A toned ground is a layer of color applied to your painting support before you begin to paint. Typically, artists use an earth tone mixed with white for this purpose, creating a midtone backdrop that establishes an immediate mood, helps to harmonize the painting and makes it easier to judge both the colors and the darker and lighter values that follow.
A Case of Complements: In Seascape (oil, 15-1/8×11-3/8), I first applied a coat of gesso to my canvas, then brushed on a mixture of Venetian red mixed with white. This toned ground provided a midtone complement to the blues that followed. Notice how I left portions of my toned surface visible in the final piece. This adds variety, interest and sparkle as it plays off the various blues.
Toned grounds can be created in two ways. First, you can apply an opaque layer of oil color directly to a prepared canvas or rigid support. Or you may want to first apply white gesso to your painting surface, then cover this with a transparent layer of color. This approach, which is called an imprimatura, allows light to pass through the thinned color and reflect off the white gesso.
There are several things to consider when choosing the colors for your toned ground: For example, if you plan to use a lot of warm colors in a painting, use a cool ground. This sets off the colors that follow and creates variety. If you’re painting landscapes or seascapes, which tend to have lots of cool greens and blues, try using a complementary orange-red color. Burnt sienna, Venetian red, Indian red, light red and terra rosa are all good choices here. This complementary approach was favored by many of the greats, including Jan Vermeer, John Constable, El Greco and Diego Velazquez.
If you’re painting portraits, try toning your painting surface with either burnt umber or raw umber. Burnt umber produces a warmer effect, and was a favorite of Rembrandt, Velazquez, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Anthony van Dyck, while raw umber gives a cooler, grayer look and was often used by Vermeer and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. For an interesting color for either landscapes or flesh, try a mixture of terra verte and white. This creates a cool, mint green similar to the color Leonardo da Vinci used in many of his portraits.