Research point: Coloured ground for oil paints

Look at some oil sketches by Rubens or Constable, the coloured ground appears to anchor the paintings and hold them together.

Oil sketches are drawn with a brush and are often preparatory drawings for later works. They sometimes have great vitality which is no doubt because they have been drawn  quickly and fluently by practised and accomplished hands.

Paul Peter Rubens (1577-1640)


Sketch for a Portrait of a Family (Peter Paul Rubens and Hélène Fourment, with Nicolaas and Clara Johanna Rubens), ca. 1632 Oil on panel, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Here the coloured ground links the composition together. The areas of darker ground seem to tell the viewer who the key characters are (mother and sleeping infant)  and pull you in. On a white background they might feel they were floating in space.






The Annunciation, oil on panel, 1620. The Ashmoleon, Oxford


Rubens produced thirty-nine paintings for the ceilings  in the Jesuit Church in Antwerp to be executed by assistants from models. He also painted summary monochrome sketches including this which was commissioned but not included in the final scheme.

Here the opaque background with its sweeping opaque wash lines seem to add energy and context to the oil sketch.

John Constable (1776-1837)

The first stage of Constable’s work was usually completed outdoors in a sketchbook. He referred to his 1813 and 1814 sketchbooks of Suffolk scenes for the rest of his life. Often he made a sketch for its own sake, with no finished painting in mind.

In his open-air oil sketches, Constable used a variety of painting techniques – rich impasto (thickly applied paint) and glazes (translucent oil paint), heavy dots of bright colour and light touches of pure white. Quick, light brush strokes with a small amount of paint gave a dappled ‘dry brush’ effect, allowing the colours underneath to show through. Constable attempted the same fresh and rapid techniques when working on the final canvas back in his studio.

In 1888 thirty of Constable’s oil sketches were given to the V&A by his daughter, Isabel Constable (1822 – 88).


Study of Cirrus Clouds. About 1822. Oil on Paper. V&A

Here the blue coloured ground gives form to the clouds, without which they might appear as simple white marks.The lightly applied white paint allowing the blue to show through helps to give the characteristic streaks of cirrus clouds. This transparency in the white paint also seems to tell the viewer that the forms are ever changing.



Brighton Beach, with colliers, 1824

Here the blue  coloured ground links the component parts of the composition together – sky, sea, beach. All seem to build on and use the colour – the blue forms the shadow on the beach, which enables us to see that it slopes down towards the sea.


What did I learn from looking at these images?

A lot about what a valuable starting point a coloured ground can be and how it can be incorporated into a painting – helping to pull the composition and colour palette together as well as creating form.

Ashmoleum Museum, Oxford.
V&A London.



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