Toning a Canvas or Applying Colored Grounds

This is how Webster's defines toning:  1 : to assume a pleasing color quality or tint  2 : to blend or harmonize in color 

Please note that we generally use the word "canvas" to mean a painting surface. Sometimes that surface can be a board, masonite, paper, or canvas such as linen or cotton.

Toning a canvas, or applying colored grounds is a very important part of the process of painting.  Not all artists like to paint on a white surface. By mixing oil paint with turpentine and applying it with a cloth or brush to the canvas, we can add a background color that not only gives us a starting common color to work with, but also eliminates those distracting little white dots.  These dots are particularly annoying in darker areas of your painting.  Additionally, artists that paint on white, have the tendency to paint in too light a key.  The reason is simple color interaction. 

Another advantage of toning your canvas is that when you start painting, you can leave small unpainted patches throughout the picture, helping to bring unity to the painting, and preventing other colors from becoming too dominant.  Common ground colors are earth colors.

Here are two examples from two great artists.  Both paintings were left unfinished, and because of that, it gives us a window into the way they painted.  Pay especial attention to the bottom part of these canvases that was were left untouched by the Underpainting. They reveal the toned canvas used. 

Thomas Gainsborough.  The Painter's Daughters, Margaret and Mary, Holding a Cat. About 1759. Not finished. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London, UK.

Karl Brulloff. Portrait of V. V. Samoilov. Unfinished. 1847. 
Oil on canvas. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Graphics by Santa Maria Studio. All Rights Reserved. 2003