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.
One 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.
As 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.
KEY: “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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On 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.
It’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 http://jetpens.com.
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
Because 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
And 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.
At 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 https://www.jerrysartarama.com/). The final paintings are sprayed with varnish to protect the surface and they can be framed without glass.
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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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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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