Friday, June 24, 2016

Harold Speed Discusses Grounds

Welcome to the GJ Book Club. Today we'll cover pages 242-245 of the chapter on "Materials," from Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.

I'll present Speed's main topics numbered in boldface type. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.

In this section of the chapter, Speed discusses grounds for oil painters. By "grounds" he means the prepared surface that you paint on.

Whistler, detail of oil painting (Source MOMA)
1. Advantages of a brilliant white surface.
Better permanency because oil paint always becomes more transparent with age, so a dark ground will show through and influence the painting in time. Oils also darken as they age, so if they're painted on a white ground, if they darken and transparentize, the two effects mitigate each other.

Disadvantage is that it's not always a sympathetic surface because it can be hard to judge values and colors against the bright white.

2. Recommended toned ground
Mix ivory black and raw umber to make a neutral color, thinning it with turpentine and applying it with a clean rag. Wiping with the rag gives an even tone and brings out some of the grain of the canvas.

3. Texture of ground
Speed says, "A perfectly smooth surface is not often used nowadays, although beautiful work has been done on it in the past. It is essentially the surface for very thin painting and high finish when soft brushes are used. The paintings of the pre-Raphaelites were done on such canvases.

4. What the ground should do
The surface texture should "pick the paint off the brush evenly without any scratchiness." And it should "hold the first touches painted sufficiently firmly for other touches to be painted evenly across them, without picking up the under paint unduly."

Speed complains about canvas manufacturers making prepared canvases with a slippery, soapy surface, which makes the paint slide around uncontrollably. A prepared canvas shouldn't be slippery and smooth; it should have a "bite" to it, a slightly gritty feel.

5. Coarse vs. fine canvas
A coarse canvas is good for large, simple masses of color—"the grain of the canvas breaks up the surface slightly and gives it a little movement, whereas on a smooth canvas, it is dull and lifeless." Beginners should start with a medium-grained canvas and then experiment with rougher and smoother options.

6. Absorbent canvases
Although paintings done on absorbent canvases may dry matte, the surface will absorb the oil, which tends to darken with time. Absorbent surfaces are suited to high key paintings, but they're not as good for dark subjects.

Dry, matte-surfaced paintings should be framed under glass, as dirt will settle into the rough surface of the paint. When Speed says, "Dirt is the great enemy of permanency in our modern cities," remember, he's talking about a London that was regularly blackened with coal smoke, and it really damaged paintings more than today.

Next time— Palettes
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials (with a Sargent cover)," and there's also a Kindle edition.
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Unknown said...

You said dry, matte surfaced paintings should be framed under glass. I never heard of that. Would you be able to explain more about that? All the paintings I see in museums and galleries are never under glass. What exactly is a matte surface?

James Gurney said...

Bob, I'm no expert on this, but I suppose it stands to reason that a matte surface presents a more rough or porous outer layer that can attract dust and dirt, and that it isn't as easy to clean as the smoother, shinier surface of a varnished oil painting.

Unknown said...

OK, thanks for the info. I am trying to learn more about oil painting. So is an unvarnished oil painting considered a matte surface? Considering that I heard an oil painting needs to dry for 6 months-1 year before it should be varnished, it seems like a complicated thing to varnish an oil painting. Do you varnish every oil painting you do? And how long do you wait before you varnish them?

Sesco said...

2. Trying to confirm with myself how much I agree or disagree with Speed regarding tone for ground. If it is known that oil paint becomes darker and more transparent with time, then given what we know about how complements cause a vibrancy in our eyes, doesn't it make sense to attempt to anticipate the final color and transparency in the passages of a painting by underpainting differing color passages with their differing complements? Plus, Speed doesn't give us a rationale for the warm undertone of ivory black and raw umber. Why not a cool undertone? And if white is the presence of all frequencies of light reflecting off of a ground and through our paint, why isn't a neutral gray preferred or a solid black ground, wherein the logic would be that the frequency of the hue coming off our brush would have no competition from underlying layers, no combinations to try and control. The under tone sets the key and the warmth or coolness of a painting, perhaps among other things. So, I'm not certain there is a 'recommended' way, as Speed is providing, unless it's just a starting point for students. There are just 'ways' depending on what you are after in a particular painting.

Anonymous said...

I love painting on a toned ground. I use a combo of black and white gesso, to give a medium gray tone. I sometimes will use acrylic paints to give another earth tone, being careful not to add too much to the gesso for binding purposes.

The concern I have with using a turpentine-thinned color as an "imprimatura" is something I didn't even really know about until this year(!): the problem of under-binding

Paint will flake off, if it doesn't have a physical or chemical bond to the layer below, and they've found that if your first layers are TOO washy or "thin", they won't bind to the ground sufficiently, nor will subsequent paint layers bind to them.

Here's a great video about ACRYLIC underbinding, but the same thing applies to oils.