grained wood. I’m hoping the grain will be apparent under the painted subject. Have you used this product?

  23. Marsha

    I just googled watercolor ground and found this wonderful site. Not only did I learn exactly what I wanted to know, but you exposed me to an amazing array of possibilities. Your work is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it and your ideas.

  24. Kae

    I just found your site while searching for methods for sizing paper. I have a great deal of hand made paper that is unsized and is almost like painting on a blotter. I was looking for a way to size it without ruining or discoloring the white paper. Would the DS transparent ground work ? I would love to do water colors on the paper, and keep the pure white and handmade quality too.

    Thank you for your wonderful site and sharing your knowledge

      • Kae

        Thanks for your help, I may try it on other projects, but will keep searching for other solutions on the HM paper!

        Love your blog and will stay tuned for more ideas!

  25. Bunny

    So much great information but my daughter bought me the Mars black ground and I still haven’t found any demo on the black. I just got it so tomorrow I will experiment but it would be nice to see a genius artist like you use it. I have only been doing watercoloring for about 15 years and still need help. Thanks for any help you can give

  26. Sally Mills

    Wonderful art and information – thank you. I was looking for info on sealing watercolour ground. I’ve painted some wildlife on a wooden board and I wasn’t sure how I should fix them at the end – I know you’ve mentioned a few things from the previous posts but what do you use? The wildlife are on unsealed birchwood at the moment but I will be either clear varnishing the wood or possibly rub linseed in – not sure yet but your thoughts on sealing the ground after I’ve applied watercolour and acrylic inks would be really really helpful – many thanks

  27. Sue Clifford

    Very useful, thank you

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