Grounds for Canvas and Linen
in 16th & 17th Century Europe

While chalk or gesso was used to fill the interstices of the cloth,  it tended to crack and caused the paint to flake off. The customary working method eventually turned to a pigmented oil ground, as it still is today. (though acrylic polymers are now also used) It is the purpose of this page to discuss the applications and coloring of such oil ground layers.

Colored papers were often used as a middle tone for drawing by early artists. Papers used were brown, grey, green, and pink, but blue was the most common. These colors easily made their way onto canvas where they served the same purpose in designing the values of an image. Leonardo and others executed value studies on blue linen known as 'linen from Rheims.'

As Northern painters traveled to Italy, they were influenced by the colored grounds used there and eventually began using red-brown or grey imprimatura layers. Goltzius assimilated Venetian influences into Netherlandish tradition by painting thickly, alla prima on a coloured ground.

The powerful triumvirate of Venetian painting, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto had a decisive impact on the development of the history of the imprimatura. Titian painted Sometimes on a grey imprimatura. Besides grey primings, Veronese used transparent brownish or flesh-coloured isolation layers, which left the luminosity of the white gesso visible. In some other cases, he simply omitted the imprimatura, working directly on top of the gesso preparation.

During his Italian sojourn, Rubens primarily worked upon a red-brown primed canvas. But back in the North he used a double ground of a grey imprimatura layer over a white or earth colored ground layer.

Rubens and others were known to use a streaky imprimatura. Over their drawings they spread a thin layer of lead white, vermilion, and charcoal in an oil binding (glue or protein and oil on gesso or chalk) which resulted in a light, flesh colored transparent layer through which their drawings were still visible. This acted as a neutral 'middle' tone between highlights and shadows. Other times the imprimatura was a deeper grey. Warmer flesh colors were scumbled over the grey to create cool shadow areas or to depict the arteries under thin skin.

Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders, who studies with Rubens, later used grey primings in their work. Anthony van Dyck occasionally worked on a red-brown priming, but eventually lightened his ground. His introduction of light grounds to England influenced painting there well into the 18th century.

Rubens may have influenced Velazquez as well. After the two met in Madrid in 1628, Velazquez replaced his red-brown grounds with light grey and off white layers.

Vermeer used light grey to light brown grounds on the majority of his paintings.

Beurs in Holland recommends umber and lead white as a ground for figure works, but black mixed with lead white for landscapes.

Artists colored their grounds with earth pigments, palette scrapings, and even the paint that remained behind in the pot used for cleaning brushes with oil (so that it would not go to waste).

It was recommended by many that umber not be used for grounds because it has a high oil absorption that would cause top layers to sink in. However it was frequently used, if only in small amounts, with lead white both for the color and because of the siccative (drying) quality of the manganese dioxide which it contains.

By the seventeenth century, much of Europe was painting on dark grounds. The deep red-brown grounds preferred by Tintoretto were also used by Caravaggio as an ideal basis for the strong lighting of chiaroscuro. But classicists like Poussin were just as inclined to use the dark ground for their paintings.

The dangers of a thick imprimatura layer were that it needed a lot of binding medium and that it tended to darken, eventually showing through the top layers of paintings. And while this tendency to create pentimento was known to early painters, some were willing to sacrifice longevity in order to obtain certain colour effects. Dark, red-brown primings were widely held responsible for ruining the works of Poussin and Lebrun in the nineteenth century. The recommendation for painting on dark primings is to load up the highlights with thicker paint. This practice is well seen in Rembrandt's work, who turned from primings of ochre, light grey, light brown or dull greyish yellow to darker tones of red ochre and a small amount of lead white in the 1650s.

"Oudry's suggestion for the ground colour was to use a half-tone of 'soft' colours, avoiding pure pigments such as red or yellow ochre because with time they would show through and dominate the general tone of the painting." --Massing

From the mid 17th century onwards, European painters could buy prestretched and preprimed canvases from manufacturers. Most were double primed, first with a warm layer, then softened with a lighter layer.

Painting Practices of Verspronck

The Haarlem portraitist, Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck., used several types of light ground.

The first example is of a single ground of lead white and umber sometimes mixed with fine black and red or yellow earth.

A second priming option was a double ground beginning with lead and umber (+ black sometimes) and covered with a second layer of lead and red ochre that created a soft flesh colored ground.

A third option consisted of a lead, chalk, and umber layer overlaid with lead, stronger (burnt ?) umber and a little black.

Over these light pinkish or off white grounds he dead colored with thin mixtures of black, white, and earth pigments rich in binding medium. He mixed these pigments to create a monochrome lay-in of faces. Over this darker drawing he painted impasto highlights in white, overemphasizing the value contrast. He painted in a dark background around the figure to set of its form in the dead color stage and painted in the black of the costumes. Details of the costumes or placement of accessories were scratched into the dead-colour (sgraffito) to reveal light lines of ground color.

When the dead color was dry, Verspronck applied the carnation by overpainting the monochrome faces with combinations of lead white, vermilion, and cochineal (red lake) and sometimes a little yellow ochre. By varying the thickness of the paint, and allowing varying amounts of the monochrome underpainting to show through, he was able to achieve variety of tone and color and to round the forms. Shadows were glazed down with umber, black, and brown ochre.

Backgrounds were usually modified to give the affect of lighting on a wall . While the black costumes were overpainted in grey to create form and folds and then reglazed in black to add sheen. Jewelry such as bracelets and rings were added over the dry skin tones.

Hands were often painted in over the black costume without use of underdrawing.

Through this procedure, Verspronck made effective use of the colored ground as a mid tone for his monochrome value study which, creating all form and showing through the carnation, was the foundation of his entire work.

17th C. French Recommendations

The French commonly used a double ground. The most common recipe was for a first layer of burnt sienna mixed with white lead to speed drying and laid on with a knife. The excess was scraped off of both sides (if it pressed through the fibers). The upper layer was a mixture of lead white, yellow ochre and red iron oxide with a little carbon black blended to create a light valued warm grey. The second ground was applied in two thin coats, the first rubbed down before the second was applied.

It was recommended that the artist keep the ground layer as thin as possible to avoid cracking of the canvas. For this reason large canvases that had to be rolled in order to be transported were often primed with only one layer, often the red, but sometimes a grey. Smaller works that remained on the stretcher were double primed to reduce the appearance of the weave. A smoother ground was preferred (and often still is) for portraiture or detailed still life.

It is obvious that the imprimatura shows many variations....A division between paintings on light grounds and paintings on dark grounds remain rather subjective and artificial, since many painters changed the colour of their imprimatura according to the subject, their mood or their painting technique.

Some pictures reveal extensive areas that are underpainted with different colours.... Such local underpaint has been discovered in works by Barocci, Rubens, Velazquez, Lesueur and Canaletto. They form a part of the dead-colouring stage, a crucial moment in the painting strategy.

-- Nico van Hout

History, Definitions, and Techniques | Drying Oils and Mediums
Resins and Varnishes | Pigments Past |Pigment Chemistry
Supports for Painting | Grounds on Canvas | Techniques of Past Masters
Discussion with National Gallery Conservator