Overview of Painting Grounds & Supports

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

TODAY IT IS RARE to find artists making their own brushes or paints; however, the reverse is true when it comes to preparing a surface or support to paint on. An artist’s involvement in preparing a painting surface may range from purchasing raw canvas, stretching it, sizing it, applying a ground, and priming it, to simply apply­ing a second coat over preprimed stretched canvas.

Preparing your own surfaces to paint on provides the opportunity for you to create a working surface that meets your own requirements. Manufacturing it yourself also saves money. Too often, however, an artist’s impatience, lack of money, and incomplete understanding of the role of a properly prepared painting surface results in a painting that eventually requires major conservation or simply self-destructs. The unfortunate reality is that the preparation of a proper painting surface is too often the last consideration that a painter makes.

There are some basic guidelines for the preparation of a painting surface that have developed over the last seven hundred years. If these guidelines are vio­lated, disaster will result. This does not mean that only traditional surfaces may be used, but rather that the principles of these guidelines must be understood so that new, as well as old, surfaces can be properly prepared so that artwork will have a reasonable chance of survival through time.

The following are basic terms used in discussing painting surfaces.

Auxiliary Support. An auxiliary support is a device used to hold the support. Stretcher bars, for example, are the auxiliary support for the canvas, which is the support for the painting.

Support. A support is what physically holds the painting, or paint film, such as canvas, plywood, compressed-wood fiberboards, metal, paper, and boards. The ground is applied to the support.

Size or Sizing. Sizing is the material applied to the support to temper it and to protect it from any deleterious effects of the ground or paint. Hide glue, gelatin, or acrylic polymer are used for sizing the support.

Ground. A ground is the surface coating or film, such as acrylic gesso, which is applied to a support, such as stretched canvas, to receive the paint. All grounds, with the exception of frescoes, are composed of gypsum and an adhesive or binder. It is the gypsum that provides the necessary absorbency to receive the paint.

Priming. Priming is often confused with ground. It is the layer between the ground and the paint film. For example, the ground may be too absorbent, in which case the absorbency may be reduced by priming the ground with a medium or diluted varnish.