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To properly prepare your painting surface, you need to cover it with some type of ground, depending on your medium of choice. The correct ground creates an ideal surface absorbency and tooth for your paint. For oil painting, this is often gesso, made of plaster, chalk, gypsum or other white material mixed with glue. The more recent invention of absorbent watercolor ground opens up the possibility of using water media on more surfaces than just watercolor paper. Whatever your medium, it’s key to choose a high-quality ground that won’t affect the characteristics of your paints or deteriorate over time. Find some of our favorite choices for different media gathered here.
1. Golden Gesso
Unlike traditional gesso, Golden’s acrylic gesso is flexible and can move with the canvas to prevent cracking. While some artists have concerns about using oil paints, which get stiffer with time, on an acrylic gesso, which stays flexible, the general guidance is that Golden’s gesso can be used not only with acrylic paints but with oils as well, as long as you use three layers. The viscous primer provides excellent coverage and a medium tooth. It also effectively self-levels, eliminating any need for sanding.
2. Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground
Unlike dense, heavy oil paint, watercolor paint needs a resilient surface that absorbs water slowly and evenly. Typically watercolorists turn to watercolor paper, but Daniel Smith’s watercolor ground transforms nearly any surface—canvas, wood, metal, ceramic, even glass—into a substrate ready for watercolors. After drying, it has a texture that closely resembles that of cold press paper. It is slightly more absorbent than paper, though, so you may have to use less water with your pigment to get the effect you are used to. This product can also act as an eraser for watercolor, effectively covering any area in your painting that you’d like to do over.
3. Gamblin Oil Painting Ground
Gamblin’s oil ground creates a bright white, nonabsorbent surface for oil paints. Thicker than acrylic gesso, this ground will actually stiffen the canvas and should be sanded before use. Note, too, that the product takes several days at minimum to dry, so it won’t be ideal for urgent work.
4. Liquitex Basics Acrylic Gesso
This gesso from Liquitex is a student-grade acrylic option that is ready to use and dries in minutes. It dries stiff with a fine-textured tooth and provides buildable coverage depending on your desired opacity. You can also easily add acrylic color to tint the gesso.
5. Golden Absorbent Ground
Golden’s absorbent ground is often used for wet media like watercolor and acrylic washes. It dries to a flexible, toothy surface that mimics the texture of paper. You must apply it over a porous surface (like an already gessoed canvas) to get the proper results. Once dry, it will absorb moisture more quickly than watercolor ground; it’s worth testing your paint on this if you’re trying it for the first time, as the effect will likely differ from what you’re used to.