Grounded by the Infinite

When I was a kid, I learned that you need to gesso your canvas so that all the paint doesn't just bleed into the surface like red wine on a white shirt. This made enough sense to me. I noticed that it was easier to paint on a primed surface rather than on raw canvas; it created a lot less friction between brush and surface. I did what was advised, and figured that that was all there was to it. Early on in college, I became more precise with the preparation of my canvas. The need to create a delectable surface rather than just any old surface became apparent to me. I focused on stretching it as tight as a drum, painting on layer after layer of gesso and sanding the surface in between coats. I added amounts of water to the first layers so that they more closely absorbed into the fabric, weaning off to use the thickest gesso on the outer layers. My craftsmanship was growing, and I was really taking pride in that. Little did I know the realizations that would lie ahead. 

I have often felt this in my life: as though you’re climbing up a (metaphorical) hill, a sort of steep one, making tons of progress, really feeling good seeing how far you’ve come, glancing over your shoulder to see the progress you've made, climbing, holding yourself proud, feeling smart, seeing that you’re close to the top, climbing, almost there, almost there… And then as soon as you set foot on the top of the hill, you find yourself standing before a massive, never-ending plateau of land in front of you. Farther than your eye can see. Farther than you ever knew existed. Farther than you can wrap your mind around. Without any map or direction on how or where to proceed. Not a single path in sight. Suddenly you realize how tiny you are, and how tiny that seemingly steep hill actually was, that it was only there to lift you into the endless knowledge and possibilities and unknown that you are now eligible to face head on. What you thought was the goal, the endpoint, was actually just the beginning of your journey into the uncharted, the undirected. You feel shrunken, you feel scared, but for the first time you feel as though you’ve understood your relationship to the bigger picture. To the infinite.

Well, I felt that way about the whole gesso thing.

I thought I was at the top of my game, making these neatly trimmed, smooth as skin, drum-tight canvases primed with Acrylic Gesso that you could bounce a dime off of. Then I learned (thanks, Painting Materials & Techniques I!) that Acrylic Gesso was only one of the endless material options that could be used as a ground! What had always been taught as the default, go-to option, was actually just one choice out of so, so many. Acrylic Gesso, Clear Gesso, Colored Gesso, Acrylic Matte Medium, Acrylic Gloss Medium, Traditional Gesso, Rabbit Skin Glue, PVA Size, Chalk Ground, White Chalk Oil Emulsion, Pigmented Chalk Oil Emulsion, Oil Ground… I’ll stop there. Take that list, and consider all the different viscosities you can create by adding more or less water or medium, all the different colors and opacities you can create by adding more or less pigment. Now take that list, align it with all the possibilities of applying a ground: brush, knife, roller, squeegee, spatula, cloth, literally any tool you can think of. The possibilities are actually endless. Acrylic gesso is thought of as the go-to for its convenience, and is taught as the go-to so young painters can rush into the possibilities found within painting itself rather than spending years just entering the door. It’s convenient, it really is. And it isn’t a bad surface to work on, not at all– but every material you use in painting is and should be chosen for a deliberate reason. Acrylic Gesso could be the exact right decision for you, but it should be a deliberate decision, not a default mode of operation. I had reached a never-ending plateau, and I was ready to take off.

Now, I’m not here to tell you how each and every ground functions, or which ones to use. Firstly, it’s not possible for one person to test out every ground in every mode of application and preparation on every surface that could potentially be painted on. That would take dozens and dozens of lifetimes. Luckily we have a history of art makers spanning dozens and dozens of lifetimes (understatement) that fill in the gaps for us, and we can learn from what’s been done. Secondly, the topic of what ground to use is such an individual decision based on how you want your paint to behave within the picture plane, that what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. I am going to talk about some of the things I’ve learned, though, and hopefully help lift you up to the endless plateau of possibilities.

Here are a few simple factors I like to consider when choosing a ground:

1. Support and Medium: What are you painting on? Wood Panel, Masonite, Metal, Fabric, etc. What are you painting with? Egg Tempera needs a very absorbent ground, for example, whereas Oil really doesn’t and allows your decision to be more based on preference rather than technical necessity.

2. Flexibility: If you are painting on canvas, you’ll need a more flexible ground as apposed to a brittle one that could easily crack. If you’re painting on a panel, flexibility doesn't need to be so much of a consideration. Traditional Chalk Gesso dating back to ancient Egypt was modified by the Venetians to a Chalk Oil emulsion based on the need for flexibility that working on canvas presented. Also, consider the flexibility of the medium you're putting on the surface.

3. Absorbency: Do you want to employ a lot of stains and glazes that soak into the surface, or do you want to make choppy, distinguished brush marks that sit on top of the surface? A Chalk Ground would allow layers of glazes to be absorbed, while an Oil Ground would create a slick surface forcing the paint to sit boldly on top.

4. Vibrancy: A stroke of paint will seem much more vibrant against a stark white background than it will against a neutral colored background. Any White Acrylic Gesso, Oil Ground, or white tinted concoction could satiate this need. (This isn’t usually an attribute that I seek out as a painter, but it all depends on what you want to happen). Also, consider using colored grounds. 

When I saw Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for the first time, I was shocked and bewildered to see the bare weave of the canvas around the edges of the painting and in between the curved brushstrokes of the rolling sky. Vuillard's small interior paintings have the same visual interest taking place, using the natural color of the surface (cardboard, in his case) and incorporating it into the picture plane. I figured I had to start somewhere in terms of navigating the never-ending plateau of possibilities, so I began by testing out ground options that challenge space and function by utilizing the natural texture of the canvas. 

Left: The Dressing-Room, Madame Hessel Reading at Amfréville | Edouard Vuillard | Oil and Tempera on Cardboard | 1906

Right: The Starry Night | Vincent van Gogh | Oil on Canvas | 1889

I first explored using Rabbit Skin Glue and PVA Size. Rabbit Skin Glue comes in the form of amber-colored crystals that you soak in water to create a gelatinous blob, which turns into a thin water-like substance with a very low surface tension when heated. Made by Gamblin, PVA Size is a synthetic formula of Rabbit Skin Glue that I buy in a 32 ounce bottle, and performs very similarly without massacring cute little bunny rabbits for the proteins in their skin, spending hours soaking crystals, or factoring heat into the equation. I use PVA Size quite regularly and intend to do studies later on regarding the similarities and differences it has with Rabbit Skin Glue– alas, we’ll sidebar that for now! Used as a base coat on the painted surface, Rabbit Skin Glue and PVA “size” the fabric, pulling it taught and protecting the surface with a very thin, barely recognizable layer of liquid that dries clear. Size alone is not considered an actual ground for paint as it just fills the pores of fabric rather than forming a continuous, level film, and is not archival in the long term. But hey, it's a contemporary world we live in! A little risk taking doesn't hurt. I usually apply two coats, scrubbing the Size into the weave of the canvas with a brush in small circular motions.

Painting over PVA size– Notice the layers of staining soaked into the weave of the canvas.

Enter Here | Oil on Canvas | 28" x 56" | 2013

PRO: It allows you to work very intimately with the weave of the canvas while still sealing it, if that’s the sort of look you’re after.

PRO: Stains sit and layer really beautifully on PVA because it is such an absorbent surface.

CON: Due to the fact that the surface isn't sealed with a continuous film but rather just fills the pores of the canvas, it's difficult to create crisp, hard edges on contrasting forms.

CON: Because the surface is so absorbent, it slurps up shocking amounts of paint in small surface areas. This factor could also contribute to the paint “sinking,” which is what happens when a layer of paint sort of disappears into the layer beneath it, of which an overly absorbent surface is a common culprit.

I was interested in further investigating the relationship between the visual materiality of the fabric and the painted surface, so was committed to finding a new way of doing this without totally draining all my paint tubes (and therefore my pockets). This is when Liquitex Clear Gesso and I first met, and have been in a long, happy relationship ever since. I might even go as far as to say that Clear Gesso is my go-to, but it’s only my go-to because it so often embodies exactly how I want my paint to sit on the surface­– it’s a thoughtful go-to rather than a default. That being said, we’re definitely not in a monogamous relationship! Clear Gesso has an acrylic base, but, as its name implies, is clear rather than opaque. This allows you to hold onto the visual texture of the canvas while working on a surface closer to the feeling of regular Acrylic Gesso. I usually apply 3-5 layers, but you could stop at two if you wanted it to feel closer to the fabric, or add more if you wanted a slicker surface. Clear Gesso is fluid, similar to the consistency of honey (without the stickiness) compared to White Acrylic Gesso, which is closer to the consistency of a thick peanut butter. I brush the first layer into the weave of the canvas and scrape it across with a knife in the layers following.

Painting over Clear Gesso– Notice the linen visible beneath carpet texture and in the grout of the tile floor. Simultaneously, the paint sits on the surface to allow visible brush strokes as seen on the couch and the wooden floor.

In or Sub Vert | Oil on Linen | 36" x 57" | 2015

PRO: It fills the pores of the canvas while also creating a level film to paint on, thus creating a more protected surface to prevent the oil from decaying the surface.

PRO: It challenges you to be very conscientious of positive and negative space and ground, straying away from the commonly accepted white as neutral, undefined picture space.

CON: The coating can appear a bit foggy if you apply too many layers, and the sanded marks can turn slightly opaque unless you thoroughly remove all the residue. This can create a sort of middle of the road, non-specific surface to paint on that doesn't always add or subtract from the picture.

With a bit of hands-on research under my belt, I became aware of how vastly different the paint can appear on various grounds, and therefore how vastly the differences in materiality shape a piece's overall communication with the viewer. In my work at the time, I was dealing with ideas visual and spatial access and entry, as well as personal perspective. Amidst this and my newfound interest in grounds, I created a painting that consisted of 10 individual canvases each with different grounds and preparations that were displayed together to create one continuous image fractured by the negative space of a window pane. I found the paint not only physically behaved differently on different surfaces, but that my approach changed based on how the paint was acting. Oil Ground feels about like you're painting on a white dry erase board, and incites choppier, more brisk brushstrokes and thick, juicy lines for me. Comparatively, the experience of painting on PVA Size feels about like you're trying to pull crisp, solid forms out of a fog. The largest canvases on the bottom succinctly depict this dichotomy with Oil Ground on the left and PVA Size on the right.

Top Row L to R: Oil Ground | Acrylic Gesso | PVA size | Black Gesso

Middle Row L to R: PVA size | Black Gesso | Acrylic Gesso | Oil Ground

Bottom Row L to R: Oil Ground | PVA Size

Window Pangs | 10-Piece Painting, Oil on Canvas | 84" x 48" | 2013

After that particular time of realization, my direct research on grounds became more integrated and expansive, and less specific and directed. I found myself reaching the top of many hills followed by many plateaus in regards to the materiality of painting, so my attention became anything but singular. The more variables I began to juggle, the less frequently I was able to isolate just one variable at a time. Tis the nature and the beauty and the challenge of painting. Investigations of grounds are one of many pursuits that continually crops up within my overarching focus on developing material meaning. How do I want this piece to feel? How do I want the paint itself to communicate that feeling? What material processes lend themselves to making the paint sit in such a way? The thing that grounds have in common with the actual ground in real life is that they are purely foundational, and they shape our journey. They are the surface upon which everything else is built. They set the stage. Figure out what you want, build your own foundation, and NEVER let "default" be a good enough reason for you.

Rock Face: PVA Size with Pigment | Water/Floor: Oil Ground | Wood Paneling/Wall and Ceiling: Acrylic Matte Medium with Black Pigment

–Merge, –Terranean | Oil on Linen | 26" x 36" | 2016

Above is my most recently finished painting. It was an interesting experiment, consisting of three separate grounds within one piece. I sized the entire surface with one layer of PVA Size for unification's sake. The wood paneling (wall and ceiling) was primed with Acrylic Matte Medium and Black Pigment. The rock face was primed with a second layer of PVA Size mixed with Pigment to create a brownish-gray striated color. The water (floor) was primed with Oil Ground. At first glance it feels unified, but the unique surfaces of three components of subject matter soon reveal themselves, forcing the viewer to grapple with the spatial connect and material disconnect simultaneously.

Note: For the sake of paring down on the vastness conjured by the topic of grounds, I chose to talk about grounds for oil paint in order to isolate a single variable rather than discussing a variety of grounds paired with a variety of media. My intent was to illustrate the many considerations there should be in order to access the many possibilities that there are. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any specific questions, ideas, or concerns pertaining to (anything really, but more specifically to) grounds or their accompanying media.