Composition | Perspective | Anatomy | Shadow & Light | Color | Style 


Toning – Grounds & Imprimaturas

In many cases since the existence of x-ray technology the deep pentimenti seen in a painting is the tell tale watermark in judging authenticity. Fortunately the experienced and conscientious painter perceives it as a means of greater achievement.

The toned ground or glazed under-painting (known as imprimatura) inhibits absorbency and sets tonal properties for the entire painting but, it can also reveal favorable composition aspects when allowing the under drawing to be exposed. The main purpose of drawing on the canvas or panel previous to painting is to set dimensional scale, linear perspective and the architecture of the composition. In many cases it should also include setting the tone of the painting as well. Even the ala-prima and plein air artist’s work can benefit from planning the outcome the under-painting has on the overall composition.

click on image for enlarged view

“Abandoned”     1903
Oil on canvas
Luigi Nono

Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice

Specific tones utilized in a ground need be decided by the subject matter as you visualize the finished piece and build up layers taking advantage of the underlying details of the painting. Using a minimal palette most likely of   Prussian Blue, Burnt Sienna, Ochre and White in the painting to the left, one can easily appreciate the technical aspects of planning. Where the artist has clearly sketched this painting out first with blue and  umber and begun highlighting with ochre and white, it’s the simplicity and draftsmanship of this piece that has made it so appealing.

When some of the under-painting is left exposed, using contrasting tones or color opposites on the colorwheel (cool under hot , hot under cool and bright white) for the ground and imprimatura will create illumination with the colors painted or glazed over them.  In many cases this approach to color choice known as contre-jour (against the light) the illumination creates a natural appearing iridescence working very well when trying to create natural appearing water and or glowing skies.

Starting with a Lead White ground and using Viridian, Ochre and Ivory Black in the imprimatura and to paint  the initial gray green  “Verdaccio” (also painted as  Grisaille by the French), the under-painting of Rubens colors explode on the canvas to the right. Using a ‘limited palette’ of Prussian Blue, Sienna, Ochre and White, in the top layers, through out the contrast is illuminated intentionally by his careful planning of tonal & color placement.

Painting in monochrome to establish tonal value before introducing color to the canvas is a vital segment to  realism style painting.

click on image for enlarged view

” The Fall of Phaeton”  1605
oil on canvas
Peter Paul Rubens
The National Gallery of Art,
Washington D.C

Once the monochrome tones are satisfactory, the final phase of the painting begins to match the color (chromatic) value to the tone of the layer below it. 

The practice of using toned grounds and imprimatura glazes can be carried out with various mediums. They can be performed in what ever media the you decide in charcoal or even fast drying media such as inks, gouache,  or water-soluble pencils. This layer can also be prepared to what ever degree of detail that is required of you. Note: some materials that can be dissolved in the final chosen paint medium will require a clear fixative before proceeding.  

Most Encaustic methods are based on a series of transparent layers that are burnished into the painting. It is not advisable to use a dry media for use of  an under-drawing with encaustic since the hot wax will dissolve and mix with the upper layers. Inks and gouache will perform much better and in many cases if used lightly will do well as an under-drawing in most mediums.

Acrylic and Tempera paint responds well in to under-paintings due to their fast drying properties. These paints were designed for this technique since their resistance to break down to their solvent (water) when dry is excellent and they are fairly easy to make transparent by thinning. This makes the continued and exclusive use of each medium throughout the project favorable. Many Renaissance masters used Tempera as the under-painting especially in the “Verdaccio” and modern artist have used Acrylic for the same purpose under oil taking advantage of the fast dry time. If time is an issue for you I do not recommend these materials for this method with oils since, it actually takes much longer (4-12 weeks) for these paints to dry (free of moisture) to be safe to paint over. See comments about acrylic gesso under oils. You are better off thinning with turpentine and/or using varnish resins & driers with oils.

Many old oil painting masters recognized and chose specific colors for toned grounds and the imprimatura to take advantage of drying time. Other colors are chosen based on subject matter of the painting and how they will be applied. Although the chart below is in reference to oil colors, the pigment application for all mediums generally apply. Some of these combinations are:

Color Portraits Landscapes Uses


Cobalt Blue drk backgrounds drk backgrounds Grisaille used w/umber Fast drying
Umber drk backgrounds drk foregrounds Grisaille and/or glazed over w/ Fast drying
Chromium Oxide Green used w/Ivory Blk/Wht  to offset the pink tint in flesh Verdaccio, Grisaille Traditional Grn/Gry hue
Viridian used to offset pink tint in flesh w/sienna as gray for rocks Verdaccio, Grisaille or glazes  used w/sienna Fast drying
Ivory Black or Mars Black used w/ yel ochre/wht Verdaccio Fast drying gray/green to establish tonal value
Terra Rossa under ochre Grisaille or glazes reddish tint
Burnt Sienna under ochre, w/ umber/Ult. Blue for brown hair w/wht for dark skies Grisaille used w/ viridian reddish tint
Ochre under cad red, wht for flesh mid background under skies & water Verdaccio/ glazes golden tones
Pink under white fabrics under skies, water & snow glazes light iridescence
Oxide Red w/umber under ochre & wht glazes
Naples Yel  under ochre/ umber/wht for blonde hair glazes golden tones
Ultramarine Blue

 w/ pr. blue, viridian & wht for skies, water & snow

Grisaille or glazes varying blues
Cad Yel foreground glazes light iridescence
Cad Red w/cad yel & wht under skies & water glazes orange iridescence

If uncertain how one color will effect the color that is painted over it, experiment  until you find what will work best for you. In time you will discover how varied intensities of built up transparent layers over a toned ground will ad depth and a distinctive color intensity to your canvas.


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