Toning canvases

I tone my canvases bright red because it works for me, but you can choose any warm color. The important thing is that you always do it.

I use a clapped-out oil-painting brush, but a 2″ wall brush works just fine and is cheaper.

Imprimatura is the initial stain of pigment painted on a gesso ground. In traditional indirect painting, this ground color is left open where possible, reflecting back up through the paint layers and creating a cohesive tonal structure. Imprimatura was used the Middle Ages but became standard practice during the Renaissance.

We don’t paint indirectly in the field, so why do we still tone canvases? Toning is useful in the initial stages of work, since it helps the painter establish a value structure. Not only will a white canvas practically blind you on a sunny day, it changes how you perceive darks and lights, which in turn mucks up your composition. We touched on this in our Monday Morning Art School lesson based on Josef Albers.
A more traditional toning color, and a frankly bad application. I can say that; I did it.
Traditionally, a painter would choose a warm earth tone like a sienna or ochre, dilute it half and half with turpentine, paint it on the canvas with an old 2” wall brush, and then wipe the residue clear with a rag. This would leave a layer still porous enough to grab the gesso, but in a light, sparkling tone.
If you’re using oil-primed canvases or boards, you’d better tone exactly like that, or you’re creating an archival nightmare. Everything I’m about to say applies only to acrylic-primed boards, which are the ones most commonly used in the field.
I use diluted naphthol red for a ground. This isn’t something I made up myself; I got it from Steven Assael, who probably got it from someone else. (In fact, I keep meaning to ask a conservator whether it’s the right red, or if there’s an analog that’s more migration-fast.)
I want enough pigment to be solid, but not enough to interfere with the tooth overmuch.
I like naphthol because the color is warm yet hot, unlike cadmium red, which tends to be dull. (That’s a great attribute for a painting red, just not for a ground.) Naphthol red is a good counterpoint to green and blue, the dominant colors of our northeastern environment. It’s energetic, which I aspire to be, and it makes me immediately think in terms of all the accidental colors in the environment.
Beginning painters often make the mistake of being skimpy with the paint, especially if their earliest training was with watercolor. There is nothing more amateurish than watery paint on a white board. A toned ground encourages the use of proper amounts of paint, and it makes those first efforts look more cohesive.
So what color should you use? What are you going for in terms of mood and feel? The typical answer to this is the earth tones—the ochres, umbers and siennas, either solo or in combination. I tend to like 20th century ‘hot’ pigments. I’ve used lavender, orange and pink with success. Straight-up lemon yellow, however, was a dismal failure.
Spring Pruning, by Carol L. Douglas. Sometimes I let the ground show, as here.
Manufacturers say you shouldn’t dilute acrylic paint more than 50-50, and I think that’s true even at the toning level. If it’s breaking down into droplets, it’s got too much water in it.
Toning makes a terrific mess. Work on the floor, the lawn, or cover your work surfaces. You can kill yourself to apply the paint smoothly, but I never bother. It doesn’t seem to make much difference in the finished product.
This afternoon I leave for Rochester, NY for my Color, Composition and Technique workshop. After that, there’s a watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, June 10-14, and my annual Sea & Sky workshop at Acadia National Park, August 5-10. Email me if you have any questions.