How to make and use clear watercolour ground

Watercolour ground is the magic potion which allows you to paint in watercolour on lots of things, rather than traditional paper. It’s what I use on canvas and usually, it is an opaque white absorbent gesso-like substance. Sure, it doesn’t make other surfaces quite like a beautiful rag paper, but it makes it absorbent enough to work.

However, what do you do if you want to pattern of the surface to show through in the final artwork? If you have a beautiful piece of wood with a great grain, you might want to celebrate it rather than hide it… This is where clear or transparent ground comes into its own. At the moment only Daniel Smith and Schmincke make it (to my knowledge), so I got to thinking that maybe my own DIY recipe might work.

The first challenge was to find a clear gesso. Well, that was easy as most manufacturers make them. Strangely it is more expensive than the white version, even though it has less stuff in it (no white pigment). I used a Pabeo version. The next challenge was clear modelling paste. Modelling paste is used in acrylic painting to create texture and again, is usually white. Though Google search came up with some, it seemed to be out of stock in the entire UK and I was not paying huge amounts to import it. Eventually, I found a small 4oz pot from DecoArt, an American manufacturer and it duly arrived.

The actual recipe is ridiculously simple – three parts gesso to one part modelling paste by volume, mix well. My concern was 1. Would it dry clear? 2. Would it give enough absorbency to let the watercolour and ink do their magic stuff?

I am delighted to say, that when I applied three thin coats to a wooden panel it dried transparent and as I experimented with an ink and wash painting of a robin, the fluids behaved just as I would expect them to. They mixed wet in wet and took a salt texture like a trooper. There was not bleeding into the grain of the wood either.

So, if you are struggling to find transparent watercolour ground, the answer is simply to make your own! Don’t forget you will need to seal the painting with either a varnish or perhaps a wax finish, to protect it.

Happy painting on music sheets, book pages, patterned paper, collage, wood or indeed anything else which takes your fancy.

If you want to see the whole experiment, you can find it here on YouTube:

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